Journey to the West

                                                                                 By Bert McKenzie 

                                                                                  Copyright 2010

 

 

Chapter XVII

The cold wind raced down the sides of the Crystal Mountains and tore
through the courtyards of Esbereth, whipping and tugging at the tunics and
capes of the assembled guards as they awaited their king.  Almost all of
the members of the high council as well as a conspicuous crowd of curious
on-lookers had also gathered to await the confrontation.

"Everyone is waiting in the courtyard, lord" Melcot said as he stepped into
the king's chambers.  Rowana was lashing the sleeve lacings and making sure
Robin was dressed properly.  She smiled to her mate as he came in with his
announcement.

"Everyone?" Robin asked with a raised eyebrow.

"All save you and Lastel from the blue tower."

"Think you he shall not show?" Rowana questioned.

"We shall soon find this out," Robin replied calmly.  "Where is the time?"

"The sun approaches zenith.  We have but a few moments more," Melcot
answered him.

Robin smiled at his two friends.  "I had hoped to avoid this, but I see it
is not possible.  As we go now, we may be going to war among the kingdoms."
He breathed a deep sigh, straightened his shoulders, and then purposefully
walked to the door.  Once in the wide hall, Rowana and Melcot fell in step
just behind his shoulders in the positions of guard and advisor.  They were
filling these positions vacated by Rood and Scott in their sojourn to the
human world.  The trio marched down the stairs to the ground floor, across
the great hall, and to the main tower doors.  As they approached, two of
the guards who were normally on duty at the main gate opened the oversized,
double doors.  All eyes in the courtyard focused on Robin as he and his
companions stepped out through the doorway and into the chilly winter
morning.  A number of the palace guard fell in step flanking the king in
two long lines.  They all came to a halt in the middle of the courtyard.

The sun slowly reached its zenith and still there was no sign of Lastel.
The tension in the courtyard was palpable, like a thick, dark cloud that
enveloped everyone as they watched the king and waited to see what he would
do next.  Suddenly, the doors to the blue tower opened and Lastel,
accompanied by his four delegates as well as a large number of armed men,
stepped out and marched slowly toward the king.

"His delay in coming to meet you is a direct insult, lord," Rowana wind
whispered to Robin, but he ignored her comment.

"I understand that you wish to answer my charges," Lastel said loudly as he
stopped several yards away from Robin.

The king spoke in as imperious and authoritative a tone as he could manage.
"We answer no charges brought by your servants.  If you have argument with
us, lay it before us and before these witnesses here assembled, or waste no
more of our time."

Lastel glared angrily at Robin as he stepped forward.  "You know very well
the argument I have," he shouted.  "I see no reason to repeat myself for
your pleasure."

Lastel's anger and burst of rage was just the thing Robin needed.  He knew
he had provoked the lord of the blue tower, and now by remaining calm and
aloof he gained the upper hand.  Lastel would seem to the assembled
witnesses like a petulant child being scolded by an infinitely patient
parent.  "My lord of the west," Robin began as he focused on his inner
calm.  "You may hold a grievance with us and we may even realize your
complaint, but we 'request' you restate it for the benefit of the council
here assembled.  There are certain procedures which this court has followed
and shall continue to do so.  As a former member of the high council of
Tuatha you surely must recognize that."

By now Lastel was nearly spitting with rage.  His face had taken on a
decidedly blue cast.  "I recognize no authority in you or your precious
council," he hissed.

A collective gasp went up from the assembled witnesses.  Melcot and a
number of his men reached for their swords but Robin stopped them with a
gesture.  "Then we suppose you have no reason for argument and you shall be
withdrawing from Esbereth," the king said.

"This eviction can only mean war," Lastel shouted.

"What eviction?" Robin asked, his calm voice cutting through the babble of
the crowd.  "You are the one who declared you recognize no authority here.
A guest would not stay in a dwelling where he respects not the host,"

A quiet laughter ran through the assembled crowd.  Rather than further
inflaming his anger, it had the reverse effect on Lastel, calming his rage
as he saw the game Robin was playing with him.  He even managed a tight,
thin lipped smile.  "As you say, lord," he answered with a slight bow.
"Return our kinsman to us whom you hold hostage and we shall withdraw
peaceably.  Otherwise the western kingdoms must prepare to rescue him by
force."

"Rescue...hostage...  There seems to be some confusion here," Robin said
calmly, although he could feel his heart pounding.  "The 'kinsman' you
speak of is surely a free Tuathan and has the right to go or stay as he
pleases.  We hold no one hostage or prisoner."

"Then he shall return with us to the west," Lastel demanded.

"IF that is his wish.  Should he choose to remain in Esbereth we trust you
shall not force him to leave."

Lastel laughed a deep, hearty laugh.  No one else in the courtyard seemed
to understand the joke or catch the humor in the situation.  "My lord, of
course we shall not force him to leave if it is his true desire to stay."
His voice suddenly turned as cold as the icy wind from the mountains.  "Now
produce him."

All eyes turned expectantly to the king.  Robin felt extremely
uncomfortable in their gaze, knowing his bluff had finally been called.  He
opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  "Permit me, my lord," a
voice said at his side.  Robin turned quickly to see Rood's crooked grin
smiling back at him.  "Is this the lad you seek?"  He stepped aside and
Dannemel was revealed standing nervously behind him and accompanied by
Scott.

The disappointment was plainly visible on Lastel's face.  He was certain he
had the high king and now the youth had returned to destroy all his
carefully laid plans.  He quickly tried to mask his disappointment with a
smile.  "Young sir, we worried that you were harmed."  He took a step
toward the boy, but Dannemel only stepped back behind Rood.  Lastel quickly
turned again to Robin.  "We shall take the boy and depart as was agreed,"
he said, controlling his anger and disappointment.  There would be another
time he told himself.

"You may take the boy," Robin said, "if that is his wish."  Everyone froze
for a moment.  Then Robin turned to Dannemel.  "And you, wish you to return
to the western kingdoms when the lord of the blue tower departs?"

Dannemel glanced from Scott to Rood and then from Robin to Lastel in his
uncertainty.  He did not fully understand what was happening around him,
but he was sure it was of grave importance.  And somehow he had become the
focal point.  "It is your home, boy," Lastel said in a wind whisper.  "It
is your duty to return with us...and the overseers wish it."

"No harm shall come to you," another voice said in his ear.  "You must make
a decision, but make it from your heart."  Dannemel glance up to see the
high king's intense green eyes focusing on him, peering into his very soul.

"I...I choose to stay," he finally said in a quiet voice.

"He has been forced to say this!" Lastel shouted, his anger finally
breaking free.  "He is being kept against his will!"  At this tirade
Dannemel jumped back behind Rood who quickly and protectively blocked him
from the lord of the blue tower.  "I shall not stay for such duplicity.  I
demand you give me the boy.  We are prepared for hostility," Lastel
continued.

"Silence," the word rang out.  "I command you to be silent."  Robin had
summoned all his strength in the command, and instantly all sound in the
courtyard dropped.  For a brief moment the only sound that could be heard
was the gently tinkle of water splashing in a nearby fountain.  "Now, you
will cease these unreasonable demands," the king continued.  "If the boy
wishes to stay so shall he.  If he wished to go so shall he.  In either
case you shall return to the west.  The council shall find a new delegate,
one who understands the decorum of the high court."  Robin then reached out
a hand and gripped Dannemel by the arm.  He led the youth out of Rood's
protecting shadow and over to where the high council stood.  Scott remained
at the boy's side as they crossed the courtyard.  "Please question him
here," Robin said to Lorfana, leader of the council.

The old woman stepped forward and gently reached out, placing her
fingertips on the boy's temples.  "Wish you to stay or to go?" she asked as
she looked deeply into Dannemel's eyes.

The boy could feel himself being pulled forward, falling into the two blue
pools surrounding the dark islands of the old woman's pupils.  "I...I
wish..."  Just as quickly as the feeling came upon him, Dannemel felt
himself released.

"The boy wishes to stay," Lorfana announced.  "By leave of the high king he
shall stay being a free Tuathan."  She then turned to the council.  "By
further order of the king we must prepare a delegation to the west to
select a new councilor."

"But...but..." Lastel sputtered, trying to find his tongue.

"My lord," the old woman said, addressing him.  "We thank you for your
service on the high council.  We release you from your oaths and duties."
She smiled a slight, half smile.  "I should think you must have
preparations to make before leaving the palace for your return journey to
your home."  She then turned and walked away toward the council chambers,
the other councilors falling along behind.  Gradually the assembled crowd
began to disperse, Robin turning to greet Scott while Rood accompanied
Dannemel back into the tower.  Slowly the courtyard emptied, everyone
heading off to attend to their other matters.  Eventually only one man
remained.  Only Lastel stood, rooted to the spot of his humiliation.
Finally he too turned to walk back to the blue tower to prepare for his
long trip home.  He wondered what he would say to the overseers.  He
wondered if he would live long after seeing them again.

* * *

The sun had gone down in a blaze of glory, painting the sky magnificent
hues of russet and gold.  Neither Akuta nor the living corpse that rowed
the boat to which he tenaciously clung had any interest in the spectacular
heavenly display in the western sky behind them.  As the near full moon
rose out of the mountains in the east, the skeleton beached the little boat
on the sandy shore.  He slowly stood and stepped over the edge and into the
shallow surf, pulling the boat farther onto the beach.  Akuta pushed the
boat all he could, but he too was all but dead of exhaustion from his
underwater ordeal, and the need to hold and swim behind the little craft
all the way back to shore.  He leaned on the back of the vessel, too tired
to stand and move out of the water.  He felt a gentle tug, and opened his
eyes to see that the skeleton had gently wrapped its arm bones around him
and was lifting him, helping him to stand and wade ashore.  The two
creatures stumbled across the beach to a little stone bench where Akuta
sank to rest for a few minutes.  As he sat there, he suddenly realized this
was where he had visited with Ellenia earlier that morning.  Looking
around, Akuta saw no evidence of his friend or the bowl of crystal grapes
she had been working to crush.

The skeleton stood by like a silent sentinel as Akuta rested on the beach.
As the fairy sat, trying to regain his strength and plan his next move, he
realized that his right hand was throbbing in pain.  He had almost grown
too tired to notice it.  He slowly unclenched his fist to see the limp red
petals of the ocean rose, stained and spotted with the dark blue drops of
his own blood.  The stem was still firmly attached to the palm of his hand
by the deeply embedded thorns.  Akuta reached down with his left hand and
tore a strip of material from the bottom of his tunic, and then using it to
protect his fingers, he carefully removed the plant.  As the thorns pulled
loose, the wounds in his hand began to bleed again and the pain returned
with renewed vigor.  Carefully favoring his injured hand, he wrapped the
plant in the torn material, making a compact bundle which he carefully
tucked inside his tunic against his chest.  He then looked up at his
unsavory companion.

"I think we better go now.  We have a long trip to complete."

The skeleton turned its grinning skull toward him and opened its jaws to
speak.  "Ohrah," the faint sound came from the mouth.  For the first time
Akuta looked closely at the skull.  There was a faint glint in the eye
sockets, as if the moonlight was reflecting from something.  He also
noticed for the first time that there seemed to be tiny pits of black and
pink tissue around the teeth.  Akuta realized that this was indeed a rotted
corpse and not just bare bones.  The thought made him shiver involuntarily.

He took a deep breath, placed his hand to his chest just to make sure the
bundle carrying the secret of immortality was still there.  Akuta then
stood and looked again at the skeleton.  "Let us go."  The two slowly
headed across the beach and up the slope into the unusual crystal forest.
Akuta guided them back to the shallow cave from which he had emerged
earlier in the day.  They entered and came upon the shaft that dropped
straight down for about thirty feet into the tunnels of Turin Kareem.
Akuta sat at the edge of the opening and carefully lowered himself into the
darkness.  After cautiously descending about halfway down, he let go and
dropped the remaining distance to the floor, landing agilely on his feet.
Moments later the thin figure of his companion scrambled down the rock wall
to join him.  The two then moved off into the dark tunnels.

* * *

"Where is the boy now?" Robin asked after he and Scott had some time alone
to physically express the joy of their reunion.

"He and Rood were on their way to the halls of healing.  That's where
Jennifer and Caseldra took the human girl we brought back."

Robin shook his head.  "Another human brought into the land unaware and
unprepared.  I like this not.  We seem no better than the old cult of child
stealers."

"Child stealers?" Scott asked.  Robin reminded him of the bleak period in
Tuathan history that was known as the plague years.  A growing faction
thought they could strengthen the weakened and dying blood lines of fairies
by stealing human babies and children.  The humans were to replace the
fairy infants who were dying of the plague, an untreatable wasting away.
The dying fairy children were made to look like the humans for which they
were exchanged by changeling magic and from there came the human stories of
changelings.  The child stealers were eventually rounded up and punished by
King Oberon, Robin's father.  The human babies were all returned to their
own world, if not to their proper families.

"The children were sent back with sarks," Robin said as they dressed.

"Sarks?  What are sarks?"

"Very large white birds," the king explained.  "They have long legs for
wading in the shallow river waters and long bills.  They are unusually
strong, so the stolen infants were tied into cloth bundles which were
attached to the birds and then the old keeper of magic opened a hole in the
sky to send the flock to your world.  The sarks delivered the infants to a
small farming community and then returned to our world."

"Storks," Scott said.  "The birds sound just like storks."

"These are birds of your world?" the king asked.

"Yes," Scott replied.  "Your story explains an old earth fairytale."

"A what?" Robin asked sternly.

"I...I mean a children's story," Scott quickly added, coloring a bright
red.

The king burst into laughter at his lover's embarrassment.  "Let us go to
the halls of healing," he said.  "By now Rood must have learned of the
disappearance."

"Disappearance?  What disappearance?" Scott asked as they left their
chambers.  Robin quickly filled him in on the situation concerning Akuta,
Sharon and Alex's body.  He correctly theorized that Akuta had gone on a
journey to the western islands and that somehow Sharon and the dead body
were tied into this event.

They were half way across the main courtyard when they saw Rood striding
rapidly toward them.  "My lord," he said quickly as he approached.  "Know
you of Akuta's leaving?"

"Yes," the king answered.  "I was on my way to discuss it with you.  With
the crisis concerning Lastel, I had no time to act on this problem."

"Then by your leave I ask permission to go in pursuit.  I have reason to
believe he has taken Sharon with him, and probably by force."

"You know not where to look," Robin said as he placed a strong arm around
his friend's shoulders and guided him back toward the halls of healing.

"He would travel west.  I may start in that direction."

"West is a large area.  You may search for them for a lifetime."

"Then so be it," Rood agreed.  "I must find them.  I must find her."

By now they had entered the halls of healing and were quickly escorted to
Maggie's room.  The girl had regained consciousness and was being kept
company by Jennifer, Caseldra and Dannemel.  The three newcomers to the
room dropped their conversations as they entered.  "My lady, I bid you
welcome," Robin said in English as he approached the side of the reclining
platform.

Margaret continued to stare wide eyed at Robin as he spoke to her.  "This
is our king," Dannemel explained softly.  But she just continued to stare
at the people around her.

"I think she's a little overwhelmed by all of this," Jennifer explained.
"And I'm also concerned by her physical condition."  Robin looked confused.
"She's pregnant," the girl told him.  "We could really use a doctor."

"Have our healers examined her?" Robin asked.

"They haven't had much luck.  She's so frightened and confused that she
seems to be blocking any exams they try to make.  She needs a human
doctor."

"Can we not send her back to her own world?" Robin then asked.  As this
suggestion Dannemel became very agitated.

"May I speak with you in private?" Scott said, grabbing Robin by the arm
and dragging him from the room.  It was a time like this Scott wished he
could learn how to use the method of communication the fairies had
perfected known as the wind whisper.  Once out in the corridor Scott
quickly explained that Dannemel was probably the baby's father.  If this
was the case then it might be imperative to keep the girl in their land at
least until after the birth.  And it was likewise imperative to have a
human doctor available along with their healers.

"Then we must find Sharon," Robin mused.

"Exactly what I have suggested, lord," Rood said as he stepped into the
corridor with them.  He had obviously used his sensitive elfin hearing to
eavesdrop on their conversation.  "I shall waste no time in preparing to
leave."

"And where shall you go?" Robin asked.  "As I told you before, the west is
a large area to search."

"If this doctor lives there is but one place she may be," a voice spoke up
behind them.  The three men looked to see Dannemel standing nearby.  "All
strangers found in the western kingdoms are taken to Lirsta by the sea.
That would be the place to begin such a search."

"That would also be the place to obtain another delegate to the council,"
Robin mused.  "Perhaps it would be wise to send you there in the company of
a diplomatic mission," he said to Rood.

"My lord, would you replace Lastel with an even more ambitious and ruthless
leader?" the younger boy asked.

"No, of course not."

"But that is all you shall obtain with a diplomatic mission," Dannemel
warned.  "The western kingdoms are ruled by the overseers, evil taskmasters
who want nothing more than total control of Tuatha.  I know this for I was
originally sent to you as part of their plan.  They are the ones who
provided the council with Lastel, and Baylor before him."

"How is it we have never heard of these overseers?" Robin asked.

"They live in secrecy surrounded by the black guard and shielded in
mystery."

"This sounds like the workings of the dark world," Rood suggested, echoing
thoughts already occurring to Robin.

"Perhaps it would be best to send a covert mission to the western lands,"
the king suggested.  "In which case you shall need an experienced guide,"
he said to Rood, and then all three men turned to look at Dannemel.  The
boy swallowed hard, feeling the fear rising in his throat at the thought of
again approaching the overseers now that he had failed in their mission and
had revealed their presence to the high king.

 

 

 

 

 

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