Journey to the West

                                                                                 By Bert McKenzie 

                                                                                  Copyright 2010

 

 


Chapter XX

"So what was the big idea nearly choking me to death with that rope?"
Sharon asked as the anger slowly built back.  "I was sold like so much
cattle at auction and instead of coming to my rescue, you purchase me and
treat me like dirt."

"Wait a minute," Dave said.  "What would you expect me to do, reveal myself
in the middle of a hostile camp where they sell humans and say, 'Let her
go.  We used to work together for the United States government?'  I don't
think that would have been a good idea."

"But couldn't you have done something to give me a hint of who you were?"
the girl asked, her anger dying away.

"And give myself away?  Even now I'm taking a risk.  We're still in dwarf
country.  If anyone chanced to come by and see a brother of Senchal calmly
talking to a human in her own language and removing his veil to boot, well
we might have some real trouble."

"I guess," she admitted.  "But tell me where you learned to use that
staff?"

Dave laughed a rich, happy sound.  "As a kid I used to play Robin Hood with
my cousins on their farm.  If you think I'm good with a quarterstaff you
ought to see me with a bow and arrows."

Sharon drew a little closer to the fire and leaned over to check on the
baby.  "So how did you inherit this baby?  I never pictured you as the
fatherly type."

"That, my dear, is the second cousin to your good friend the king."

"Robin's cousin?" Sharon asked in surprise.

"Yeah, this is Roon.  He's the child of the lady Ellenia and Clive, a wood
elf."

"So this is Ellenia and Clive's child?  I don't think anyone knew they were
expecting.  Where are his parents?  You said his father died?"

"Did you know them?" Dave asked.

Sharon shook her head.  "But Robin and Scott spoke of them often.  They're
very close."

A sad look came into the man's eye.  "She was the most beautiful woman I've
ever seen," he said wistfully.  "Even when she was eight months along, she
was gorgeous, so fragile like a rare orchid."  Dave lapsed into silence for
a few minutes and stared at the fire.  "I guess I kind of fell in love with
her."

"What happened to her?" Sharon prodded when he again became quiet.

"She died in childbirth, and I don't even know why.  I had to perform a
C-section because she wasn't dilating.  And then afterwards, she just
seemed to give up the will to live."  Tears began to fill his eyes and
spill over down his cheeks.  "I keep thinking if we could only have been in
a clean hospital with proper equipment maybe I could have saved her.  We
were in a treehouse for God's sake."

Sharon didn't know what to say.  She finally managed, "I'm sorry, Dave."

"You know the weirdest part about it was she knew she was going to die.
She said she had the plague but I checked her out thoroughly and there was
no sign of any disease or illness.  It was more like she just didn't want
to live."

Sharon nodded.  "I've been working as a doctor at the palace of Esbereth,"
she explained.  "I've seen quite a few things I can't explain."

"Her husband's death was just as strange," Dave said, continuing with his
story.  "Right after Ellenia died he took the child and joined a merchant
caravan traveling west to the land of dwarves.  He said he wanted to get
away from his home in the trees and have some adventure, and yet he took
this helpless baby with him.  I went along too, and when we were in sight
of the mountains he took me aside and told me he was going to die.  He said
it was something called the black bond."

"Yes," Sharon said with sudden insight.  "They say that often happens to
married couples here.  When one dies the spouse usually follows along
fairly soon after."

"Well I never thought Clive liked me.  I think he knew I was in love with
his wife and he resented it.  But all of the sudden he asks me to be the
guardian of his only son.  He came up with the plan for me to disguise
myself as a member of this religious order.  We even spent a few nights in
a Senchal monastery in the mountains so I could learn about them and obtain
the garb.  He died there in that monastery.  He told me how to find the
great road to the east and then he just closed his eyes and stopped
breathing.  It was like he willed himself to death."

"Maybe he did," the girl agreed, trying to stifle a yawn.

"You'd better get some sleep," Dave suggested.  "We've got a hard ride
ahead of us tomorrow.  We've got to make it to a village in order to get
more food for the baby."

"What about you?" Sharon asked as she tried to get comfortable on the hard
ground.

Dave drew his hood up and refastened the veil.  "As a brother of Senchal
and a native of this land, I'm not supposed to need sleep.  But I'll wake
you in a couple of hours if you'll keep watch while I get a little shut
eye.  Then tomorrow I want to hear your story, how you got here and how you
became the king's personal physician."  But she was already breathing
regularly and well on her way to sleep.

* * *

The full moon was beginning its descent toward the western mountains when
Sharon woke with a start.  She glanced over to see Dave standing and
peering out into the darkness.  "What is it?" she asked.

"Quiet," he replied in Tuathan.  "Travelers approach down the road from the
west."

"Who are they?" Sharon asked feeling suddenly frightened by the way Dave
was responding.  She couldn't think why anyone would be traveling under the
cover of darkness.

"Take the child and hide yourself in the trees," Dave ordered and then
stepped out into the road.  Sharon quickly gathered up the sleeping infant,
and slipped back into the grove beside which they had camped.  She tried to
peek out of the bushes where she knelt with the child, but the view was
limited, and the darkness helped to conceal the road.

As the two figures approached on foot Dave bowed.  "Greetings my brothers
and fellow travelers," he said, repeating the standard Senchal phrase.

"Greetings to you, good brother," one of the men replied.  He was tall and
looked to be one of the high born, and there was something vaguely familiar
about him.  His companion, on the other hand was dressed in a long, dark
robe with a hood pulled up over his head.  Tuathan eyes would have no
trouble in discerning is true appearance, but Dave's human vision
handicapped by the night as well as the veil covering his face blurred the
creature to just a robed figure.

"Where go you at this strange hour for travelers?" Dave asked, fearing at
first that they might be sent by the dwarves and looking for him or for
Sharon.

"We are on urgent business and must reach the high court," the tall fairy
said.

"Care you to break your journey and share my food?"

"We have no time to pause.  Thank you for your hospitality.  Good fortune
to you, brother."  The two travelers bowed and quickly hurried on down the
road.  Dave watched them disappear in the distance, and then he returned to
the camp and called to Sharon.  He was required by the order to offer
hospitality, but he was greatly relieved when the two declined and
continued on their way.

"Who was it?" Sharon whispered as she returned with the sleeping child.

"Two very strange travelers.  They said they had urgent business with the
high court."

"Probably emissaries from the western kingdoms," Sharon suggested.

At the same time at some distance down the road Akuta was wondering about
what had just occurred.  He was well aware of the traditions of hospitality
which were a part of the Order of Senchal, but he was still surprised at
this brother.  The man had calmly offered his food, and yet he was
confronted in plain sight by the image of death on foot in Akuta's
companion.  He didn't seem surprised or frightened, or even concerned that
he had invited a rotting corpse to join him for supper.  Akuta also
remembered Korbod's story that a brother had taken Sharon, but this man was
apparently alone on the road.  That must have been a fabricated story
Korbod came up with to hide what actually happened to Sharon.  Akuta would
certainly have more respect in the future for the unusual brotherhood,
having seen this one man's unflappable courage.

* * *

About mid morning Sharon and Dave came upon a small village.  It was mainly
a farming community and located just off the main road.  They were
generously welcomed and provided with fresh supplies and a warm meal.
Sharon was given a place to bathe as well as a change of clothes.  Dave, on
the other hand, seemed a bit stand-offish, accepting a private bath and
food.  He continued his charade for the villagers, stating that he was
traveling to Esbereth to return the waif to family living there.  Both he
and Sharon were candidly honest in their explanation of his finding and
rescuing her from the dwarves.  No one seemed surprised by her ill
treatment.  It was generally agreed that the little mountain folk were an
odd culture and one that was to be avoided other than for trade at fairs.

Meanwhile, Roon woke up long enough to eat and cry.  He instantly became
the center of attention of the villagers who were waiting on Sharon and
Dave.  Babies seemed to be fairly rare in Tuatha, partly because of the
infant deaths attributed to the plague and partly because of the fear the
plague years had bred into the population.  Bonded couples were extremely
hesitant when it came to starting a family.  The act of conception could so
easily lead to death and bereavement.

By mid afternoon the human couple was again on their way, backtracking to
the main east-west highway and again turning toward Esbereth.  Their
spirits had been lifted considerably and they traveled along, riding side
by side and sharing stories of their adventures since last they had worked
together in their home world.  Sharon admitted that Robin had granted her
the privilege of becoming a citizen of Tuatha as well as one of his
subjects.  She told of the death of the lead healer and how she had taken
over the job, working with the fairy healers in the Tuathan version of a
hospital.  She explained some of the workings of the high court and told of
her position which was important at least to the king since his consort was
human and the healers weren't always effective with other than their own
kind.

"So the king's consort is a human woman," Dave mused.  "That does present
some interesting problems since there seems to be such a prejudice against
humans in this world."

"Not a human woman," Sharon corrected him.  "A human man.  The king and his
lover are gay."

Dave almost fell from his horse at this statement.  "Are you serious?" he
asked in surprise.

"Very," she answered.  "Does it bother you?"

"That a whole world is ruled by homosexuals?  Well, I guess not.  I don't
know.  I never really thought of the possibility.  The concept sure is
staggering.  Think about what it would be like in our world."

"Maybe someday," Sharon said.  "But right now I don't think humans are
tolerant enough of minorities to deal with any such concept."  They
continued on their journey in silence, each lost in his or her own
thoughts.  Finally Sharon asked a question that suddenly occurred to her.
"If you were with Ellenia and Clive, two people who were probably closest
to Robin, why didn't you know about him being gay and about Scott?"

"Clive and I didn't really get along that well.  He never spoke to me about
anything, except toward the end when he told me about his plan for Roon
before he died.  Ellenia told me a little about the high court and about
Robin, but when I first met her I only understood about half of what she
said.  And later she was too preoccupied with her pregnancy and all to talk
about much of anything.  She knew she had the plague.  She told me so."

Dave was silent for quite a while.  When he spoke again, he was strangely
quiet.  "This plague they all speak of, it's really hurt their world, kind
of like the bubonic plague in the middle ages in Europe.  Only, it seems
worse because it seems to kill the spirit."

"It might make a fascinating life's work to study these people and try to
find a cause and cure for their plague," Sharon suggested.

Dave looked at her carefully from behind his dark veil.  "Yeah, I guess it
might at that," he replied.

They rode on in silence for the rest of the day.  As evening approached
Dave made camp beneath the trees of the old forest that grew close to the
road just on the south side.  Rolling hills were beginning to spring up on
the north and the roadway seemed to wander along beside them, following the
flattest path as it zigzagged its sinuous course between forest and
foothills.  Sharon told Dave the hills were the distant vestiges that would
eventually grow into the Crystal Mountain range.  She was sure they were
rapidly approaching the end of their journey and their destination.
Unfortunately, she was also sure they were very close to the spot where
she, Akuta and Pardoo had been attacked by the griffins.  She told her
friend the whole story as they sat beneath the overhanging trees.  "If
those flying lions are still there how will we ever get by?"

Outwardly Dave seemed unconcerned.  "Perhaps they've moved on.  And if not,
something will turn up," he said lightly.  "It always does."

"I'm not so sure," she added.

* * *

Dannemel and Rood had been traveling west at a rapid pace.  They had only
stopped to occasionally rest their horses and take meals.  If it weren't
for the limitations of their animals, the two would have continued on their
journey round the clock.  Rood was a hard taskmaster, continually pushing
the horses as well as Dannemel.  The boy knew their trip was important, and
he wanted to find the human doctor so they would return to his girlfriend,
yet his reluctance to return to the western kingdoms was slowing his pace
considerably.

They had stopped beside a mountain stream to water the horses when a
piercing cry was heard.  It seemed to be a cross between a roar and a
scream.  "What is that?" Dannemel asked, looking up from where he had
stretched out on the soft grass growing on the banks of the little
watercourse.

"A griffin," Rood said, reaching for the bow he had strapped to the
provisions pack his horse was carrying.  "That is the cry of attack.  It
came from just ahead.  Let us go investigate, but make no noise lest you
draw their attention."

"I shall stay to guard our horses," the boy suggested.

"You shall come with me, in case I need your assistance," Rood corrected
him, grabbing the youth by the arm and pulling him along.  They climbed the
nearby hills that overlooked the road where it curved around them.  Below a
rocky plain stretched out with the edge of a thick forest growing beyond.
On the next hill over was a small pride of young griffins watching the road
and the plain below them.

"I thought griffins were creatures of the high country to the east and
south," Dannemel wind whispered to his partner as they silently observed
the tawny coated animals as they pranced about and stretched their wings.

"They generally are," Rood answered him.  "These are all very young beasts,
probably having left their homelands because of overpopulation and scarce
game.  Look, they appear to be preparing to launch after some prey on the
other side of the hill."

"The western road travels through that area," Dannemel said with sudden
insight.  "They may be preparing to attack a traveler, perhaps even your
friends."

"Come quickly," Rood said, grabbing the boy by the arm and hurrying down
the hill.  They quickly mounted and Rood charged off along the road to the
west.

"Wait, where go you?" the youth called after him, then dashed off in
pursuit.  "Stop.  You shall be spotted and killed by those creatures."

Dave and Sharon heard the cry of the monster at the same time as they
rounded the bend in the road.  In the distance ahead they spotted two men
on foot, slowly crossing the area farthest from the outcropping forest on
the south.  Both figures looked up to see the flying death swooping down
from above.  "That must be the two men we saw a couple of nights ago," Dave
said.

"They'll be killed by that thing," Sharon responded as she watched in
horror.

"Not if I can help it," Dave cried, and grabbing his staff firmly in his
hands, charged out toward where the two stood their ground against the
flying carnivore.

"Dave, what are you doing?" Sharon screamed after her friend.  Not even
thinking about the tiny baby snuggled securely in its basket strapped to
the back of the horse, she galloped out after him.  She was halfway to her
goal when the griffin struck, and at the same instant she recognized the
intended victim.  "Akuta!" her voice shrieked.

Two more of the winged creatures dived down from the hilltop as Dave and
Sharon raced across the intervening space.  One was about to snatch Dave
from the back of his horse while the other headed for the shrouded figure
who accompanied Akuta.  Just as the winged lion reached for Dave an arrow
plunged into its side causing it to jerk and turn away.  The griffin that
aimed for Akuta's companion managed to sink its claws in and lifted the
dead man up from the ground.  It carried him partway out over the rocking
plain before dropping him and soaring away at great speed.  Griffins killed
their live prey.  Apparently the scent of the corpse conveyed a definite
message of distaste to the animal.

Meanwhile the creature that had attacked Akuta had snagged his tunic and
lifted him up as it turned to glide back toward the hilltop.  The fairy
managed to draw the dagger that he carried which his companion had
retrieved from the dwarf village.  He plunged it into the animal's breast,
which caused it to plummet to the ground, crashing into the side of the
hill.  Two more griffins immediately took flight, aiming for the fairy
lying in a heap on the hillside.  They met with a barrage of arrows that
came from a bowman charging up the hillside on horseback.  One arrow
connected, wounding one of the beasts and causing him to bank sharply and
return to the hilltop.  The other animal was down on the injured man
despite the bowman's attempts.

Sharon and Dave headed up the hill behind the other man on horseback.
Sharon noticed something familiar about the rider charging up ahead of
them.  He notched another arrow in his bow as the horse circled the injured
man and the creature standing over him.  Sharon suddenly realized it was
Rood as he let the arrow fly.  The animal reared up on its hind legs, wings
outstretched, and took the deadly shaft in the center of its breast.  It
jerked and fell on its side next to Akuta.

Sharon, Dave and Rood all reached the injured man about the same time.
Sharon feared the worst, but as she reached him, she saw his eyes open and
he tried to sit up.  "Lie still," she commanded as she dropped down beside
him.  His tunic was slashed into ribbons and was slowly turning blue as the
bright colored blood soaked it.  "Give me a knife," she commanded.  Rood
handed her a dagger as he slipped from his horse to her side.  She quickly
cut the material and stripped it off her patient to lay bare his chest.
There were long, blue gashes carved down his torso from collar bone to
navel, but as she examined them, Sharon could tell they were pretty
superficial.  "I need cloth for bandages," she said.  Dave reached into the
packs strapped to her horse and found an extra tunic which he began tearing
into long strips.

"The secret," Akuta said as he tried to sit up again.  "Where is the
secret?"

"What secret?" Rood asked as he supported his friend while Sharon began to
wrap the homemade bandages around his chest.

"My tunic!" Akuta called and reached for the torn material that lay in a
blood covered heap beside him.

"You've lost a lot of blood," Sharon said.  "Just be still a minute."

"No!" he shouted and grabbed the torn fabric.  As it jerked to him a small
packet flipped out of the material and landed on the body of the dead
griffin lying nearby.  It began to glow brightly with a silvery light which
seemed to make the sunlight pale in comparison.  "No!" Akuta shouted again,
despair coming out of his voice in a painful sob.  As the bright light
faded away the big animal opened its eyes, shook its shaggy head and then
slowly climbed to its feet.  The four people sitting, kneeling and standing
next to the animal were so stunned by the miraculous transformation that
they didn't even think of the danger of being in such close proximity to
the deadly creature.  But as they watched the beast it dipped its head,
picked up the tiny glowing packet in its teeth, then leaped into the air,
soaring off toward the west.  From the hilltop several other griffins
jumped up into the wind and sailed off after the rapidly vanishing animal.

 

 

 

 

 

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