Part 4

  A Task & An Oath

Kalaena's thoughts veered wildly between Syll and Daiza and of course Kuthaan, who walked beside her, heedless as ever.
A part of her wanted to speak with him, but it was useless. He was Kuthaan:
Wild Man.
Earthly problems--like women, for instance--were none of his concern.
The forest, though, that was his concern. He studied the trees, each in turn, cocking his head at each twig, poring over every little knot and wart on the trunks, reading in these features some great secret invisible to her ignorant gaze.
"What are the trees telling you, Ku?"
"They are sick." He stood up straight and rubbed his stubble. "More than sick, actually. The dji here--it's poisoned somehow." He stared into the darkness.
"You make it sound deliberate, like someone did this on purpose."
"I try to choose my words very carefully," he said without looking at her. "But I am certain of nothing--it is as much a vague feeling as it is a deduction."
"A deduction. So there's evidence? I mean, you wouldn't--"
"Oh, yes. There is evidence of something. Of what, I cannot say for certain." He fell into another of his ruminations.
In the wan twilight, Kalaena admired his shapely jaw, strong nose, and his brutal, ever-scowling brow.
Kuthaan was certain of nothing. He saw the world for what it was: a constant, shifting puzzle. Like the islands they lived on, levitating through the skies since Ruza's Folly, reality was unchartable, a chaotic mess which could only be understood a little bit at a time, piece-by-piece, never as a whole. To look at the whole was to go mad. Truth was not known--it was lived moment to moment. Ku knew this and accepted it in a way that she never could. And thus was wise.
He shifted slightly and, despite the shadow over his eyes, she could feel his gaze turn on her. "Perhaps it is not my place, but I sense in you a hostility towards Syll..."
 Then again, maybe wisdom wasn't all it's cracked up to be.
"You're right--it's not your place."
He inclined his head and motioned for her to lead the way.
She went on, this time ahead rather than beside him. Her sword was still drawn. For what, she wasn't sure, it just felt good in her hand. There was nothing to strike. They were alone.
Oddly, Kuthaan didn't comment on her choice. Normally, he preached thoughtfulness over action, caution over haste. Now, however, the naked blade didn't elicit even a weak homily from him.
How bad were those trees?
They were almost to the tether now. She cleared her throat and called into the night: "Ruadd?"
"Over here. Be careful--the edge is hard to see."
A cool breeze met her, whistling through the spindly branches and making the sickly underbrush duck and bow. The void was close.
Ruadd stood exactly as she'd left him beside a massive block of basalt thrusting up out of the earth. His longsword was drawn but he didn't appear to have any plans to use it. It hung in his grasp, half-forgotten as he stared at the stone and the colossal chain that grew from it like a beanstalk.
The trees crowded right to the edge of the island. Some of their roots even crept out and writhed naked over the bleak void below. Light reflected from dim gray clouds nearby, but it was still quite dark. In an eclipsing, one learns to appreciate the moon and stars. Not as good to see by as the sun, but they better than this murk.
The Knight-Seeker could have been a statue, he stood so still. His armor was impossibly old, not at all resembling the current styles in warfare. It was bronze, for one, not steel. In some places, it had greened, despite the considerable care that generations of squires gave it. The joints were perfectly fitted, with overlapping, leaf-like plates. The helmet was a grim, square mask with rectangular black openings for the eyes and two diamond-shaped groupings of holes on either side of his mouth for air. It had to be enchanted. There was no other reason to wear such heavy, antiquated gear.
And she'd never seen him out of it--no one had. This led to wild speculation, especially since the Knight-Seeker was perhaps the most famous cavalier in the Seven Skies. Many women--mostly the kind who read romances--swooned to think what he must look like under there. Others, usually children, whispered of horrific deformities, the kind a spell-freak would hide to avoid persecution. Kalaena would never have gone that far, but she suspected he was a craggy old bastard, with more scar tissue than face. She had just passed thirty and sported a number of scars herself. Ruadd was well into his fifties, maybe older. He'd seen at least twice the battles she had. You don't go through that without picking up some mementos, no matter how fancy your armor.
There were no greetings between Kuthaan and Ruadd. It was all business.
"What have you observed?" the wild man asked, scrutinizing the stone.
"The tether has gone slack on several occasions then tightened. But the ground did not move at all, suggesting it is just one chain of many. The whole island is tied to Obergroull for sure."
"Kalaena had the same thought."
She nodded once but said nothing, letting them do their work. For very different reasons, each man was steeped in the mysteries of the occult, particularly the theoretical aspects: the meta-occult if you will.
Kalaena was good with the sword. Swords were simple. They always worked. Or most always, anyway. They didn't turn on you in the battle and fry you to a crisp without warning. At worst, they might break. And even then, a broken sword could still do some damage. She knew that from experience.
For a long time, no one spoke. The wind tugged at loose strands of her hair, tickling her face. She smoothed them back with her left hand--her right still gripped her weapon--and looked up at Kuthaan.
He was on the basalt block now. As with her, the wind whipped his hair around. Unlike her, he didn't do anything about it so it curled over his face and eyes and all over his shoulders. Her skin got ticklish just by watching him.
She badly wanted to catch it all in her hands, give it a thorough brushing, then braid it. Not for the first time, she wondered what he would look like groomed. Handsome, obviously. But would he still be Ku?
Meanwhile, the object of her thoughts stood up straight and ran his palms over the chain. Each link was the size a shield. The metal was about as thick as a man's arm.
"I have never seen anything like it before."
"I tried my sword," Ruadd said, tapping a chip in the otherwise perfect blade. "Harder than granite, that stuff."
Ku continued his inspection, not bothering to look at the sword. "Regular steel will have no effect on this--it isn't of this world."
"Can you dispel it?" Kalaena asked.
"I dislike that term--I've told you this before. The things I do are not magic, nor spells, nor conjuring. Those are crude concepts for crude minds."
"She only asks if you can undo it, old friend," Ruadd told him gently.
Kuthaan turned and gazed down at her for a long moment. "Of course. I apologize."
Kalaena shrugged.
I'm used to it, she thought with a sigh.
"It is possible. The energy here--it is...unique. I will have to adjust my methods. It could take more than one attempt. It could, perhaps, take dozens or even hundreds."
The Swordsister looked at each in turn. "Is this something that has to happen? I mean--is it worth the effort? Couldn't we just repair the ship and leave?"
Ruadd's helmet moved as if he were shaking his head. "If there are people here--" He glanced at Kuthaan. "Or animals--they are suffering. This is a twilit world, a sickly world, denied the warmth and love of the Sun. These chains are an abomination--they've made a dungeon of this place."
"I would phrase it differently, but I agree with the sentiment," Kuthaan said, hopping down from the block. "I fear, however, that what poisons the trees is not the darkness but rather whatever force created the tether. Breaking it may only be the beginning of our task."
The Knight-Seeker, a man who foreswore duty as often as he removed his armor, put a bronze fist to his chest and made an oath of it.
Kalaena bit her lip. They were all committed now. That, or they'd be leaving without their cavalier. Ku, meanwhile, ignored the gesture--oaths and honor were to his mind as vain as gold or jewels--and just as useless.
"This will require a great deal of dji," the tree-knower said. "Anyone with the Touch will feel it. And the chain may call to its maker. There could be defensive measures. You two should prepare for conflict."
"We will protect you, brother," the cavalier said. "With our lives, if necessary."
Kalaena said nothing.
They took up positions on either side of the wild man. Since neither had brought their shields, they both assumed a two-handed grip, to give their strikes and parries more force.
Kuthaan inhaled deeply. Out of the corner of her eye, the Swordsister watched him put his calloused brown hands onto the corners of the block. Then he concentrated, calling so deeply on the dji around him that his face contorted painfully.
After a moment, he released the block and bowed his head so his tangled locks hid his face from her.
She put a gloved hand on his bare shoulder. "Are you--"
"I will try again." He stood up straight and pushed into the block as if he were trying to topple it over the edge.
She turned wary eyes on the shadows of the forest. Again, he fell away from the stone. He was panting and sweaty from the effort.
Kalaena didn't bother to hide her concern this time. "Please don't injure yourself, Ku. I--"
"The well-being of this land--these trees, these creatures--is more important than the husk I wear. If I were to perish..."
"Don't talk like that."
Now it was Ruadd who spoke: "Do what you have to, brother."
Ku glanced over at the knight and nodded as a deep understanding passed between them.
Kalaena hated Ruadd for this--hated him both for his zealotry and for this passing intimacy with Kuthaan.
But such hatred was shameful. Ruadd was an honorable man--perhaps the most honorable she'd ever known. He'd always treated her with respect, despite the fact she was a woman in a profession dominated by men. He was allied to her order, the Swordsisters, and a servant to humanity.
She suddenly wished something--anything--would attack. She never had such unworthy thoughts while swinging her blade. There was no time for girlish frippery in combat.
"I must try again, another way." The wild man sat, crossing his legs, and put both hands against the basalt. He whispered to himself. The words were hoary with age, prayers that came down to him from the days before the world was broken.
Normally, Kuthaan did not chant to work his magic. He told Daiza that chants were a crutch. A true master, he had said, did not need such things to channel power.
There was a grinding sound. Dust began to whip up, riding the wind in blue-gray swirls.
Kalaena knew better than to shout that it was working. Inside his mind, he had to feel the tear, feel it in a way she never could.
There was movement from the forest.
"Ruadd!" she screamed.
A bent gray bough suddenly shot out of the darkness. At first, she thought some crouching giant had swung it, like a lurking thogger or a kylopsi. But it was no giant--it was the tree itself, as if the hatred and loathing in the island had finally stopped hiding.
Here was the combat she wanted--just not the way she'd expected.
Careful what you wish for, she thought to herself as the branch hit Ruadd squarely in the chest.
The Knight-Seeker was perhaps the strongest human being Kalaena had ever met and wearing extremely heavy armor to boot. Yet despite his weight, despite his fighting stance, despite his raw strength, the tree knocked him off his feet and sent him sailing towards the void. He released his blade so he could have both hands to catch the cliff but even that wasn't enough. His gauntlets scrabbled in a panic as he tumbled over the side, clods of dirt and dust flying up in his wake.
Ruadd was gone. She was alone with Kuthaan and she could feel the hostility of the land building around her.
How do you parry a tree? She asked herself as another branch came flying.

©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.

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