“What can I do ya for today?” the gruff owner of Eilif Inn inquired as he cleaned out a large mug.
Through discerning eyes he stared at a hooded man who had confidently and proudly taken residence at the counter. His entrance had been one of show as he crossed the wooden floor of the inn with a sign of arrogance.
The hooded man was quiet, almost like a young child who was too nervous to speak up. He slowly withdrew his hood and smiled. His teeth were surprisingly straight, but worn; almost brittle. The rest of the man's face was well kept, save for several deep scars that ran near his eyes. Each scar was nearly three inches long, uniform and equally spaced.
The innkeeper noticed that the color of the man's eyes were nearly absent; as if the color had literally bled out from lack of sleep. Although, the man's cloak was very pristine, its trim being threaded with scarlet yarn. The material was of a nobleman's common wear. This man was not the common traveler, for he wore a cloak of royalty.
The owner stopped for a second, then continued his job of cleaning. He decided to keep his side of the conversation going,
“Quiet are we? Well... you know your kind isn’t welcome ‘round here, right?” he stated with brutal disdain. The visitor tilted his head in confusion,
“Please don’t mind my pardon, sir, but what 'kind' would you be referring to?” The man's voice was persuasive and smooth. It didn't seem like he could produce such a voice. The owner was captivated by it, if only for a moment.
Listening closely, the owner could tell something was buried underneath all the charm; something sinister. He furrowed his thick eyebrows and withheld his reply, waiting for the visitor to speak again.
After an uncomfortable stare, the visitor extended his hand,
“The name's William... by the way.”
“That's quaint,” the owner replied. “Now look around ya, William,” the owner began, already disliking the mannerisms and presence of the new arrival. His voice was unwelcoming and firm as he put William in his place.
“The folks who stay here at Eilif aren’t very... rich and proper. In fact, some are rather poor. You stand out ‘cause of yer demeanor and wardrobe. It's quite rare in these parts.
Ya look like some sort of spoiled prince who’s lost his way to daddy’s castle. You don't belong here.” The owner of Eilif Inn leaned forward with intimidation ripe in his voice,
“And if you were to ask me, your kind doesn't even belong in this world. You'd be better suited in the world under this one.” William blinked the insults away and sighed as the owner retracted,
“Thank you for your honesty, sir. But I’m not nearly that rich or privileged. I’m a commoner; a simple man. Actually, even less than that. I'm like you.” The owner took no insult to the comment. He brushed off William's attempt to get to an equal level. He just grinned and shook his head.
“Yah, sure you are. I can believe that if you want me to. But I doubt the others will,” pointing behind William he indicated several onlookers who gave the hooded man several menacing glances.
Some of them looked to be scouts from near and far lands. Others had probably gone rogue. Either way, they weren't the right men to rub the wrong way.
William glanced back and let out a dark laugh. The color of his eyes suddenly turned a subtle red.
“Them? They aren’t worth my time, nor the blade of my sword,” he finished with a relaxed sigh. The owner’s face all of a sudden became stern and unyielding. He dropped the dishes, leaned over the counter, and pulled William close,
“Don’t try somethin' stupid, ‘cause you’ll regret it.” The entire inn went quiet. No one made a sound. The owner made one last threat to keep his inn free of unwanted trouble,
“I don't know who you are, and I really don't care. So know this, you ain‘t got friends 'round here. And you know what? I do.”
William pulled away and clasped the side of his head with his left hand as if something had pierced his temple. After a few seconds he put up his empty hands to reassure the owner of no ill-intent. William's voice was suddenly quiet and soothing like before,
“I’m… I’m sorry. Please, please forgive me, I didn't mean to say that. Truly, I don’t mean to cause trouble here. Believe me. I have no intent to ruin your day.” His eyes gave slightly to a blueish hue; a bit of color had returned.
“I only meant that if the necessity to use my sword arose, I wouldn’t want to use it on these fine patrons lodging here. I'm sorry, I used to be the aid of a fierce gladiator ages ago, when I was a boy. Sometimes... that past of pain and torturous training likes to remind me of itself. I grew up around death. Pardon me for that.... please.” William's voice turned authoritative and intentional,
“Look. I’m not here to start a brawl of any sort. I just wanted to know where I could find an old friend of mine. Please.” The owner looked William up and down with an impatient scowl,
“I doubt any friends of yours reside in the lands of Ljosland.”
“Well, you are right when you say that. My friend is more of an old acquaintance. I haven’t seen him in a while, and I wanted to... catch up,” William replied with an innocent smile.
“I have a better idea,” said the owner. “Why don’t you leave my inn on your own two feet. ’Cause honestly... I don‘t feel like kicking a man out who's got two broken legs,” he threatened with a crooked smile.
William acknowledged his place. He stepped down from his stool and casually walked towards the door without a word. Before stepping back into the warm air of the afternoon, he looked back and asked one final question to everyone who had ears to hear.
“Steinstyri. Is that the name of the nearby castle? If my mind serves me right, it’s currently bring protected and governed by the last known Viking lord... Is that right?”
No one answered. The owner, as well as the guests of Eilif Inn, stood their ground. They wouldn't give the visitor anymore hospitality. They now waited for the unwelcome man to leave. After several seconds, William smiled,
“Thank you for your generosity,” he said. William walked out with pride, as well as his answer. Even though the people inside the inn had not vocally confirmed his thoughts on the nearby castle, he knew his assumption was correct by the look on their faces. As soon as “Steinstyri” was mentioned, two men who sat nearby looked at each other with concern. A look of familiarity had crossed their faces. They no doubt called it their home.
For William, the search for the Viking lord was progressing. He would soon be found.
Outside, William faced the grassy hill which lead back to the main trade road. He'd traveled by foot for nearly four days to reach this inn. An odd feeling welled up inside him. It was nostalgia. Thinking back on his journey made him realize how long it'd been. How free he'd felt. Closing his eyes, he whispered a quiet thanks from his heart.
William opened his eyes after a few seconds and started up the hill. Large trees hung densely over his head. The sun’s rays sneaked through the canopy of branches and warmed him. The sky was free of clouds.
The day brought much; but to William, it brought peace. He felt like himself during the day. Twigs cracked underneath his boots as he trudged up the steep incline.
As soon as he reached the road, he looked back to make sure no one from Eilif Inn had followed. He then looked down and up the winding road; it was empty.
Suddenly, realizing he was alone, a bitter curse rose from his lungs and reached his lips. With unadulterated anger, he screamed the curse. His heartbeat quickened and his temperature flared. It was near. William looked up desperately into the vast sky. His emotions had departed. His mind was emptying. It was happening, again.
“No. Dear God, no!” William panicked. His thoughts began to turn dark. His will was near its end; about to fall away entirely. He threw his hands onto his face, desperately covering his eyes and mouth. A terrible shriek shot out from his lips. Over a dozen birds fled the tops of the trees.
William fell to his knees and started to convulse. With his face to the dirt, he yelled at the top of his lungs,
“You promised! I’m doing what you commanded! Don‘t… not now! I‘ll do better!… I promise! ... NO!”
William’s teeth suddenly dug into the palms of his hands. Something else was controlling him. The flesh of his hands peeled off as he gnawed relentlessly amidst horrid screams.
He nearly broke his neck as he thrashed back and forth. He rolled to his side in pain as several of his ribs cracked at the shear pain of the possession. Dark blood pooled beneath him as the skin and muscles of his wrists were devoured. After several pain-staking seconds, he suddenly became motionless. The air around him became deathly still.
Down the hill, a few horses stabled near Eilif Inn began to panic. They snorted and became restless. They nearly broke down the stable’s fencing in order to escape. Even with the distance, they were aware of the unworldly force.
William stood up with confidence, ignoring his wounds. He was no longer himself. His spine was bent while his face hung low. His torn hands were held out before him, reaching. His back rose and fell with each breath. Streams of blood trickled out of his mouth and eyes. A chilled voice came forth from William’s lungs, but it was not his own.
“The spilt blood of innocents will draw out the Viking lord…”
-A Young Hope-
The words before Eskoleth gave him great peace and an unshakable confidence. He stared at the ancient ink for several minutes, letting the warmth of the fireplace relax his bones and bring him closer to the sleep his body ached for. The crackle of the fire was strong and consistent.
The Viking lord had always found comfort in the presence of fireplaces since his childhood. Sitting next to a fireplace, his mother had often read to him as he sat in the comfort and protection of her lap. An unquenchable fondness of fireplaces had developed since then.
Eskoleth's mind thought and mulled over much as he sat, concentrating on the stillness of his time. He'd used the past several days to re-prioritize and refocus his mind. Most importantly, he'd been “off-duty” since the beginning of last week, enjoying some much needed rest.
His pupil, Codall, had taken up the reigns since then, utilizing the help of Steinstyri's most experienced sentinel guard, Nathor. The veteran sentinel had been a close friend of Eskoleth's since a young age. They'd been through a lot; earning much respect from each other. Many considered them to be blood brothers.
Indeed, all three men had grown through many challenges together. Their bond was that of a tightly knit family. Nothing could break the firm trust that had mutually formed between them. Eskoleth let the corner of his mouth rise slightly at the thought of his closest friends. A deep fortitude had formed within their company.
A drawn out yawn overtook Eskoleth, relaxing him. His opportunity to recover from the toilsome service he did on a daily basis was being taken advantage of with much joy.
The Viking lord slid his eyes to the next sentence on the worn parchment that lay open on his desk. Verbally reciting and intentionally memorizing the words written before him had become one of his aging life's goals. He'd worked arduously to accomplish a little more of that goal every day.
The reason behind his decision was twofold; for throughout his days of pursuing and fulfilling his calling he often doubted his purpose and the meaning of it all.
How could he ever know if the heroic acts he did were enough, or were even worthy of remembrance? Sure, many people had told him how much his deeds were appreciated, but still, he couldn't avoid the measure of doubt that hung over him day after day. He supposed the doubt was expected to go along with his calling.
So firstly, he needed to stifle the unrelenting doubt. The contents of the parchment did just that.
Secondly, he needed to be equipped mentally for the unseen war. His weapon came from the message and hope of those written words.
Eskoleth placed his left elbow on the wooden desk and rested his head in the palm of his hand. It seemed as if a lasting exhaustion was nearing. Ever since the fight at the Ramparts of Olvarde alongside Codall, he'd felt his strength considerably wane away. His body ached. Signs of old age were finally catching up to him. Youthfulness was no longer a strong quality of his.
The passing of time had no regard for slowing down to a manageable speed, either. Four years had passed since that dark battle. The Sorcerer of Olvarde had swayed many during his dark reign, adding to the number of those who wished to overthrow those who stood for truth and chivalry.
What made matters worse was how the activity of those who threatened the well-being of Steinstyri had grown. It seemed as if the enemies of the upright and righteous grew exponentially, while the forces of good diminished and weakened more quickly. Threats even from the west heightened with each passing day. According to rumors, a great war would soon be unleashed. Eskoleth couldn't really handle all the news anymore. The burden he carried was beginning to become more than unbearable.
Adding to the despair, there hadn't been many new recruits within Steinstyri since last winter. The number of dedicated warriors; capable, specialized, and trained from birth, could be counted on two hands. The bulk of Steinstyri's military were volunteered and drafted militia who were advanced in years, with no prior battle experience.
Eskoleth felt the pressure of Steinstyri's future lay heavy upon him. He was terrified that he would leave the castle and its surrounding lands in shambles at his passing.
Yet, one promising light continued to shine brightly amongst the fear and doubt. At Eskoleth's passing, Codall, his eager pupil, would step in and take on the role of protecting the land until the end of his days.
He would become the Guardian of Steinstyri. Years down the road, he would then train up the next protector, and so on. With that young hope, Eskoleth found great comfort.
Under eyes that strained to stay open, Eskoleth stared at the lines of faded ink. The words spoke truth on every level. It was overwhelming, yet humbling and beautiful.
The last thoughts he had before falling into a deep sleep was how the war was so much bigger than the seen world. Yet, Eskoleth took comfort in knowing the truth of how to combat the unseen war; and with that thought he fell into a deep sleep.
-The Recurring Nightmare-
The nightmare was happening... again. Like before, my mind had reached the point where it knew the scene I watched was in fact created by me. I was physically separated from the scene in my mind's eye and aware of it, yet its effect was leaving a considerable scar within my mind. Every image was vivid and purposeful.
I was overlooking the nightmare from a distance. I was experiencing the emotional and mental intensity of the dark scene through the perspective of the small boy I'd seen so many times before. I'd felt his agony and sorrow so many times that it had become familiar. I'd often fallen asleep anticipating the nightmare.
But this time, the pain was so much excruciating. It was unworldly and disgusting; making my stomach churn.
The small boy's name was kept from me. He stood within the towering walls of an ancient citadel, staring into the night sky.
An eerie silence surrounded him in the empty courtyard. A massive keep stood behind him in the distance, housing the nobles and king of the citadel. Everyone within the citadel had already fallen into a deep sleep.
The boy's appearance was innocent. Yet inside his heart a painfully rooted loneliness ate away at him. His longing eyes ached for a lasting hope as he counted the stars. An internal struggle consumed his soul.
Prayers for someone to come alongside and carry him to a lasting purpose filled his lips. He was no older then nine, but the grasp he had on life was that of an adult. His maturity level was unmatched and beyond his age. He was wise, kind, and above all, thirsty for what life had to offer.
Yet, what overshadowed all that was the destructive absence of a strong male presence. The boy's father had abandoned him under the cruelest of circumstances. The boy had never met a man since who lived above the evils of the world; who stood tall on an unshakable foundation.
The men who had since influenced his life had all fallen away, becoming content with the various pits of wickedness and complacency.
What stood out to me most was the fact that this boy lacked a mentor; something I had, yet often took for granted. It cut me to the heart, knowing that this boy did not have the one thing that I'd had for so long. Having Eskoleth intentionally invest time into me had forever changed me.
As I watched the boy, I began to piece together that what I was watching had in fact occurred in the past; for true historical events I was familiar with ran parallel to the scene I overlooked. The events flew past like a wisp of clouds. There was no doubt in my mind that this scene had occurred at some point in time at a very real citadel.
Although, I couldn't put a set time and location to it, I still watched with a new sense of purpose.
As the boy stood alone, overwhelmed at the number of endless stars, a terrible darkness fell over the ancient citadel. It possessed every corner and crack as it took residence within the citadel's walls. It moved and whipped throughout the citadel with haste.
Several moments of silence ensued, but were then cut short as horrid screams filled the air. Women and children screamed in pain as the darkness had entered the keep's inner rooms. The boy panicked; his eyes widened and his breathing becoming tight and forced.
A fierce column of black wind flew through the courtyard and circled around him. At first I couldn't tell what was falling at the boy 's feet, but as soon as the number of bodies began to roll off the growing piles, I realized the gruesome sight unfolding before my eyes.
The column of darkness had carried its mangled victims to the courtyard and laid them all around the boy, as if to appease him. The once majestic stone of the courtyard was being covered with the maimed bodies of the dead. Pools of blood gathered all around the boy, soaking his feet.
He shielded his eyes and sobbed,
“No, no, no...” I tried to reach out to him, but he was too far away. His body didn't move an inch; for he was possessed by an unearthly fear. Escape was no longer an option. He whimpered,
“Somebody, please help me.... Daddy. Daddy, I'm so scared...”
I watched helplessly as a robed figure slowly emerged from a nearby alley and approached the frightened boy.
The figure was tall and lanky. It wore a silver hood that hid the entirety of its face. Its hands were clasped low at its belt. Like a monk it kept its head bowed and gracefully moved over the ground. It appeared to be unaffected by the swirling darkness and blood stained courtyard it approached. It walked confidently and unashamedly.
The boy uncovered his eyes and took notice of the living being. At first he stood hesitant, but his doubt did not last long. The figure knelt down to the boy's eye level. A friendly voice came forth,
“William. Dearest William. Heed my words. It is alright. I will never leave you. Do not fear. You can trust me,” the figure said with sincerity. I now knew the boy's name. For so long it had alluded me, but now had been revealed.
William's eyes grew. He began to relax, despite the horrid scene that had engulfed him. The soothing voice of the figure continued,
“You witness great power before you. Power that deals death to those who deserve it most; to those who have hurt you. You can have this, William. It can be yours!” The figure spoke with conviction. William was mesmerized. His gaze was set in the figure's hood. He hung on every word.
The figure firmly spoke,
“Let that power reside within you, William. Let it give you purpose. I know the deepening emptiness that possesses you. This power will fill the void, I promise you.” What felt like hours passed before the unthinkable happened; William had made up his mind.
He nodded to the figure in compliance. His face turned red as he tentatively reached his hand out. The figure reached out its hand, taking advantage of William's willingness. It began to withdraw its hood with its other hand.
My sight was unexpectedly blurred at the revealing of the figure. A brilliant light suddenly flashed in the corner of my mind's eye, blinding me. It was as if I was being urged to not gaze upon the face of the figure. I turned.
Looking away, the last thing I heard was William let out a muffled shriek that was overcome by the figure's ghastly cry.
-Fear and Uncertainty-
I woke up and threw myself forward. I was drenched in sweat. My head pounded while my heart fluttered, trying desperately to recover its rhythm. On my knees I stared ahead through the darkness of the room, now unable to move. The armory was warm and humid tonight. I wiped my face dry and inhaled.
A few of Steinstyri's armories had been turned into sleeping quarters for its soldiers and militia. It was hollow, unfriendly, and built halfway underground. The high windows of the armory could be reached by rickety ladders. Only one of the windows was open.
The subtle noises of the night echoed through the lone window. I realized how much the common sounds of the crickets and stray cats brought me back to reality. I blinked hard several times and felt my body begin to recuperate.
The nightmare had never felt that real nor significant before. I didn't know what to think. Especially since this was the eleventh time I'd had the nightmare since the beginning of spring. The past six times coming all in consecutive nights. I rubbed my eyes vigorously and steadied my breathing. My thoughts ran like they were trying to escape a giant, mirrored maze. I didn't know what was happening.
I got out of bed and ran over to the ladder, trying not to wake up any of the other soldiers. I climbed the ladder quietly and put my face to the open window. I breathed in and let the air cool my face and chest. I hung my head and tried to remember all that had transpired within the nightmare.
My whole body had been trembling and sweating during the night for what had to of been hours. The nightmare had nearly drove me to insanity on several different occasions. I had no idea why I'd kept having it over and over since my childhood. It had begun to haunt me even during my waking hours, when I was supposed to be “safe” from its influence.
I stood on the ladder for nearly half an hour, trying to relax. However, the longer I pondered the nightmare, the closer its terror began to control my heart. I shivered.
I climbed down the ladder and grabbed my fur coat that hung on the post of my bed. I left the armory and went for a walk. I couldn't stay. The nightmare had begun to fill my thoughts entirely.
I needed encouragement and I needed answers. I longed for the guidance of my mentor.
-The Soundness of a Mentor-
The old wood of the door creaked and groaned as I pushed it open. Eskoleth awoke to the sound of me wishing to “quietly” enter his study. He lifted his head from his desk and looked at his “promising pupil”, as he often called me.
His eyes were wrought with stress, lasting sorrow, and plain exhaustion. I suddenly felt terrible for interrupting his sleep. But oddly enough he didn't dismiss me, instead he showed me compassion.
“Codall, are you alright? You look... terrified.” I suddenly felt guilty that I was about to burden my mentor with my own troubles; especially since I knew full well that he had plenty of his own, and that adding to them would not be generous. But coming this far, I knew I couldn't withhold my worries from him. I knew he cared for me.
Concern fell over Eskoleth; he sat up and looked straight at me, awaiting my answer. His care for me went further then I could ever know. I needed to share with him the pain of my heart.
“... Worse than terrified, more like tormented and depressed by a haunted past,” I answered as steadily as my voice would allow.
“It happened again, didn't it? The nightmare?” he asked, already knowing what had awoken me from my sleep. I nodded and sat down on a wooden bench set next to his desk. I leaned forward and clasped my hands together; they were trembling. My voice was just as uneasy,
“Yes,” I managed. I paused and took a breath, “Eskoleth, what's going on, really? Something's at work, I've felt it in my heart.”
By the look in Eskoleth's eyes, I could tell he felt the same, he was aware of some force at work within the kingdom of Endifold. Undoubtedly, we both felt an unwelcome influence hang over the world of late.
I stared at Eskoleth, wanting desperately to relieve his sorrow. He was just as distressed and anxious as I was about the growing threat. As Vikings, we had been deemed to keep Steinstyri's borders secure.
Although, I knew I couldn't do much to aid my mentor, I kept his well-being at the forefront of my thoughts. No doubt a long, restful night's sleep had evaded Eskoleth ever since our liberation of Olvarde over four years ago.
After a minute, Eskoleth carefully set aside an aged parchment that was on his desk. The way he handled it was very particular. I'd seen it many times before, but had never seen it up close. Its edges were wrinkled and torn at several spots. He treated it as if it was the most prized possession under his care.
The notion of a secret being withheld from me passed briefly through my mind. I disregarded it quickly. I didn't believe that my mentor had kept the parchment secret from me on purpose, withholding some great treasure of its words.
Rather, I believed it was that he waited for the right time to reveal it to me. Still, the smallest seeds of doubt and mistrust against my mentor settled in the back of my mind.
I set my eyes back to him. His beard was longer and more tangled than normal. I figured his daily routines had taken a backseat amidst the crushing anxiety and stress of late.
“Through my years, Codall, I've seen wickedness grow more and more with each passing season.” He cleared his throat, “It's all changed,” he said with brutal honesty.
“What has?” I asked, desperate to hear answers. My voice probably came across as reckless and juvenile, but I didn't really care, I longed for his wisdom and discretion.
“The war,” he said with assurance. “It's changed with unspeakable speed and intensity.”
“We aren't at war, Eskoleth,” I quickly corrected out of fear. “The recent battles have been caused by unruly peasant rabbles attempting to overthrow the current kings, princes, and governors. They wish to ruin Endifold and slaughter those who now rule it. There is no war.” I stated with false confidence,
I said what I did in an attempt to dismiss my mentor's words. His words were not what I wanted to hear. Because honestly, it terrified the depths of my soul. I didn't want to believe him. I didn't want to be in a war, not again. But truth be told, war happened more often then not. It couldn't be avoided. I just hated hearing the persistence and tragedy of it.
What terrified and haunted me most were the rumors that a mighty threat had invaded the westernmost coast lands of Endifold. If true, a massive conflict would one day ensue.
Eskoleth shifted in his chair and leaned towards me.
“You must understand, war comes in many forms,” Eskoleth said with rebuke. “The unseen war is growing. You're feeling it, and so am I. It is spiritual in nature. Forces beyond our comprehension seek to silence those who would dare stand up to resist them. The forces who stand for justice and righteousness are being hunted, sometimes relentlessly.”
I didn't enjoy my mentor telling me of spiritual wars and unworldly enemies. I preferred to view war as only physical. But deep down I knew the wars that counted; the ones that had the most profound affects, were those not often seen. At the least I knew they were internal and mental. I had just suppressed that truth for so long that I'd begun to believe the lie.
I nodded with understanding. I chose to follow up Eskoleth's statement with a desire to prepare for what lay ahead of us.
“How then do we fight? How do we protect Steinstyri? How do we keep it from this darkness?” I asked out of a deepening desire.
Silence took over the study. Eskoleth looked down at his feet. His beard had already begun to gray. The scars and marks of war and time were beginning to show on his face. Pure exhaustion had become a constant trait of his. He looked up into my eyes and smiled,
“We... don't.” My mentor's answer threw me off. I was surprised, and also somewhat angry. What did he mean we didn't fight? I was about to ask, but his voice continued with a tone of subtle faith,
“Our own power cannot overcome evil in its purest form. I believe that is what's happening. Evil is rising. It is manifesting itself into a tangible form that will one day confront us, and defeat whatever power we can muster on our own accord.
I don't know when it will happen, but I believe it is drawing closer with each passing day.”
Something in Eskoleth's voice gave me an odd hope. It was as if he knew how to defeat the evil; like he knew the source from which to draw from in order to fight it. Yet he wasn't sharing it with me. It was like he was waiting.
I looked into his aging eyes. Wisdom and an inner strength, which could not be seen, could be felt by being near him. I trusted my long-time mentor. I believed he'd reveal to me what was necessary at the proper time. I couldn't rush it; all that was needed at this time was trust.
“Would a living form of evil really come to kill us?” I pondered out loud. “And if so, why us? Why not the king of Harsalrs?” Eskoleth raised his eyebrows,
“Perhaps it is because of what we fight for, Codall. Because of what we stand against.”
His words, although few in number, did much to convict me. I had struggled for years with my beliefs, with what I stood for. It made me consider what would happen when the time came for me to truly choose a side; to set my feet on a foundation and give reason to my beliefs. Where or who would I stand on? And would I falter? Or would I stand strong?
Several minutes passed as we sat in complete silence. We quietly rested in each others company. We seemed to draw strength from each other. The friendship we had built over the years had endured through many trials and hardships. We had each others back; regardless of our circumstances. The value of our friendship could not even be measured by the entire wealth of Steinstyri.
I had to intentionally choose to appreciate it, for I did not know how much longer I had with my mentor; especially with the shadow of evil growing ever earnestly.
I broke the silence with a simple question that I desired to know, even if the time wasn't right,
“Eskoleth, pardon my inquiry, but what's the significance of that parchment?” I pointed at the far side of his desk where he had set it. My mentor's eyes lit up, if only briefly.
He took a moment to answer; but when he did, he chose his words carefully.
“It is.... my most prized possession. It is ancient; it is old... yet powerful, and alive with truth!” he exclaimed with a strong breath.
“When the things of this world disappoint, it... does not.” He looked at me and smiled,
“One day, Codall, you will know its words by heart. The words on that piece of papyrus will echo within your body like a thunderous melody.” He paused, giving me opportunity to soak in his words.
“When the time is right, you'll experience it's transforming power firsthand. I trust that day will be soon,” he finished.
I found a child-like sense of wonder spring up within me. Eskoleth's words were filled with awe. I smiled. Inside my heart there grew an intense interest to learn all there was to know about the parchment's message. Curiosity had always grabbed me in the past. This time was no different for me. In my mind, I reveled for the day the parchment would become familiar to me.
Although, I had learned that being under the instruction of Eskoleth required a great deal of patience when it came to receiving knowledge and instruction from him. Knowing that truth helped me anticipate the moment when I would glean from the truth of the parchment Eskoleth spoke of.
My anticipation and inner joy was unexpectedly stolen away as soon as the soldier who burst into the study spoke a dreadful report,
“Eilif Inn. They're dead... all of 'em.”
-Paths of Fear-
Dark clouds loomed over us; suffocating our hope and stealing away our resolve. We trudged through damp paths of dirt, weary of what awaited us. The shortest route between Steinstyri and Eilif Inn was treacherous and densely wooded.
Our entire company felt physically and mentally weakened, as if a poison had seeped into our veins and begun to travel through our bodies. News of the attack had left us speechless and unable to process what had truly occurred. Rumors quickly spread that an ancient enemy of Steinstyri had re-gathered their full might and struck a single blow in order to draw us out into another full-fledged war.
I honestly didn't know what to believe. Although, one thing was clear; this attack was different then anything I'd ever heard of. The report was very unsettling, almost demonic in nature. An uneasy and unknown darkness covered its surface, while an underlying fear gripped the hearts of all who heard it.
The atmosphere and demeanor of the whole land had taken a turn for the worse since news of the massacre had reached its ears. The news had spread like a wildfire, everyone had been informed. There was no way to keep the report under wraps, since many citizens of Steinstyri were related to the lost victims of Eilif Inn.
Menace had finally struck the inhabitants of our mighty castle and its surrounding lands. No one knew what would come of this attack; whether it was a harbinger of Steinstyri's utter ruin, or just an isolated incident. Regardless, someone would pay for the massacre.
The attack had happened near the outskirts of Steinstyri's borders. Eilif Inn, which at the time housed over ninety patrons; both traveling and working, was brutally attacked. As far as we had known, no one survived the attack. It was a slaughter. The scout who came upon the gruesome scene had barely been able to describe it. Upon his return, his face was similar to that of a corpse's. Whatever he saw had sowed a great terror within his very soul. So in my heart, I prepared for the worse.
We'd traveled nearly seven miles on foot since morning. As it was, the journey back to Steinstyri would take time, especially with the uncooperative terrain. In truth, none of us knew if we would even make the journey home. Our lives could end at Eilif if whatever attacked it still remained there, waiting for us.
Was the manifested evil Eskoleth had spoke of been responsible for this? Or was this something entirely different? I had no clue.
The thick forest hung over us as we walked. Violent gusts of wind broke branches and scattered leaves above us. It seemed that the tempest above had only come since the report of the attack, as if it was an omen. I shrugged off the nonsense my thoughts fed me and forced my strides forward, attempting to ignore my uneasy circumstances. Thunder rumbled in the distance. If we weren't careful, our return trip would be during a torrential downpour, accompanied by a flurry of lightning.
The scout who had first discovered the massacre led the team, with Eskoleth at his side. I stood no more than ten feet behind them, while Steinstyri's three sentinels brought up our rear flank. Their name was greatly feared throughout the known world. Their build, skills in battle, and ferocity nearly matched that of a Viking's. Their bloodline had not come from the ancestors of the Vikings, but both Eskoleth and I respected them as family, especially the one called Nathor. We had fought alongside him many times. He was the closest thing to a brother I had.
The sentinels were our brother's-in-arms. They carried tall, three pronged spears alongside broad shields reinforced with iron.
Kevlen, the youngest of the three, bore a banner that whipped relentlessly in the wind. The proud emblem of Steinstyri was being torn apart by the fierce gale; the royal blue array of proud peacock feathers, brilliantly displayed behind the symbolic stone keep of Steinstyri, was all but gone.
All that remained of the flag was the bottom half that had been painted with the massive keep, where the gate leading into the courtyard stood intact, for the time being.
The flag's emblem had brought so many of Steinstyri's troops hope and given them valor. Now it was nothing but a torn piece of rich dyes, silk, and cotton. My heart sank, finding it to be quite discouraging. I lowered my eyes and looked ahead to our path, it was covered in fallen limbs and worn stumps.
I noticed how Eskoleth had been awfully quiet since we'd left the castle. He hadn't spoken a single word to me. I knew he took all that happened to the lands of Steinstyri to heart. In the past, he often made the grief of a disaster or loss of life his own. As guardian of Steinstyri, he took on many responsibilities no one else dared to. He stepped into the role of leadership when no one else would.
I had no idea what thoughts were going through his head as we neared the grim scene. That truth discouraged and worried me. My mind was so lost. An emptiness drained me.
In my mind I replayed the words Eskoleth and I had shared before we left Steinstyri. Maybe he was right. Maybe this massacre was just the beginning of something greater; something much darker than we'd ever dealt with in the past.
“Are we close?” I asked ahead, breaking the silence of the company. The scout glanced back at me with disdain. I caught a glimpse of his face; it was as pale as the moon.
I could tell he didn't want to even come with us; he'd already seen too much. I didn't judge him for that, I knew that whatever he'd seen had permanently scarred him. And soon, it would do the same to me. Eskoleth placed his hand on the scout's shoulder.
“Once we arrive, you can return to Steinstyri, if you wish,” he said with a firm, yet delicate tone.
The scout looked at Eskoleth and agreed to the kind gesture with a nod. I tightened my hood and continued to put one foot in front of the other, beginning to fear the moment when I would lay eyes upon the desolated inn.
Out of nowhere, with no reason, my thoughts replayed my reoccurring nightmare. I stopped, but only for a moment. Something inside me tried to somehow connect the nightmare to the horrific event of Eilif Inn. Flashes of a terrible evil brewing within the depths of this world flashed in my mind. I blinked, somewhat stunned at the images of my mind's eye. I coughed to jolt my body. The images faded.
I shook my head and continued on, convinced there was no way the nightmare and occurrence at the inn had any connection. The mental images disappeared one after another with each step I took. I breathed a sigh of relief, not wanting to focus on the struggles and mental ghosts that plagued my life.
I'd had my nightmare since childhood. Pieces of it occasionally fell into place every few years, but no revelation or cure had ever come. I figured it was just a dark dream, nothing more.
I wiped my forehead dry of sweat and mentally assured myself of how safe I was. I contently remembered what weapons I carried on me. My new, slightly used crossbow was tightly secured to my back. I had brought six steel tipped bolts to accompany it. Hooked onto my belt were the two swords Eskoleth had given me at Olvarde, when he had rescued me from the wrath of the Hagtiyas. I had kept the short swords in pristine condition, treasuring that they had been the first weapons Eskoleth had passed down to me.
“God, save us...!” one of the sentinels uttered in disbelief. It was Gleath. I turned back and looked up at him.
“Sorry?” I asked, slightly out of confusion. Gleath's aged face was frozen with fear. His mouth was set open in pure horror. His eyes were looking over me. The air around me was silent. Everyone had stopped dead in their tracks.
“Who could do this...” Eskoleth uttered out of pure disbelief. I turned back around to look ahead. I let my eyes rise and gaze upon the unthinkable.
The trees had parted, revealing the backside of Eilif Inn. Several wide balconies dotted the backside at differing levels. Dozens of crows swarmed the structure for one reason and one reason alone. They cawed in between feeding on the flesh of the lifeless bodies that hung off the bottom of the balconies.
The wooden support beams had been turned into gallows for the slain victims of the inn's massacre.
-Work of an Adversary-
Eilif Inn had been turned into a graveyard. Bodies littered the floor. There wasn't a single floorboard not covered by decayed flesh or stained with blood. A putrid stench had been filling the entire structure for days. I could barely manage standing at the inn's threshold. I covered my nose and mouth with my left forearm, hoping to lessen the gut-wrenching reek of death. I held a trembling crossbow in my right hand. I aimed it all around the room, unsure of what danger still resided within.
I entered first, slowly trekking across the floor. Avoiding the mangled bodies was nearly impossible. I stepped over several, moving my eyes to every corner of the inn. I knew I had to overcome my fear and scattered focus. I made my way over to the bar's counter.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched Kevlen, Gleath, and Nathor enter in next. They were closely followed by my mentor. He wielded neither his legendary bow or famed broadsword; his hands were empty. He entered the inn like a common man. His known presence of “feared guardian” was entirely gone. The mentor I had grown accustomed to wasn't here at all. He was different.
My foot suddenly slipped on a streak of blood that had spilled out of a man's chest. I gasped and desperately grabbed onto the nearby counter with my free hand, nearly falling on the maimed corpse.
I aimed my crossbow at the body out of instinct. The man's chest had been completely emptied. Nothing remained. It was like some beast had ripped his chest apart and eaten his insides. I gagged.
Next to me, on the counter, was a lengthy dishrag beside several broken dishes. I set my crossbow on the counter and grabbed the dishrag instead. I held it up and inspected it, making certain it was not stained with blood. Content with its condition, I wrapped it around my head so that only my eyes could be seen. Every breath I now took consisted of the bitter odor of ale.
I secured my footing and stood upright, attempting to look like I had it all together. In reality, my mental condition was a wreck. I'd never seen anything like this in my life.
I scanned the far side of the inn again to be sure my eyes hadn't deceived me. They hadn't. Nearly four dozen bodies were strewn from wall to wall. I withdrew the sword from my right scabbard and held it up, not knowing if the ones responsible for this had left or stayed in the structure. Besides, close quarters combat was more my specialty.
“Kevlen,” Eskoleth said. His voice was as a whisper. He'd yet to overcome the shock and horror his eyes beheld. His words echoed within the hollowness of the graveyard.
“Check the upper levels for any survivors,” he stated. Kevlen had bore Steinstyri's torn flag, but had left it outside in favor of wielding his spear with both his hands. He turned and acknowledged his superior's order with a tentative nod.
I could sense Kevlen's fear just by the look in his widened eyes. He was petrified. Neither his armor or skill could dispel the overwhelming fear.
Disregarding the enemy that penetrated all our hearts, Kevlen began to make his way slowly through the piles of bodies to the flight of stairs that led to the upper levels. Eskoleth pointed towards him,
“Gleath, you go with him,” he ordered, hoping to ease the sentinel's uncertainty by sending a fellow sentinel with him. Truthfully, we all possessed deathly uncertainty. Some of us were just hiding it a bit better than others. None of us were immune, not even the great Viking lord himself.
“And stay together,” Eskoleth finished, his voice nearly breaking.
“Of course,” Gleath quietly replied. His first few strides were unsteady, but were then strong with each one he took. Gleath's courage grew, even if barely. He followed Kevlen towards the upper levels, spear and shield in hand. The aged wood of the steps creaked under their feet. From the many other unsettling creaks of the wooden structure to the caws of the crows outside; the atmosphere and feel of the inn was thick with unsettling notions and impending horror.
My blood was cool as it flowed through my veins like a steady stream. This place warned my very soul of something terrible. Every moment I stayed took all my strength to endure.
Eskoleth now stood in the middle of the dining area. I was surprised that he knelt down amidst the corpses. I almost said something, but I withheld. His cape faced me, covering his entire form, except for the top part of his recurve bow that stood level with the back of his head. He said nothing, but only knelt in silence, as if he was saying a prayer of some sort. I'd never seen him like this before. Nathor stood next to him, keeping a diligent guard of his dear friend.
I turned and approached the door which led into the kitchen. Stained across the wooden door was a streak of dark red blood. It was in the form of a broken hand print. I began to push it open until I realized what had caused it. At the foot of the door was the gutted body of a women. It was ripped open, desecrated beyond words. I held onto the door; my body completely stopped. I felt a deathly sickness enter me as I stared at the woman. I almost passed out.
“This has to be a nightmare,” I thought to myself. The whole scenario didn't seem possible. How so many people had been slaughtered at the same time, without putting up a fight was beyond me; since a fair amount of Eilif Inn's common residents were trained scouts and militia that knew how to fight. So where were the corpses of the enemy? Had none of them been killed?
Eskoleth and I had seen and fought many foes, but none that would cause the deaths of so many all at once, especially at a place like this. I figured we'd seen every possible type of evil. We'd fought bandits consumed with greed, princes corrupt with absolute power, and crazed men influenced by what only could be described as “dark magic”. This was beyond all of those. To me, this was caused by the pinnacle of evil.
A sudden, hurried request came from upstairs. It was Gleath.
“Sire! Quickly!” he called to Eskoleth. I went first, determined to not let my mentor come to harm. I forced my sickened body and weakened legs up each step. Eskoleth and Nathor followed. By now I had withdrawn my second sword. I held both my weapons at arm's length, ready for anything. The dense air of the inn flew past my face like a storm of piercing arrows. Nearing upstairs, light was absent, save for a dying torch at the far end of the main hall.
I reached the top of the stairwell. The walls were no more than several feet apart. A few yards down the hall were Kevlen and Gleath, the latter kneeling down. Kevlen stood guard, keeping a steady eye down the rest of the hall. The light at the end flickered, almost burnt out.
I ran to the two sentinels and saw what Gleath had called for. An unidentified man of the inn laid next to Gleath. He was horribly maimed and disfigured from a brutal attack. He'd been slowly bleeding for days. It was as if he'd been viciously toyed with like a cat would do to an injured mouse. He looked to be an isolated target out of this entire massacre, left barely alive in order to be a witness to what had transpired.
The man's broken breaths were heavy and strenuous. He wore a stained apron, one that was probably as old as he was. His face was covered in blood. I knelt beside Gleath, his broad shoulders filling most of the hall. I sheathed my swords and placed my left hand on his steel shoulder plate.
“He's the owner. I'm sure of it,” said Gleath, unexpectedly. His eyes were set on the dying man.
“My uncle told so many stories of this man's kindness. I... I can't recall his name, though.” Gleath paused, becoming short on breath. He swallowed deeply and found his words. He spoke slowly,
“This man owned Eilif Inn for decades, his grandfather had built it from the ground up. He used to provide for my family when I was just a boy. When we had need for food, he would do his best to meet it. He was such a... generous man. I wish I'd known him.” Gleath removed his helmet and set it down, overwhelmed by the vague, yet powerful memory of the dying man.
Kevlen stood quietly, his attention still set down the hall. Gleath held the man's bloodied hand. It had been used to try to stop the bleeding in his neck. But it was too late; too much blood had been lost. The man's strength was gone.
I looked back to Eskoleth. He stood at the top of the stairwell, still struck with shock. I had never seen my mentor gripped and overtaken by such fear. He'd always been stronger than it, conquering it with immeasurable amounts of courage and willpower. But not this time. This time I saw his real vulnerability and ultimately, his frail humanness.
Through the years I'd painted him as indestructible, both physically and mentally. But what I witnessed now was my lifelong foundation crumble before my very eyes.
Panic settled into my very being. I never thought I'd witness my mentor's breaking point. I knew I wouldn't be able to handle it if it truly did ever come to fruition. My greatest fear had unfolded.
The owner of the inn suddenly mustered what remained of his voice and whispered,
“It was... robed, in... fl.. flesh.” His mouth opened wide as his eyebrows rose in horror. The back of his head rolled back and forth on the wooden floor. Death was about to take him.
Before any of us could say anything, a quiet, yet ominous sound rippled through the air. I turned to see from where it had come. Sweat began to run down my face as a new, unknown adrenaline overtook me. The owner of the inn took his last breath; his body becoming limp.
Immediately following was another sound; it was a subtle, yet persistent cry. It didn't sound normal. I listened intently for more of it as I stood up, focusing my entire mind on the noise that encompassed the hall.
Gleath let go of the man's hand and stood up as well, quietly retrieving his spear and shield. He moved up to Kevlen's position and calmed him. I stayed. The eerie sound reached our ears again. It was the strong, repeated sob of a grown man.
I looked to Eskoleth again for wisdom and guidance, but found none. He stood still. His eyes shifted back and forth like he was processing a plan; a plan that seemed to have nothing to do with our current situation. A despair covered his face. Nathor's back was against Eskoleth's. He turned his head and whispered something to him. Both men seemed to be in their own world.
Seeing the collapse of my mentor's leadership, I decided to take the helm. I'd truly be taking on his role of leadership at his passing. I needed to grow accustomed to taking charge when called upon. I disregarded my doubt and rose up to face my fear and uncertainty.
And so I stepped forward, acting as the lead for Kevlen and Gleath.
“Stay near me,” I told them. My mentor remained silent as I walked forward. I really didn't expect him to respond, he'd been a different person ever since we'd arrived at the inn. I held the sword in my left hand close to my chest, in a defensive stance. The hilt of the sword held by my stronger arm was near my right hip, ready to strike if necessary.
I took several steps and approached the wooden door at the end of the hall. The sound of the man was now very loud and consistent. He was behind the last door on the left of the hall, before a spiral staircase led to the next level.
My heart stopped at the sound of another sob that came through the door. This time it was guttural and heartfelt. It repeated, becoming steady. It had to be a survivor. I was now only an arm's reach from the handle of the door. Kevlen and Gleath flanked me.
Across the center of the door were the sizable marks of what looked to be a hideous claw. An animal of some sort had to of caused it. But what animal? Doubt began to tempt me. I instantly knew I had to dismiss the doubt; we needed answers, regardless of what lay behind the door.
I nodded to Kevlen to open the door. After he did, I'd enter first, no matter what. I gently placed my ear to the damaged wood, straining to hear every possible noise. Kevlen laid his gloved hand on the bronze handle next to my head, ready to open it. The moment he did, the sobbing suddenly ceased.
A second passed. Suddenly, an unworldly force slammed against the other side of the door, cracking the wood. My sight abruptly went black as I stumbled back and hit the wall behind me, dropping my swords. My lungs emptied their breath while my head pounded.
“The hell..?!” Gleath screamed.
Everything slowed. My chest shuddered with pain. My vision returned, but then blurred horribly as the beat of my heart intensified. I turned left and strained to see.
Kevlen had absorbed the pain of the impact as well. He was flat on the ground, clasping his hand. Another strike from behind the door sent splinters of wood to the floor.
I regained my breath with a deep inhale. I could now feel the strong rhythm of each heartbeat course through my blood. Every beat was like a pounding headache. I tried to recover, but couldn't. I grabbed my head, overtaken by my body's instinctual reaction. The build-up of terror the inn held had finally reached its breaking point, nearly paralyzing me.
At the door, disfigured hands ripped and pulled away slivers of wood, creating a small opening. It widened quickly as both hands clawed with unworldly determination. The skin of the man's palms and wrists were mutilated; the intricate muscles exposed and covered in blood. Deathly bellows accompanied the fury of the one temporarily held back by the door's lock. Whatever man had been weeping was now driven to kill us.
My mind could no longer manage my circumstances. I was useless. Gleath pushed me away,
“Go! We'll hold it off!” he yelled as he thrust his spear into the opening. A shriek filled my ears as the man behind the door screeched out in pain at the attack of Gleath's weapon.
A precision arrow, set free from the bow of my mentor, suddenly flew past my ear with a piercing screech. The slim arrow went straight through the handle of the door and part way into the reinforced frame that held the door in place. The shot actually worked to temporarily fortify the door.
After several seconds, the arms of my mentor lifted me to my feet.
“Nathor, this is it! You must keep it here as long as you can!” Eskoleth commanded. His voice was now a solid foundation. I felt the presence of my mentor once again strengthen me. He was back.
“The possession. Where is it?!” Nathor asked hastily as he ran to Kevlen's side.
“In my study, back at Steinstyri,” Eskoleth replied with regret. I was oblivious as to what was happening. I felt a shroud hung over my heart begin to show itself. Whatever was happening was larger than I could have ever imagined. And now I was realizing it.
Eskoleth grabbed hold of my shoulders and took me to the inn's main level. The hollowness of my own heartbeat grew louder and louder. I began to fear for the sentinels as I realized that they weren't planning on leaving. Instead, they were preparing to fight the man who sought to devour us.
Eskoleth refused to let me out of his grip. I didn't have a choice as to where or what I was doing. My weakened body was under the forced guidance and direction of my mentor. I turned back and looked up the stairs. Only Nathor came. Gleath and Kevlen must have remained on the upper level. I tried asking of their fates, but my voice would not allow it.
“It's time. You have to reveal to him the truth,” Nathor told Eskoleth, approaching him. The certainty of my mentor's physical appearance had begun to falter. He must of figured this was the last time him and Nathor would speak.
Eskoleth's tone was dire,
“I know. I wish we'd been closer to Steinstyri. I'm so sorry. Forgive me,” he apologized. Nathor smiled, holding Eskoleth's shoulders at arm's length,
“Dear friend, there is no need to apologize. I've been ready to give my life for this very cause. This evil will not overcome us.” Nathor stepped back and unhooked the two hatchets strapped to his belt.
“Keep him safe,” Nathor pointed one hatchet at me, indicating that my safety was of importance. Eskoleth nodded.
“The sentinels of Steinstyri will never be forgotten,” Eskoleth reassured. “I promise you.” Nathor raised his weapons into the air and joined Gleath and Kevlen with a shout,
“For Steinstyri!” I watched helplessly as Nathor ran up the stairs to join his fellow sentinels. I didn't understand why Eskoleth and I would not join them. They were our brothers. The bitter notion of betrayal filled my mind, yet Eskoleth seemed unaffected by it as he dragged me out into the raging tempest.
“GO! There's no time!” Eskoleth yelled. He ran behind me, pressing me to run faster through the mud and torrential downpour. He held an arrow to his bowstring as he sidestepped and ran backwards in order to guard my back from any pursuing danger.
He shoved me from behind, nearly making me fall straight into the mess of mud and slush. Water freely ran past my boots; I could barely manage my footing. The heavy rain reduced my vision to only seeing several feet ahead of my own face.
“I ca... can't, see any... thing!” I cried out desperately, turning my head to my mentor. My voice had returned, but my body still throbbed with sheer pain. I stumbled over several branches, nearly losing my balance.
“We have... to go.. go back, Eskoleth! We mu... ust!” I pleaded.
“No! Forget them... They're beyond saving!” Eskoleth enforced. In his mind, the fate of the sentinels was already determined. His voice had regained its former prowess. He was again my strict and directing mentor. His words were above mine. I'd never gone against his leading before, but this time his guidance felt so wrong.
Nonetheless, I heeded his voice, knowing I couldn't go back alone. I wasn't strong enough, for my condition worsened with each passing moment.
The bones in my legs rattled with each of my forced steps. My strength had emptied since being exposed to the mere presence of the crazed man who had tried to kill us at Eilif Inn. The blow I'd taken had left my entire body jarred. My breath continued to shorten. The further I pushed my body, the weaker it became. Knowing the fates of Steinstyri's sentinels, spoken clearly by my mentor, crippled me further. I didn't know how much further I could go.
Each beat of my heart sent shards of pain throughout my body as my thoughts portrayed the inevitable agony that would haunt me because of the betrayal Eskoleth and I were committing. I couldn't do it. I stopped dead in my tracks, succumbing to my weakness.
“I ca... can't. They ne... us. I.. can't...” I cried in exhaustion. A thunderous clap burst just over the nearby mountain, drowning out my sorrow.
I threw my hands over my head, overcome by everything surrounding and penetrating my emotions. Heavy drops of rain ran down my back, sending shivers down my spine. Eskoleth grabbed my shoulders and forcefully lifted me up. He turned my face to his. His form temporarily protected me from the rainfall. His grip tightened,
“Look at me. You need to trust me.... now. Codall, trust me.” His skin was tight and flushed.
“How can I?!” I screamed. I tried to push away, but couldn't, his hands were firmly set on my shoulders. What had just transpired at the inn demanded clear answers. Why had we abandoned our friends? What was the nature and intent of the bloodthirsty man? And why did it not seem to phase my mentor? The way he was handling everything practically spoke of an early awareness he had of it all. But how could he have known?
I gazed into Eskoleth's eyes with frustration and anger. His eyes calmed; their rage departing. He bowed his head and breathed a sigh of preparation. Another roar of thunder jolted the forest. Eskoleth stood strong, not even shook up by the utter force of the storm. He simply muttered under his breath three words as he held onto me,
“You must know...” He lifted his head up. His red hair dripped streams of water, shielding his face from mine. His lips quivered,
“Alright,” his voice now understood my frustration. “This can only work if you trust me. I need your trust.”
I stared at my mentor through my growing fears and doubts. I didn't know how to respond. He'd never asked anything of me in this way. He finished, almost pleading,
“I'm sorry. Please, Codall. Hear my words with a cleared mind, and let me explain all of this.”
I surrendered, nodding with sincerity. Only the knowledge and wisdom of my mentor would calm me. Eskoleth accepted my cooperation with a nod of his own.
He then looked to his left, searching. He spotted a small covering of fallen trees a few yards away. Heavy brush and branches hung over the logs, creating a protective canopy. Eskoleth led me to it.
We knelt and crawled under the soaked leaves and branches as another bolt of lightning struck the side of the hill that overshadowed the forest. The following thunder was deafening, shaking my skull.
Underneath the canopy, steady drips of rain were plentiful around us. But for the most part, it was dry. The tempest outside the temporary shelter persevered, showing no signs of stopping. There was no telling how long it would last.
Eskoleth sat less then five feet away from me with his legs crossed. His head nearly touched the top of the canopy. The soaked logs and leaves were mere inches from his head.
I carefully watched my mentor. My entire mind had suffered a sequence of events it couldn't comprehend. My world had turned upside down. For the first time in a long time I saw my mentor take a deep, recovering breath. His body stilled.
“I have to start from the beginning.... in order for you to understand why we left the sentinels to fend for themselves at Eilif Inn,” Eskoleth cruelly admitted. The mere mention of the sentinels struck me with shame and anger that was directed at Eskoleth. But I didn't speak, I only waited. I needed to hear my mentor's explanation. Nothing else would satisfy my deep longing.
Eskoleth stroked his beard, rinsing the water out of it.
“For decades I've known that my life would demand much of me. My calling has stretched me for years, nearly to the point of giving up. I had to come to the reality that some things I couldn't accomplish. I would fail. At times, I'm overwhelmed at what I'm required to do.” He paused.
“Honestly, if I relied on my own abilities I would have given up years ago,” he confessed.
I sat, stunned at my mentor's words. For the first time I felt as if I was truly being greeted by the real Eskoleth. For years I'd known the mentoring side of him, never the personal, vulnerable, human side of him. The words he spoke only further opened up my understanding of him. I was witnessing the revealing of his heart. He went on,
“My grandfather, Einar, was an amazing man who rightly feared his creator. He was a mighty man. He led many to find courage and hope, even amidst the most fearful of battles. He led a life that left no room for condemnation.
His enemies could never shame him, for his walk was upright; always near to the truth. Yet he never lorded his 'righteousness' over anyone. He was one of the most humble men I've ever known of.”
Eskoleth's voice had slowed, becoming kind and trustworthy. He talked like a grandfather would speak to a precious grandchild. He continued, taking my mind along the mental journey,
“Einar's last day on this world came much quicker then his family anticipated. He was not a day over sixty. Not a single soul within the lands of Arydos was prepared for the fateful battle that took his life. It came quick. My grandfather's troops were not ready; they'd slipped into a state of.... complacency.
Their once mighty walls of skill, experience, and camaraderie had crumbled over the uneventful years. And so the enemy struck from beyond the sea, devouring their vulnerability. The siege lasted no longer than an hour. The battle was entirely one sided.
Before his final, desperate push into the enemy's advancing ranks, Einar set aside time to pass onto his grandson a prized possession of his. Now, I truly understand why he took the time to do such a thing. He foresaw the role it would one day play in a world that grew ever darker.”
Eskoleth paused to gather his thoughts. A genuine smile grew across his face. The memory of his grandfather was no doubt fond. I leaned forward, avoiding a drizzle of rain on my left. I longed for more of my mentor's spoken words. After a blink and determined breath, Eskoleth continued.
“You have in fact laid eyes upon Einar's aged possession,” he informed me. It took me several seconds to comprehend Eskoleth's statement.
“I... have?” I asked, slightly dumbfounded.
“Yes,” Eskoleth answered. “Now the possession he found suitable for me was not made of steel or iron. Although, it is mightier than either metal.”
I quickly remembered what my mentor was referring to. I had no idea it once belonged to his grandfather. What surprised me most was how a single, worn parchment could be so important to someone.
“Your parchment?” I asked, wanting to verify my assumption. Eskoleth nodded,
“Indeed. Einar desired most to pass it down to my father, but knew he couldn't, since they both partook in that fateful assault. We all knew the fates of those involved were sealed. They wouldn't return.
Einar, along with my father and the loyal troops that remained, launched the attack only to buy the rest of us time. Us being the most crucial people of Arydos that could begin again; the ones that could start life anew. Council members, mothers, and children were the most in number among us.
I am convinced my grandfather believed the notion that only a boy, too young to fight, yet old enough to comprehend truth, could carry his prized parchment to safety.
He saw in me potential. He saw a boy with strength and courage that would never be put out. He chose me, the field, on which to plant the seed; which has and will always be.... the parchment.”
Patience was beginning to elude me. I fought it, knowing that Eskoleth had to explain everything to me. For me to trust him, he needed to speak the words that were on his heart. I strained to stay focused. Both my body and mind were failing to stay aware. Eskoleth continued once again,
“Now as you know, Nathor and I have been friends for a very long time. We've known each other ever since I was taken in by his parents after the abandonment of Arydos. Steinstyri became my new home, while Nathor became my brother. For many years I was under the tutelage of his father, learning the humble history of Steinstyri.
During that time the thing I regret most is how secret I kept the parchment that Einar gave me. I showed it to no one. I never even laid my own eyes on it,” Eskoleth admitted with a heavy heart.
“How come?” I asked.
“Fear,” Eskoleth answered. He rubbed his eyes free of the mental exhaustion they held.
“Fear is what kept me at bay. I feared that if I was to open and see the parchment's words, then I would lose the cherished memory of my grandfather. As if somehow his memory was tied to the mystery of the parchment.
If I was to know its words, then what I remembered of Einar would fade away, unable to ever return to my mind.”
“When did you... finally read it?... The parchment.” I asked with a hesitant tone. I did not want to ask too much, nor did I want to stop my mentor from sharing with me his story. I tried to choose my words carefully, whilst fighting off the temptation of letting weariness and impatience overtake me.
Eskoleth looked to his right; with the storm still raging. He sighed,
“Long after I should have. I read it when I began my bow training. I was a young, eager, sometimes careless lad. It was exactly one year after the deaths of my father and grandfather that I opened the parchment. And you know what, Codall?” He said with a huge grin. His face could not contain its joy.
“Ever since I believed and began living those words of the parchment, my life has never been the same. I've been changed. It's difficult to explain, but it's evidenced.”
“How? How could written words change a life?” I thought to myself. It didn't really seem possible. Yet, I couldn't dismiss my mentor's testimony so quickly. I had to know more, not just about his changed life, but about what had brought us to this moment.
I didn't care anymore about how my words came across, anger and frustration had built up inside of me, ready to come forth.
“But that doesn't explain why we left them to die!” I exclaimed, pointing outside. Eskoleth bowed his head as thunder roared in the distance.
“I understand your frustration, Codall. Truth can sometimes be difficult... to swallow.” His eyes lifted, meeting mine. He spoke with comfort and firmness,
“Nathor and I grew up together, learning the living truth of the parchment's recorded history and of who it speaks of.
You see, the parchment chronicles the very beginning of time. It speaks of a terrible, vicious fall that affected and still influences the whole of mankind. Yet,” Eskoleth said with potency, pointing his finger at me.
“It speaks of a promise as well. It talks of a promised heir that will one day reverse the curse that man brought upon himself. And so this heir came, nearly one thousand years ago!
He walked amongst many, healing them with what only could be described as divine power. He spoke with authority, while at the same time claiming that he was the embodiment of truth! He made a staggering amount of claims, fulfilling them all.
Recorded in the parchment as well is how his mere, spoken words defeated darkness that no ordinary man could do on his own. The heir's words broke chains and overcame mighty strongholds, saving the souls of many.
Nathor and I saw the truth within that parchment. That those who align themselves with that heir; who repent of their deeds, believe his truth, and follow his teachings, will be persecuted, yet ultimately saved when death came.
The sure persecution would come through people as well as powers beyond this world. Experiencing persecution early on gave validity to the parchment's claims, as well as to Nathor and I's convictions. It was a difficult time in our lives, but it taught us one thing. It showed us the truth of the parchment. Our faith had been secured. It taught us to persevere in our new found faith.” Eskoleth stopped. His face becoming dimly cast. The seriousness of his words becoming close to his heart.
“We knew evil would continue to suppress us, trying to prevent us from living out, by faith, the truths of the heir's teachings. Honestly, we knew we would never see the end of it. The struggle would only grow.
Perhaps, eventually culminating into a manifestation of evil itself that would hunt us down. Although, its ultimate culmination was something we loosely held onto and believed.
That is, until we saw the victims of Eilif Inn.” Eskoleth closed his eyes. His mighty form diminished, giving way to a damaged man who felt responsible for the lost lives of so many people. Opening his eyes, his voice pressed on with firmness.
“That moment, when we saw the inn, that is when we knew how far our enemy would go to tempt us to despair and abandon our faith. Both Nathor and I knew the reason our enemy slaughtered those people was to catch our attention, to bend our focus towards the fight we stepped into the moment we put our hope in the heir.”
My mind reeled with questions. The talk of an heir that would fix a terrible fall? A powerful war, caused by following the heir's teachings, that would only escalate? And a manifested evil that had come to hunt Eskoleth and Nathor? I didn't know what to think.
Deep in my heart I'd always longed for an answer to the evil of the world. I just never knew where to find the answer. Had my mentor just revealed the answer to me? Was it because of man's own doing? And would it one day be reversed by the heir Eskoleth spoke of? I wasn't sure, nor did I think I ever would be sure.
Although, one thing did plague my thoughts. Who in their right mind would follow an heir that lived and died a thousand years ago? And so I let my words form,
“What truth... does a dead heir hold? Didn't the teachings of the heir die with him?...” my breath strained and shortened. My eyes were heavy and my breaths labored. My body felt like a dead weight; its adrenaline running dry. The damage it'd sustained had finally caught up.
“Why... follow.. hi... him?” I barely managed to whisper. As my eyelids closed and my body became limp, the voice of my mentor and his assuring truth was the last thing I heard.
“Because he rose from the dead to reach your heart. The moment of your belief, and the life-changing experience thereof, will come to you soon, Codall. Trust him. Trust the heir...”
Everything moved, nothing was stable. Confusion was rank, until one voice spoke, giving guidance and direction to what was about to transpire. The voice made clear the path that was about to be traveled. It was calm and strong, making the simple mind wise.
“Nearly twenty years ago, housed high within the east tower of Kalasker's outer battlements, was a loyal captain and his family. Barely surviving under the corrupt rule of King Ylithin, a difficult crossroad has confronted the captain and his family. Inside the captain and his wife's bedroom a choice would be made; one that would have lasting effects on many...” the voice said with truth and clarity.
The setting suddenly changed, replacing the unknown with a tangible setting that could be grasped and known.
“I must go,” the captain said with false confidence. He turned and set a small sack of food next to a red cloak that was laid out on his bed. He arched his back, placing both hands on the bed.
A despairing silence uncomfortably possessed the room. A deep and determined exhale brought the man's frustration and exhaustion to its breaking point. He fell to his knees and began to sob.
The captain's wife joined him on the ground and embraced him. She nestled her head next to his. Her comforting presence and simple fragrance gave her husband a stillness and peace of mind. Their young marriage had been wrought with struggles that had tested their love and dedication to each other. This time was no exception.
“Will he not choose another captain?” the woman asked quietly. The captain looked up and straight ahead with tear filled eyes. His cheeks reddened as hatred for the king grew like a weed inside his heart.
The castle of Kalasker had never been ruled by such a corrupt king as Ylithin. So many lives had perished under his iron fist. Ylithin's greed for power had turned into a bloodthirsty path to enslave and kill those who defied or even merely questioned his rule.
“His choice has been made. His edict is law,” the captain admitted. “I can't fight it.” No matter his hatred for the king, the captain would still obey, knowing that disobedience to the king would result in the public execution of his wife and young son.
“The citizens of Olvarde must hand their farmlands and mines over to the king's rule, or pay the penalty of death,” the captain reiterated. The tone of his statement was as if King Ylithin had spoken it himself whilst sitting on his throne. The captain had been trained to repeat the king's orders and directives since childhood.
“I have no other choice, Marniel. I must go to Ljosland and demand Olvarde's cooperation.” Marniel lifted her head and spoke correction,
“You always have a choice, Rethen. Do not deceive yourself. You are not controlled by him.” She stroked her husband's shoulder gently, trying to sway his firm, yet false, conviction.
Rethen stood up abruptly, ignoring his wife. He walked over to a large trunk set under the nearby window. The window had been open for the entire night, cooling off the bedroom. Now, rising sunlight shone over the trunk's intricate hand carved top at the arrival of dawn.
Rethen lifted open the trunk's lid and carefully lifted out a foot long dagger who's blade was covered in scarlet cloth. With words as dangerous as the weapon itself, Rethen spoke,
“If Olvarde refuses to hand over what is now Ylithin's, then many swords will be drawn; and the sun will set behind Ljosland's blood soaked fields.”
Rethen eyed the delicate weapon. It had been ages since he'd wielded it in battle. It had never before taken a defenseless life. Now, deep within his heart, he feared the dagger would end many on the plains surrounding Olvarde. Marniel stood up,
“I can't believe you, Rethen!” she screamed. “Since when did you become a heartless, bloodthirsty animal?!”
“I'm doing this for you!” Rethen yelled, turning to face Marniel. “I'm doing all I can to keep you and William safe! Don't you get it?!” He pointed out the window and raised his voice.
“You think I'm heartless!? Look out there, Marniel. Set your eyes on the towering citadel of Kalasker, then look me in the eye and tell me truthfully that I have more of a thirst for blood then the very king who slaughtered over sixty children one week ago in the name of solving food shortages! Could you do that, Marniel? Can you?!” Rethen pressed.
His anger reached its peak, bringing Marniel to her knees. She leaned her back up against the end of the bed and wept with brokenness, overtaken by the verbal rage of her husband. She sat alone at the foot of the bed; her head cradled in the palms of her hands.
Rethen paced in front of the window, his dagger still in hand. His voice hardened,
“Marniel, please... believe me when I say I'm doing what I think is best for you two. I know it doesn't feel right. I've doubted it ever since Ylithin ordered it. I have no choice, he'll sentence you and William to death if I don't go. I can't let that happen.”
“But the people of Olvarde....” Marniel uttered. “Don't they have a choice? You know the king will order you to kill them...” She looked at Rethen through tears. Her voice weakened,
“I don't want you to kill for the sake of William and I.” Marniel covered her face with her hands again. She shuddered at the thought that the man she married could ever make such a choice.
Fear and distrust brooded within the bedroom as silence persisted. The mental and emotional distance between Rethen and Marniel had never been further apart. The trust they'd once shared had been torn far beyond mending.
Rethen tenderly approached his wife after securing the curved dagger onto his belt. His arms reached for her, but Marniel pulled away, too frightened to find care in her husband's arms. Rethen's hand brushed through her curled, brown hair as she stood and ran to the door.
Her knees buckled under the weight of her distress as she tried to run out of the room. She fell forward, landing hard on the unforgiving floor. Letting out a painful cry; the skin of her elbows, face, and hands were cut deeply on the splintered wood floor.
Rethen's heart tore. He hesitated. He ached to help Marniel, but couldn't. She didn't want him. He'd let her down so many times before. What she really needed was proper protection; protection that would last and not disappoint.
Marniel slowly crawled to a nearby dresser and leaned up against it as the underside of her arms steadily bled. Her blouse was torn by the wood and stained with tears.
Rethen bowed his head as a single tear rolled down his cheek. Every physical and mental aspect of him felt as if it had been ripped apart.
“How can I restore this?... How can I protect them?” He thought to himself. How could he leave his wife and son under the certainty that it would, in the end, ultimately protect them? It didn't make sense.
Rethen spoke amidst the quiet sobs of his wife,
“Marniel, when he is of age, don't tell him what I've done,” Rethen pleaded. “If necessary, tell him as little of me as you can.” Marniel shut her eyes. She sat in tears with her bloodied hands clinging to her shoulders.
In silence, Rethen gathered his cloak and small sack of food. He walked over to Marniel and stood, waiting. With finality, Rethen spoke,
“Find it in your heart to forgive me, Marniel. You know I'd never hurt you or William. You two are my life.”
As soon as Rethen walked out, Marniel opened her eyes and looked up. She would never see her husband again...
The room began to blur and brighten unexpectedly. The light took an unbearable toll on my mind. Suddenly, an overwhelming succession of horn blasts vibrated my mind back to reality.
-The Bane of Steinstyri-
“... They're under attack! Codall! The siege horn of Steinstyri has been blown! We must make haste, NOW!” Eskoleth yelled as he thrashed my shoulders back and forth; waking me up.
I opened my eyes wide and let my sight fully return after several blinks. Eskoleth's form became full and clear; although, seeing my mentor, I felt the deepening fear he held penetrate my heart. In his eyes I saw a terrified look of helplessness. His eyes were bloodshot and wide with fright. A doom had come upon my mentor that I had never before beheld.
A deep bellow rang suddenly through the air and overwhelmed me. The unfamiliar blare of Steinstyri's horn had traveled down from the mountain range and weaved its way through the valley. The call went out again.
Eskoleth looked out of the canopy and up into the air; his face full of dread. The call of Steinstyri meant one thing; that the castle and its citizens were in horrible danger.
My thoughts panicked; flowing back and forth from the vivid dream I'd had during the night, to the present, unknown danger overtaking Steinstyri. I couldn't keep a mental focus. What did the dream mean? And what was I to do with it? It had felt so real.
Eskoleth left the covering of fallen tress; then with a strong yank he pulled me to my feet. My head throbbed with pain as I rose out from underneath the canopy. My body had not yet fully recovered. It's trauma and soreness had lingered. It needed more time to rest, but now, time would not allow; for Steinstyri needed its Vikings.
“The siege horn of Steinstyri has not been blown for ages,” Eskoleth admitted with a stoic voice. His body began to tremble as he gathered his arrows into his quiver and took up his bow.
“The ram's horn has not been blown since the beginning of the War of Realms. Such danger has never since been seen by Steinstyri's watchtowers,” he informed me.
I stood as the fear of the forthcoming menace consumed my thoughts. The War of Realms had left these lands forever changed; filling those involved with deep regret. Whatever was now threatening Steinstyri was beyond my comprehension. I prepared for the worst.
Eskoleth tightened the strap of his quiver to his chest and looked me dead in the eye,
“... What is?” I asked, out of breath. My mentor handed me his broadsword; its blade was nearly four feet long from its base to its steel tip. I clasped both my hands around the foot long handle and balanced its weight in my forearms. Eskoleth looked into my eyes,
“Evil's manifested form,” he said with direness. “Hurry!”
He turned and ran through the storm soaked ground; his speed unmatched. As quickly as I could, I desperately ran, following my mentor straight into an unknown danger that held Steinstyri captive.
We reached the summit of the steep, rocky incline as the siege horn rang clearly through the air one final time. It had done its job, we had returned.
Eskoleth rose to his feet with his bow firmly grasped in his left hand. He withdrew two arrows from his quiver and held them by his right side. His eyes focused on the distant portcullis of Steinstyri and its flanking towers. Behind the western tower the sun had begun to reach the peaks of the distant mountain range. Night was approaching.
With guilt set deep in his eyes, Eskoleth stared at the castle that had been placed under his guidance. At this range it seemed that none of Steinstyri's guards were posted on the ramparts. The primary defense of the castle was empty of its defenders. The enemy must have already been inside.
I held my mentor's broadsword to my left side and walked alongside Eskoleth as we carefully made our way across the plain to the gate. We had no idea if an ambush had been set for us or not; for there was no doubt in our mind that the enemy knew the call of the siege horn would bring aid to Steinstyri. Perhaps the enemy was attempting to lure us into a deadly trap. Our mental status needed to be clear and sharp.
Although, admittedly, my gut feeling was to rush into the castle I had been tasked to protect and eliminate whatever enemy was therein. But Eskoleth steadied my instantaneous emotions with a consistent whisper of guidance. While his eyes laid set on Steinstyri, he spoke calmly to me,
“Wait.... we cannot rush in. We must be cautious.” With complete admittance, my mentor stated what I indeed felt within my bones,
“This attack is not normal. Something dark is at work here.”
Something was indeed amiss. The sounds and cries of battle were not heard within the walls of the castle. An eerie silence had overtaken the common lively nature. A shroud of silence had settled over Steinstyri.
“The gate hasn't been broken into,” Eskoleth observed. “Easy, Codall. We must be discerning...” I followed the words of my mentor, waiting for his next order to come forth.
My mind was filled with questions; questions I wasn't even sure mattered. But nonetheless, they were burdensome.
Was I to heed my mentor's words concerning his parchment, and its importance thereof? Or was I to disregard that and intently focus on honing my skills and natural aptitude for the unavoidable battle? I needed to know.
“Codall, listen to me,” Eskoleth said with firmness as we closed the distance to the gate. He turned to look me in the eye. He placed his hand on my shoulder. His next words did not settle well with my heart,
“Once inside, you must set aside the rage of the Viking you'll feel boil in your blood. You have to suppress it.”
“That's not easy, Eskoleth,” I admitted. Whenever a visible enemy was before my eyes, I would allow my blood to rage and would gather my emotions, then release them all at once to bring down whatever threat stood before me. That was how Eskoleth had brought me up in my training. As long as my body was physically capable, I would use all its strength to fight 'til my dying breath. It was who I was.
Eskoleth replied with understanding,
“I know, believe me. I helped you develop that reaction as I trained you, but listen to what I'm saying now. I know avoiding that rage is difficult; the sudden adjustment is not easy. It never was for me. But you must suppress it. Our rage will not win us this battle. Listen,” he said with a directed tone.
“No matter what you see in there, you must head straight for my study and find the parchment.”
I paused for a second, but then reluctantly nodded. I now knew where my mentor needed my focus to be. There was still a priority Eskoleth held to the parchment. I had to trust him and obey his command.
We came to the iron bars of the gate and saw that they had been opened by the keeper of the gate, for the key was still in the lock; yet the keeper was no where to be found. No one was at the gate or stationed within the adjacent towers. Eskoleth pushed on the bars of the gate. It swung wide with ease. He looked at me with a look of confusion.
I followed as he tentatively walked through the gate and entered into the tunnel that immediately laid behind.
We made our way through the now stone carved tunnel which served as a chokepoint for Steinstyri's invading forces. It was plentiful with sharp turns and defensive barricades. We took each turn with caution. The defensively minded tunnel and emplacements were the pride of Steinstyri's defenses.
As we traveled through it, the subtle sounds of a crowd echoed through the tightening tunnel, reaching us.
In the darkness, looking down, we noticed a path of slain bodies that belonged to the guardsmen of Steinstyri's gate. They'd been slaughtered. Their bodies were cut open and ripped apart like those of Eilif Inn. I felt fury and hatred build up in my lungs. I clasped Eskoleth's broadsword and prepared for battle.
Eskoleth set both arrows to his bow and ran for the end of the tunnel, throwing caution to the wind. I sprinted to keep up with him.
We maneuvered through the final turns unaware as to what would confront us on the other side. We took the last turn and exited into the open air of Steinstyri's courtyard, where a horrific scene lay before our eyes.
Atop the central knoll of the castle's courtyard there stood the mighty statue of Steinstyri's allegiance to the culture of Vikings. It was a symbol that had been erected to show the approval of the transition of power Steinstyri had taken when Eskoleth had become its jarl over two decades ago.
Yet, the proud stone image of the statue was in vast contrast to what now stood beside it.
Next to the statue a vile, rotted form of a man stood tall. It demanded the attention of its audience, even though its appearance was sickening to look upon.
The flesh of the figure's torso was ripped away, revealing underneath a fiery, devilish appearance. The outer layer of remaining skin was that of a corpse; it hung loosely over the muscle bound body of the demonic figure.
Its face was almost unbearable to look upon. It was like the form of a man's skull; yet the bones were as skin. It was torn open below its jaw. Blood soaked its mouth and broken teeth. Burnt flesh hung over the demon's face like torn cloth.
A diabolical voice uttered forth from the lungs that could be seen through the gutted out rib cage of the demon,
“Cast off the works of the waning light and embrace the armor of the amassing dark!”
I stood in disbelief. Was what my eyes beheld a mutilated man; or was it only what remained of a man who had been overcome and controlled by a demonic force of some kind?
As I looked, there was no doubt this demonic being was the same one that had attacked Eilif Inn. Its mere presence and handiwork of the gate guardsmen boasted responsibility of the massacre. It must have bypassed Eskoleth and I during the night, when we had taken shelter in the woods.
At the demon's side, in its unrelenting grasp, was a young woman. Her eyes were filled with sheer terror. Her body was limp in the left claw of the being, for the fearful presence of it had paralyzed her. Her clothes were torn and stained with blood. The misshapen claw of the creature had pierced her forearm; spilling blood freely to the ground.
The demon hung onto the woman like she was an ornament of his own body. No one possessed the courage to approach the creature in order to save the woman. A few of the nearby guardsmen, that stood at the bottom of the knoll, were consumed with a terror that melted their resolve.
The demon spoke with fearful authority,
“Blood and souls will continue to be spilled upon Ljosland if you do not bow.
Understand, Steinstyri. You have but one choice; submit to the power you behold!”
A dark ring of fire suddenly burst forth from beneath the demon, scorching the ground. The woman grasped by the demon desperately screamed as her legs were consumed by the wave of fire. Her flesh melted as the flame burned with fury. Her cries were silenced as the tendrils of flame traveled up her torso and covered her face.
Eskoleth had already taken aim. His eyes narrowed down the shaft of the two arrows set to his bow. He had a clear shot; no more then twenty yards away.
He released the bowstring with deadly precision. Both arrows pierced the demon's left forearm, forcing it to drop the woman. It cried out in pain as it retracted its arm and stumbled back against the statue.
The woman rolled down the small hill, extinguishing the flames that had engulfed her body. As soon as she reached the flat ground, several guards ran to her, carrying her away from the danger and attending to her wounds.
Eskoleth sent two more arrows through the creature's lungs before it could recover. Both shots put the demon to its knees.
The citizens and soldiers watched in awe as the Viking lord of Steinstyri had gathered enough courage to deal a mighty blow to the demonic being.
I stood still, overwhelmed at the presence and power of my mentor. He strung another arrow to his bow and ran towards the knoll. The citizens parted, clearing the way for Eskoleth. Some began to flee, knowing the impending battle between the Viking and the demon could very well be fatal to those who stood near.
Ignoring the arrows that stuck through its lungs, the demonic being rose to its feet and fixed its burning eyes at Eskoleth. It was as if the demon had searched far and wide to find and confront Eskoleth, and now it was pleased to have been confronted by the Viking.
“Finally,” it uttered as it began to slowly descend the hill.
Seeing the demon come to confront my mentor made rage build up inside of me. I felt it course from my heart and begin to spread to the rest of my body. I tightened my grip on Eskoleth's broadsword and took a step forward. But before I could take another, Eskoleth stopped.
While still aiming his bow at the approaching demon, he turned his head and looked me square in the eye. He commanded me to withhold. His voice had never come across more demanding,
“Codall. Go to my study! Open the parchment and bring it here. Wield its truth. Now! Go,” he said with potency.
The order sunk into my body and dispelled the rage that had built up within my blood. I disregarded my emotions with difficulty and obeyed the one my heart trusted most. I lowered my sword and ran as hard as I could to the far end of the city, where Eskoleth's study lay quiet.
I burst through the wooden door to Eskoleth's study, nearly knocking it off its hinges. With one thing on my mind, I ran to the far end of the structure and made for the large desk of my mentor. It was covered with many papers, quills, and books. I set Eskoleth's broadsword down and then cleared off the desk. I completely uncovered the mess, but found nothing.
The parchment wasn't here. The top of the desk was the last place I'd seen it before Eskoleth and I had made for Eilif Inn.
My heart sank and my brittle hope began to falter. Where had it gone? I began to look around the desk, hoping it had just fallen to the ground. Still, I could not find it. The rolled piece of papyrus would be easy to spot, for it was uniquely worn far beyond any other parchment; it was ancient. It would stand out amongst any other sort of book or scroll.
I began to look through some of the surrounding shelves and lower drawers of the desk. I got on my knees and searched in every crack and crevice. While on my hands I tilted my head up. I suddenly spotted markings etched on the underside of Eskoleth's desk. I closed the distance and ran my finger over the marks. They read.... '1:1'. It didn't make sense. But what was held next to the numbers did.
On a small hook there hung a key. I grabbed it and inspected it. It was overlaid with an intricate gold trim. Words I could not decipher had been etched on its handle as well.
Knowing my mentor was confronting the demon alone, I hurriedly began to try to pull every drawer out to see which one was locked. After a few tries, I spotted a small, wooden trunk nestled between the edge of the desk and the north wall of the study. It sat on a pile of books. Its lock was built strong.
I grabbed it and set it down on the desk. The key fit perfectly into its lock. I turned it clockwise. The lock quickly released and lifted the lid several inches. My heart pounded within my chest, the adrenaline intensifying as the revealing moment presented itself.
I opened the lid of the trunk fully and lifted out the rolled parchment of my mentor. I felt tremendous responsibility grow within my palms as I brought it close to my face. The words from Eskoleth's own lips had penned this parchment as his prized possession; far superior than anything he'd ever known.
Deep inside my heart I felt a feeling mature. One that urged me to open and read the parchment before returning to the battle being fought in Steinstyri's courtyard.
And so I stopped. Ignoring every thought and emotion I unrolled the parchment, holding it at eye level.
Hundreds of scribblings covered the parchment. They'd been written with no regard for organization or spacing. It looked as if the words had been copied to the parchment in a desperate effort to fit as much as possible on the four foot long piece of papyrus.
My eyes ran over the words, searching... longing for what truth it contained. Several statements seemed to rise out from the parchment, grabbing hold of my attention and ultimately, the core of my heart.
“In the beginning was the Word,” was the first to be read within my mind. Another statement stood out. It was written as if a someone had spoken it. It read,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” Below that, read,
“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
In my heart I felt a stirring. Like somehow the words I read had a deeper meaning to them than I could ever imagine. Could the one who claimed to be this “truth” and came to call sinners to repentance be the same heir that Eskoleth had told me about? What he'd told me had lingered in my mind, for he spoke with such assurance and conviction. Could what he said really be true?
The way Eskoleth talked of the heir told me that the heir was not an imagined person brought to life by figments of creativity. Whoever this heir, he truly had profound effects on those who chose to follow him.
The living proof of that claim had fought beside me, trained me, directed me with wisdom, and saved my life on multiple occasions. My mentor's life was the strongest source of evidence I knew.
I quickly read another passage that had been written near the bottom of the parchment, eager to fill my head with as many words as I could. It read,
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”
Directly below the passage there was written the word, “Heir”. A crudely drawn arrow connected it to “Lord Jesus”. Next to that was,
“Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things,”.
“That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth,” was written close.
According to these words, this Jesus was clearly lining up with the person Eskoleth referred to, who had lived and spoken with authority. Was this Jesus the heir, yet a risen king as well? A king that had died, defeated death, and rose again? If so, then no one could compare!
Eskoleth had said that the heir's words had broke chains and defeated darkness. Could this be the living power that Eskoleth referred to? Could the words of this Jesus defeat the powerful demon within Steinstyri's walls?
If so, why hadn't Eskoleth told me of all this truth beforehand, so I could be more prepared? Why had he waited so long?
Regardless, I rolled up the parchment and ran out of the study, feeling a weight and a blindness begin to lift from my heart from merely reading the parchment. I felt that I was beginning to know the truth, and it seemed to be setting me free.
I ran out from the alley, flanked by two structures, and stopped out of breath and exhausted. I dispelled the pains and shortcomings of my weary body, attempting to remain focused on obeying my mentor's words. He needed me.
Looking on ahead, I saw that the knoll was now surrounded by over one hundred guardsmen. The call of Steinstyri had been answered. Every available, able bodied guardsman within the surrounding towns had taken up arms to come to the defense of Steinstyri; yet, all of them still kept their distance. They were all captured and tortured by the fear and presence of the demon. No one dared to approach the adversary.
The demon stood once again on the top of the knoll, standing next to the statue with another in its clutches; Eskoleth! He'd been disarmed and captured. He was now at the mercy of the demon.
I ran as hard as I could toward the ring of soldiers. I held the parchment firmly in my hand. I wielded no physical weapon, but the sure danger of that fact didn't even cross my mind.
I ran through the line of soldiers, disregarding the fact that none of them held the courage to save the very jarl of Steinstyri. I pushed them aside and ordered them to make way. The aura of their cowardice sickened me. Once through the lines of soldiers, I stopped at the bottom of the knoll and looked up.
Eskoleth's eyes met mine. An odd peace possessed his face. He saw the parchment in my hand; and the confidence and assurance it had given me. He gave me a subtle nod, trusting that I had begun to read the parchment. He knew its truth had begun to change me, he could see it.
With steadiness and hope, he began to speak my name, but was cut off,
“SILENCE!” the demon screamed. “Do not speak, Viking lord... for I know the truth you believe your words hold. Open your mouth again and you will witness these lands burn with an unquenchable flame...” the demon threatened whilst staring directly into Eskoleth's eyes.
“Learn from your foolishness...” the demon said as it slowly pushed one of its claws into Eskoleth's lower back. Eskoleth grimaced and held his breath at the pain.
Everything in my head told me to strike out at the demon, but I withheld, barely holding onto the claim by my mentor that physically striking the demon was not the way it would be overcome. My fists shook with anger.
“Now tell me, where is the possession?!” the demon screeched in my mentor's face. A burst of flame consumed the demon's body as anger built within it. Tendrils of flame flew off its body, scorching Eskoleth's skin and armor.
That was it! I now knew what the demon sought after. It was searching for the one thing that, according to my mentor, could defeat it! The demon was seeking the parchment.
My body began to tremble; I held in my hand the very thing our enemy had slain so many people for. Dismay began to claim my heart.
Yet, being near Eskoleth calmed me in the midst of the pure evil that brewed around us. I saw a smile appear awkwardly across Eskoleth's burnt face, as if he was trying to tell me that everything would be alright. I could not understand his fortitude and ability to stand firm while standing before death's gate.
Somehow, my body began to return with confidence and strength. The demon suddenly spoke again, as if to be preaching to the guardsmen that behind me shook with unworldly fear.
“Behold, Steinstyri proclaims, 'The call has gone out! Hope has come to us. The mighty Viking lord and his pupil stand here to kill this menace that plagues us. This evil will be vanquished, and we will be free,' ” the demon uttered with mockery.
“But all I see before me is dread and unworthiness. The Viking kneels, and his pet stands trembling before me.
I see no heroes. I see feeble beings who are just as fearful as the women and children who hide alone in Steinstyri's streets, crying out, 'Deliver us from this wretched evil!'
The weakness of the Vikings is thick in the air. Their power overcome,” the demon waved his hand towards the audience, holding their attention.
“Witness that my mere influence has conquered their widespread reputation of ferocity and courage,” he proudly stated.
The demon then took several steps forward, its legs crackling with black flame. The gaping hole at its mouth grinned as it stopped before me. It held pleasure within its decayed face, gazing at me for several seconds. The beat of my heart decreased, as if my body was beginning to shut down.
“Do you fear losing him? Your precious mentor?” the demon asked of me. My thoughts melted. Nothing held the demon back from slaying my mentor before my very eyes. I cringed at the thought. I suddenly felt helpless.
The demon pushed Eskoleth down to his knees, holding onto the back of his head with his razor sharp claws.
I stood, unsure. The demon's words had left my mind blank and crippled. I could not take any thought away from the demon's dark influence; my hope was completely dead to any sign of restoration.
I looked to Eskoleth for direction; his head was forced down, unable to make eye contact with me.
Out of the corner of my eye, unexpectedly, I saw the fingers of his left hand move back and forth purposefully by his leg. The quick and subtle forms of his fingers communicated to me a signal language; one that he and I had created years ago to use in times where we could not audibly speak to one other without risk of endangerment. We'd created the language to use in a time of great danger. This was the first time Eskoleth had used it with surety.
As I watched his hand form shapes, I caught the message; that he wanted me to ask of the name of the man the demon possessed. He wanted me to speak to the pure manifestation of embodied evil! I didn't know why, but I could do nothing else, so I gathered my breath and did.
“Wha... what are you called?” I asked. My voice broke, “What is your na... name?” I asked. The demon's face contorted, shocked at my question.
“... I am many things,” the demon answered after a pause, seemingly enjoying my question. Pride began to fill its burning eyes. It stroked the side of its face, deep in thought. Thick blood ran down its neck and flesh fell to the ground as its claw tore into the skin of the being it possessed.
“I am the embodiment of torture. I am the ravager of souls, a stronghold of evil. I am the Bane of Steinstyri, here to claim what should never have been.”
“No,” I said in defiance. My body trembled. Yet, my voice strengthened, spurred on by the confidence and trust of my nearby mentor.
“What is the name of the man whom you hold captive? The one whom you possess?”
The Bane of Steinstyri tilted its head, almost amused by my directed question. His voice spoke with pleasure; he was basking in the revealing of his victim,
“Him? Oh, he is merely a vessel. A useless pawn that succumbed at a young age.
The name he once went by was William. But no longer. Now, he is all but gone. He is forever mine.”
William! My heart unexpectedly leapt with revelation. A thousand thoughts filled my head. The clouded purpose and meaning of my nightmares, and of the recent dream, suddenly cleared. The importance of them was now apparent to me!
I felt completely humbled. I felt a purpose drive me from within to persevere and not give up. The source of my strength and new found hope seemed to be coming from the written truth held within the parchment. I felt like a calling had been pointedly addressed to the core of my heart.
Deep inside I felt a seed of belief grow in me. I felt like scales were beginning to fall from my heart; letting me witness and believe truth. Maybe the reason I'd had the nightmares and dream was so that I could make it to this moment and confront the possessor of William with living truth; so that William could be freed from his captivity? I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of the thought.
Suddenly, I believed the truth I needed to proclaim would be the very words of the heir who had conquered death nearly one thousand years ago; and so I opened the parchment before the demon.
The demon's eyes burned as the parchment rolled open and I searched for my first statement. The demon looked the parchment up and down. It saw that the item it searched for had been brought before it.
The demon hesitated for a split second; but already, that was a moment too long. I read off the top of the parchment with a forceful shout,
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” ! The demon's face turned deathly pale. Its knees buckled and its body shuddered. It fell forward with a scream, then confessed,
“The Creator! I know... I know of whom you speak of! The maker of all!” The demon clutched its chest, yet still held tightly onto Eskoleth with its other claw.
I found the words of my next proclamation, taking a moment to read them and believe them in my own heart first. Then with affirmation and a forward step, I said,
“For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy... strongholds.” I emphasized the final word, reminding the demon that it had labeled itself as a 'stronghold of evil'.
The demon's head thrashed back and forth. It looked into the sky with terrible expectation and screamed in agony. The words I'd spoken were leaving it in anguish. Flames from its body flew high, leaving the source. The flame of the demon's form had died, being extinguished by the spoken words of the parchment.
A moment passed, I felt the hope of victory becoming a tangible reality.
The demon suddenly brought my mentor close to its side; then, with a mighty thrust and cry, it sent its claw straight through Eskoleth's right side. Eskoleth gasped at the excruciating pain. His shoulders and chest fell as his strength left him.
The demon withdrew its claw and covered its own head; trying to still manage the words I had spoken.
My whole world came to a stop. Eskoleth's body crumpled next to the demon. Blood began to spill out of his deep wound. My mentor lay quiet, his eyes achingly searching for a relief to the overwhelming pain.
I felt my heart tear in two. I panicked, gasping for this nightmare to end. But my mentor did not allow my fear to stay. Catching a glimpse of his lips mouth the word, “finish”, I found my resolve originate from the very one who's life was in grave danger.
Looking to the parchment, through tears of grief, I read with steadiness,
“And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Hold thy peace, and come out of him” And when the devil had thrown him in the midst, he came out of him, and hurt him not.”
The demon looked up into my eyes with a petrified look of defeat. Its eyes were as a terrified child's. It begged,
“No! Do not speak it!”
I focused into the face of the enemy while my heart warmed and my bones chilled. I felt a work within me; I felt my heart become like clay, malleable and free. So with hope and a new found faith, I uttered under my breath,
The demon stumbled to its feet, but it had been so weakened that it could not stay standing; it fell down and desperately crawled for me with its outstretched claws, cursing.
I stood my ground. The demon gasped and cried out like a wounded animal. I pointed down at its wretched form and shouted with authority,
“Demon. In the name of Jesus Christ, the risen king... I rebuke you!”
The demon's desperately reaching claws fell powerless at the announcement of the parchment's truth. It began convulsing. Its frail and horrid form shook with terrible force.
I watched as the Bane of Steinstyri wept at the truth of the spoken words. My heart urged me to look back to the parchment one final time. What took my eyes was a statement that seemed to define the very purpose and mission of Jesus.
“He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”
As I read, I realized that the captives held by seemingly unbreakable bonds were to be released at the power and name of Jesus. Within my heart I marveled at that truth. I could not completely fathom the reality and ramifications of that claim; all I could do was trust in the one who proclaimed it; taking it on faith.
I lowered the parchment and looked at the demon. Its body violently shook with an inner terror. The power and authority of Jesus Christ, revealed within the parchment, had defeated and rendered the demon powerless.
I took a deep breath, then spoke with poise that was underlined with an unshakable faith.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave this man. You no longer have authority over him. Be gone!” I declared.
The demon shrieked and rolled to its back, looking into the sky. With a bitter cry, it reached into its chest with both claws and freed itself from the shell of William's body. Blood spilled forth, soaking the ground. I shielded my eyes and turned my head away. A deep groan erupted from William's mouth as the demon left him, vanquished.
A deathly silence enveloped all of Steinstyri; for its bane had been overcome. Steinstyri had been freed.
I ran to Eskoleth, stumbling and crying for his name. Upon reaching him, I cradled the back of his head in my hands and looked for a sign of life within his eyes.
“Eskoleth!” I cried, “Please, don't go, not now... not yet. I'm not ready...” I looked at his gaping wound with tears.
I called out for the guardsmen. Several ran over to me and began to inspect and treat Eskoleth's wound as best they could. The lead guardsman ordered his subordinates to bring medical supplies immediately from the barracks.
I stared up into the sky and begged,
“Please...! Please save him, Jesus. I can't lose him.” I looked down. Eskoleth's face was pale. Blood trickled out of his mouth while his body lay utterly still. I closed my eyes and laid my forehead on his fragile face,
“Please, Jesus... I know and believe in my heart you conquered death, and that you possess ultimate authority to save.
I repent and I trust you. I know you can heal... Please heal him. I believe. I do...” I whispered over and over as I knelt next to the one who had never once left my side.
-A Bitter Farewell-
The outside air was stale and uncomfortable, yet routinely interrupted by a cool, swift breeze that casually swept through. The quietness of the day gave way to a welcome creak as the wooden door on the south wall of the infirmary opened at the push of my hand.
I stepped in, filling the space between the main door and its frame. I peered into the infirmary and set my eyes to the far end of the room. A million emotions flooded me as soon as I saw him.
So much had occurred since the day I'd entered Eskoleth's study in the middle of the night seeking wisdom after again experiencing my nightmare. Eight days had past since then. Life had drastically changed since then, for both of us.
I felt tears form in the corners of my eyes. Eskoleth laid quietly on the lone bed of the infirmary. He looked to be asleep. I swallowed. I felt deathly nervous approaching him; yet I convinced myself that the nervousness was just my heart's attempt to avoid seeing him. I couldn't put it off any longer, no matter the consequences.
I was about to speak up when a quiet voice, that would take quite some time to return to its former prowess, came alive.
“You know, it's alright to barge right in,” the voice stated. “Honestly, it's okay if you interrupt my sleep. I've been sleeping for the past three days straight, I'm pretty sure one visit won't rob me of much.” I let a soft smile form and entered in.
Eskoleth's face cringed as he sat up in his bed. His right hand went to his side in an attempt to calm the pain of the deep wound. He would live with that pain for months, if not years.
After a few seconds, the pain in his face relaxed, and he was now sitting up in the bed with a simple wool blanket covering him from his waist down. Fresh bandages, buckets of clean water, and old, stained coverings were set neatly organized on the ground.
“The doctor went away for a moment,” Eskoleth said. “He'll be back soon to clean up those old bandages and redress my wounds.”
Something in my mentor's voice set my heart at ease. His voice was full of life and energy. His wounds were quickly traveling the road to recovery. I quietly spoke thanks in my heart. I knew God had heard my prayer and saved him.
By the name of Jesus Christ, I had been spiritually healed; while my mentor had been healed physically. I felt pure joy soak my heart at the experience of the living power of Jesus. His grace had saved and changed both Eskoleth and I.
“Well, you'll be happy to hear this,” I stated with quiet elation, approaching my mentor's bed.
“How is she? Is she doing better?” Eskoleth quickly asked, eager to learn of Lesli's recovery. His eyes widened with anticipation, awaiting my reply. I nodded,
“Somehow, Lesli is doing great. Her injuries are rapidly healing.” I ran my hand through my thick hair, letting a grin fill my face,
“It's amazing to behold. The physician doesn't know how she even made it; and he's been treating for decades.
He says there's no known explanation he can come up with. The injuries she sustained should have killed her shortly after you rescued her.” I smiled and let out a quiet laugh,
“She sure must have some fight in her bones.” I looked at Eskoleth contently and pleasantly admitted,
“Honestly, she's like you and William.... living miracles.”
Eskoleth's face brightened beyond description. A sigh of relief overtook him. I knew the deep care Eskoleth held for each inhabitant of Steinstyri. He valued every life. Knowing the young woman, Lesli, had survived her horrid wounds let a massive burden off Eskoleth's shoulders. Saving her life made all the difference. It turned the feeling of defeat into triumph.
“How is William doing?” Eskoleth asked me with a distressed tone.
I bowed my head, trying to find the right words. I had to constantly remind myself that William had been a victim, a captive. He was not the enemy, he was merely the vessel an enemy had chosen.
It would take years for William to fully heal. His scarred life would forever be an upward struggle.
“He's still restrained,” I stated with regret. “We just aren't sure how much he can be trusted at this time.” It still made me uncomfortable to speak of the man who had formerly let a demonic being reside within him.
I carefully chose my words,
“We're not sure how long it'll take. The effects that demon had upon him were... horrific, and lasting. They will persist. There's no telling how much time must pass. Even with the demon gone, William is going through a withdrawal. His healing will take great patience.”
“Only the redeeming and healing power of Jesus will save him,” Eskoleth stated. We both agreed; the battle for William had only begun, it would continue to grow in scope and ferocity.
I nodded and breathed a sigh of assurance,
“Yes. Only through Jesus Christ's authority will William be set free. His time spent knowing the truth needs to be intentional and direct.” My mentor nodded in agreement.
In the following hours, Eskoleth and I discussed the many things that had transpired within the past weeks; the fate of Steinstyri's sentinels, the implications of the demon's activity, and the far reaching rumors whispering threats that amassed on the west lands of Endifold.
The entire atmosphere and feel of Steinstyri, as well as my life, had changed with such force, almost like a thick fog had been cut through by brilliant sunlight. It felt as if a new season had come upon me, closing a lengthy chapter of my life in its wake.
My heart remained heavy, tightly clinging onto the choice I'd made regarding the next, necessary step I needed to take. I felt my breath shorten as my words formed,
“Eskoleth, why did you not tell me of the parchment sooner?” I asked. An undying respect for my mentor, that I would never withhold, permeated my tone.
I would always respect my mentor. Although, as of late, my trust in him wavered. Trusting him fully was no longer an unquestionable notion. My doubt towards him had regrettably grown over the past several days.
“Why did you wait to show me?” I questioned. “Why not tell me sooner? I don't understand...” I admitted.
Eskoleth smiled, seemingly pleased with my honest question. He spoke with steadiness and gentleness,
“I'd prayed years for your heart to be brought to a moment of realizing your need of belief. Since taking you as my pupil, I've prayed every day for you to know and believe the hope Jesus offers.
I sought God's direction and guidance in every thing we faced. Every battle and every challenge was an opportunity for me to show you the truth contained and delicately preserved in the parchment. But I waited, patiently seeking the time to be right.
I believe God used every one of those moments to shape, influence, and bring your heart to this moment, when I felt called to present to you Jesus Christ's saving power.
And so when the Bane of Steinstyri revealed itself, I knew it was time,” Eskoleth answered with confidence.
I slowly nodded, my heart pounding and my blood rushing. I looked down at the floor. My face began to redden with sorrow. I took a deep breath, then looked up at Eskoleth, fearful.
On the surface, I knew I couldn't do it. Yet underneath, buried within me, a young, sprouting faith possessed me. I'd come to the decision through much toil, concluding that it was the right choice. Tears began to run down my face as I trembled.
I focused on my mentor's compassionate eyes as difficult words came forth,
“I understand... I do. But... it's so difficult to swallow. I don't think I can handle all this at once.” I paused, cleared away my pressing uncertainty, then continued,
“Eskoleth.... I have to leave.” My blood warmed and my chest throbbed. Eskoleth looked at me with brokenness.
“... Why?” he asked desperately. I wiped away my tears and reassured myself that this decision had not come about by instinct or unplanned reaction. I'd come to the choice with much thought and consideration, weighing every outcome. I spoke with surety,
“I... just.. need to go. I need to be alone. I need time to think... Please, understand... and respect my choice.
It's not because of what you've done, it's just... something I have to do. I need to leave Steinstyri for awhile.”
Through a wall of emotions, Eskoleth reached forward and placed his hand on my shoulder, showing me the trust he had for me. I grasped his hand in reply, showing the foundational respect I still had for the one who had sacrificed so much for me.
With strained sentiment, Eskoleth approved,
“No one in Endifold understands your decision more than I do,” he replied. “Know this, Codall; that I will wait for you. Whenever you choose to return, I will be here.
Regardless of where you go, my heart will go with you. You will always be in my prayers.” Through tears, Eskoleth promised,
“I assure you, Steinstyri will be kept safe; awaiting the return of their guardian.”
Many tears fell as I embraced Eskoleth. I knew with utter confidence it was necessary for me to go, regardless of what my heart told me.
My leave would not last forever, but it would require time to mend the unseen wounds. It would take time to handle and let the truth, that had been planted within my heart, sink in. All of it was so overwhelming; I needed to separate myself from my familiarity to properly grasp it all.
Eskoleth reached to the small table next to his bed and took the parchment in hand. The weapon of Steinstyri had remained fully intact, unscathed by the Bane of Steinstyri's fury.
Eskoleth handed it to me. I hesitantly received it. My mentor settled my uncertainty with experience of his own,
“Trust me, you'll need it more than you can imagine. It will be as a light to your feet as you journey into this new season of life.
Jesus will be your beacon of hope. Believe him for guidance; but most importantly, believe him for your salvation.”
I nodded with tears of gratefulness. The love Eskoleth had for me could never be put into words. His devotion for the truth of Jesus Christ to be my ultimate desire showed his immeasurable care and concern for me.
With one last goodbye, I turned away and walked to the door, leaving Eskoleth. I stopped beneath the door's frame and closed my eyes. With heartache, I placed my hand over my mouth and sobbed, letting the bitter farewell overwhelm me.
Yet, amidst the mixture of sorrow and surety, what comforted me most was the assurances and truth of the parchment that I had sealed within my mind.
With everything that had happened; the wrath of the enemy, the destruction caused, and the people slain, I recited to myself the reality of every living person's condition, as well as the hope freely offered through the one who came to give us abundant life.
“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;”
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
So with that truth, I walked forward with new life and lasting hope that had its foundation set in the saving power of the risen Son of God, Jesus Christ.