“I’m so cold,” Cindie whimpered, waking Riven out of his light sleep. He opened his eyes and looked over at the bundle of silk skirts, blankets, and the whimpering nobility which had awoken him from sleep. Cindie was whining… again. That woman sniveled more than anyone Riven had the misfortune to deal with. Theo did his best, always trying to make her happy. It was a full time job for him. Riven had the feeling that Cindie would be cold, hungry, uncomfortable, or otherwise unhappy even in a palace. Theo was trying to hush her and yet not give in to the affections she wanted. That woman couldn’t care less that they were sharing a cave with others. In fact, Riven suspected that she enjoyed the idea that everyone knew what she was doing when Theo normally gave in. He didn’t enjoy it, the poor fellow. Most of the time, no one would say anything. They just wanted her to be quiet and let them all sleep.
“Now what’s her problem?” Ivan groaned.
“Mind your own business, Ivan,” Tavia said. She lay near her son, protective and close. Riven smiled to himself. Tavia was smarter than she let on and a lot tougher than any woman he had ever met. He respected her strength and felt himself drawn to her.
Riven let himself look over at the woman who lay just out of reach of him. That might have been the sort of woman he would have married… a strong woman who could be both a mother and survivor at the same time. Oh well, one would never know and it was best not to think about it.
“It’s damn cold in here. Is there any more wood?” Dave asked, cutting off Ivan and his remarks that were already forming. Tavia shot Dave a look that was almost grateful. She was tired and a fight with Ivan was nothing she felt like doing… a waste of her energy and she knew it. Besides, Riven thought, Ivan was too dull to fight with a woman like that. Tavia needed a man with a brain and the ability to use it.
Riven tried to settle back down to sleep, but then he saw Shannon. The man stood a moment just inside the doorway, a dark silhouette against the clouds still faintly lit by the moons above them. Seeing him there made Riven’s stomach jump and battle energies rise up as all thoughts of sleep scattered. It was as if his nightmare was standing right there. He told himself, “It’s only Shannon. It’s just Shannon.” The man was uncanny and upsetting to the priest in Riven, but there was no reason for him to dislike the Purtan so much.
Polite, quiet, and never complaining, Shannon was one of a dying race. He did have odd powers for sure, but that wasn’t too bad. He certainly wasn’t the devil that plagued Riven’s dreams. He swallowed his unreasonable fears and lay back down. He’d been here too long and it was taking its toll. He lay awake long after Cindie had been satisfied and slept. He looked over once at Shannon. Shannon stood quiet for a moment. Then, acting as if the fire were a hundred times hotter, he quickly stepped up and tossed a tied bundle of grass on the dying embers. Flinching back, Shannon felt his face as if it had been scorched by the heat. The grass lit slowly and rose up in warm flames. Tension and hunger eased away, allowing Riven to sink into sleep. Outside, the storm finally broke and the rain began to pour down over their mountain sanctuary.
Riven shifted on the stone floor, dreaming restlessly of feather beds and his childhood home. He rolled over onto his other side to look at the small dancing flames of the fire and feel what warmth there was left. He could imagine seeing his grandfather sitting calmly, shaking his head.
“You choose your path and take the consequences,” he would say. Even an apprentice priest of the old ways would never feel cold. Hell, they would sleep naked in the bitter cold of Catavon blizzards to remind the people of the strength of the Dwarven will. They would say that Riven had lost his Dwarf and was now just a short human. He hugged himself tighter and tried not to be bitter about his choices or the Church that had made them for him.
He had given his blanket up to try and keep Cindie quiet, but that seemed to be a wasted effort. She was whimpering again, and poor Theo was trying to hush her enough that the rest of them could sleep. They were all restless.
Riven watched as Dave pulled his blanket over his head, considering him as a source of help in the plight. Even at his young age, Dave was a force to be reckoned with. A muscular young man in his late teens or maybe early twenties, he was already sporting gold rings in his ears and tattoos on his upper arm. The tattoos were elaborate bands that clearly identified him in the world of pirates, sailors, and the enemies they faced out on the Waters.
There was power in those tattoos. Riven chewed his beard in irritation at not knowing how to read them. Any common dwarf would know their meaning. He had to remind himself that no common dwarf could do the things that he did on a regular basis. They had their magic and knowledge, and he had his. It was a trade-off that he knew was worth it. This situation just leaned more toward traditional skills that he knew he lacked.
Giving up trying to sleep, he sat up, wishing he had the tools to make a set of beads. He had no beads and his old tattered Book of Saints was lost. He’d lost his Book, his satchel of artifacts, and even his pipe. He was stranded here with not even a smoke to calm his nerves. Perhaps it was God’s way of telling him to quit.
He twisted the ring on his left little finger – the ring that all ordained priests wore. It was a habit of stress that Riven had developed over the years, a mannerism that every priest he knew had. His thoughts moved back to the problems that the group faced. They all disliked the grass, yet they all agreed that they had to move on. The conversation always seemed to die and nothing was ever decided. He tried to reason out why. But, beyond the expanse, he saw no reason to dislike it so much.
He was a cleric, a priest of a church that was older than any nation in the world and that ruled most of it. He was trained to fight the mindless and warped beasts of the lands that had been twisted by the use of magic during various wars. He was trained to be able to survive and to purify lands like this one. That was his job. So why was he hesitating? What was his problem? Why couldn’t he think past this uneasy sense that it was all wrong?
Oirion, lying over in the corner near the door, stirred. Drawing himself up, he silently pulled the blanket around his shoulders. The man didn’t move to the fire; he left it for the others to use and sat alone, in the quiet. Riven could see the flash of gold as the man’s prayer beads came out of some inner pocket.
Riven considered walking over to where the Hunter was. What would they talk about? Oirion was humble, but far from poverty-ridden. What would Riven have in common with the son of the greatest House in Valreen?
It was nice to have another member of the Sixth Kingdom and the Second Order of the Church, here. They alone, of all the priesthoods, were allowed to possess and master battle magic. It was necessary. They fought the living evils of the world: the vampires, the demons, the warped creatures and lands. They were of the Kingdom of Strengths, and Oirion was famous in it. Oirion was more helpful than a priest of any other order would have been. He wondered where Oirion’s partner was. The healer’s presence would have been a great boon, not to mention his legendary skill as a fighter. James something… The pair were famous enough that Riven knew of their exploits. It was a funny irony that Ivan was likely to be, at best, third on the list for skill as a warrior and maybe lower with Dave and Kelly in the group. Riven couldn’t help but wonder if any of the others here had any idea who Oirion was or how lucky they were to have him along. He certainly gave no indication as to his identity.
Tomorrow, he’d talk to him about it all tomorrow.
Oirion stood in the chill of the early morning, looking out at the land beyond and scanned for human life. There was still none within fifty miles. He didn’t waste the energy to look farther; he knew what was out there, despite the rain. The grassland went on as far as the eye could see. Mountains, small and blue, rose up out of the sea of grass far to the south, often being lost in the clouds that might be on the horizon. To the north and the east was the ocean, gray and flat. There was no sign of any sort of life: no village, no ships, no fires, nothing… always nothing.
Riven came out, a silent ghost almost lost in the gray rain, and joined Oirion. He stood a moment, his cloak soaking up more rain than it shed. They needed to move on to better shelter while summer still lasted, but something about the grassland didn’t feel right.
“We have to move out of here,” Riven said softly.
Oirion nodded, “To where?” The question hung; neither one had an answer. Neither wanted to make the call that would get these people killed, but it had to be made. Riven turned and led the way back to the cave. Getting soaked wouldn’t help their morale or their health. That was all they needed – to get a chill. As little as either of them had slept or eaten in the last month, it was a real possibility.
Oirion turned back to the cave. His mind began to wander as he picked his way up the little path. The gray drizzle brought up memories of Jamie. Those thoughts made him feel sick, so he pushed them out of his head and followed the dwarf up the trail, back to the cave
Riven was talking to Dave by the time Oirion ducked inside. The cleric was a true dwarf, not the waddling Habites that people often called dwarves, but a real one, and he had made it over this mountain much faster than Oirion did. Riven was solidly muscled. He had agility and speed that could pass up the fastest human, rival an elf, and even, it was said, compete with a Purtan. They were a powerful race and all were far more dangerous than they looked. A dwarf was a four-and-a-half foot warrior that had almost unfair advantages. He could see in the dark, had the ability to traverse caves unerringly, and had a sense of smell rivaling that of a wolf. Dwarves were the best Hunters and better clerics than any other race except Purtans.
Oirion walked over to the only two men in the group whom he would have chosen to talk to, let alone live with.
“…We need to move before we starve up here, anyway,” Dave was saying to the dwarf. “Winter comes early this far north and especially on a coast that has the arctic current against it.”
“I agree,” Ivan spoke up, glancing up from picking at his fingernails with his knife. He had an expression of concern, the first look Oirion had seen out of the man that was not total stupidity.
“I’m loathe to cross those hills and with so few weapons,” Kelly said, barely above a whisper, as if she disliked her own voice. Oirion wondered about the tattoos the big woman tried to keep hidden and what they meant. He considered asking Dave later. The two certainly kept distance between each other and that made Oirion a little nervous about trusting the woman.
“Shouldn’t we wait?” Theo asked as he joined them at the fire. The little man reminded Oirion of his brothers. He held back a thousand harsh remarks that he would have said to one of them. Theo was more suited for the delicate sides of court than trying to survive anywhere outside a palace. Kylen, Oirion’s brother, certainly excelled at that type of lifestyle.
“There won’t be a rescue,” Dave reasoned. “We’re inside the Barrier now. No one is coming from the outside to get to us.” He looked up at the other young man, shaking his hair out of his face, and then patiently explained; “The rain won’t stay rain for long. If we stay here, we’ll starve… or freeze to death.”
“What then,” Ivan blurted, “we go? It don’t matter to me. I can defend myself.” He puffed up his chest to show off his fine silver mesh armor. “Besides, if there was something out there, we would have seen it by now. It would have made a noise at least.”
Oirion found the man’s bravado irritating, but ignored it as thoughts of his own weapons rose in his mind. They had been shipped ahead to his father’s house. Now he was missing the comfort of his staff and sword, but there was little help for it. He promised himself again to never travel unarmed.
“Maybe we can ask Shannon,” Dave suggested.
It seemed to Oirion that he had heard that name somewhere before, but he couldn’t think of where. That troubled him. It wasn’t the first time he felt that he had met the man, or at least that he should know who Shannon was.
This man did not bode well with the Hunter in Oirion. There was no sign, action, or word to give him a reason not to like Shannon, but Oirion felt that there was something very wrong about him, as well as something sinister about the perfection. Even now, he looked fresh from the bathhouse: cool and collected, unruffled and unsoiled. Hell, the man didn’t even need a shave. A month had passed and he was still flawless. Oirion rubbed at his own dense beard, which had grown over the last few months, and thought how nice that must be – to never have to shave again.
“I don’t like the grassland, either, but I’m no expert. I’d advise we ask Shannon,” Dave said quickly, once again cutting off an argument between Ivan and Tavia. Oirion was grateful for that. He really didn’t want to sit through another of those fights, but it was unlike the young man to bring up Shannon twice.
“Shannon?” he asked Dave, his thoughts momentarily distracted, returning to the suggestion. Oirion wondered if Dave had said it again to further distract Ivan from his remarks to the woman or for some other reason.
Dave shrugged, “Maybe he knows something. He’s been out there every day so far.”
“Go ahead, then,” Ivan said, almost daring him. “Go ask him.”
Dave gave Ivan a dirty look, but got up. He ducked out and went over to where Shannon was standing, statue-like, looking away south-eastwardly.
“Shannon,” Dave said a little nervously at the man’s elbow. Shannon looked over. “We were talking about leaving, but none of us like the look of the grassland.”
“It will have to be crossed whether we like it or not,” Shannon said, speaking in the Purtan Whisper he always used.
“You don’t like it either?” Dave asked, almost relieved and partly excited by the confirmation of his own fears.
Shannon smiled slightly, as if he understood what Dave was thinking. “Look out there, David. Look close enough and you will see the threat.”
“I don’t see anything,” Dave said, looking out, trying to see whatever it was, “just rain.” He hated to admit it, but he saw nothing he hadn’t already seen a thousand times.
“Use your other eyes,” Shannon said softly. Dave swallowed deeply and looked over at the man whom he stood next to with a little uncertainty.
Shannon had taught him magic and one of the things that he had learned was how to see into the other realms… specifically, the one where all life leaves trails. Everything had a power that affected everything else. There were rivers of power that in places trickled, while other places roared wild and untamable. Streams met to form pools, even oceans; some were calm and sweet, others were roaring and seething. Every thought, action, and breath affected this energy, and that energy affected everything in turn. The more power you had, the more you could see. Shannon had taught him to use this power to scan for pirates, storms, and other dangers on the waters, but there were a thousand applications of it.
This energy was what wizards used in their magic, even if not all of them could see it. If one knew how to see this field and if that person could understand what he saw, the world and life itself took on a whole new meaning. Dave had not used the power much, not since he had begun to fear the man who had taught it to him or the church that condemned it, at least in the form he knew. What Shannon asked was dangerous; there were priests here, and what if they saw. He wasn’t going to refuse, however: you simply didn’t tell Shannon “no.”
It took a moment to shift his vision to that of Sight. Then he wondered if he had done it right. There was nothing out there but the grass. There were no animals, no trails, and no movement. He looked over to Shannon and saw the man as he appeared in this the realm of power. With the Sight, Shannon looked so normal, like any other person… no special glow, no hint of the truth of his power. Knowing better than to believe the lie of what seemed to be, Dave looked away, wondering how much he didn’t know about his uncle. What else was a mask to hide the real man inside the shields that were worn? The thought only made him feel even more uneasy. He blinked the Sight away.
“There’s nothing out there,” Dave said softly, his voice momentarily tight, but he cleared his throat and looked over.
“Takes on a whole new meaning when you see it that way, does it not?” Shannon said, sounding almost amused. “The question is why?” He looked at Dave with ice-blue eyes, the same eyes Dave’s father had.
“Can we cross it?” Dave asked. He felt a sort of chill that didn’t come from Shannon, but made him glad for the man’s presence.
“We have no choice,” Shannon said, ending the conversation as he looked back out to the grass. Dave turned to the others. They all waited, crowded in the cave door. They moved inside as he walked toward them. Returning, he knelt down by the fire, trying to understand well enough what he had seen to explain it to them without revealing that he had powers, or that he knew Shannon.
“Well?” Oirion asked.
“There’s nothing out there,” Dave said, “no life, no death. There aren’t even any crickets, only grass and wind.”
“Well, there’s a revelation,” Ivan said, rolling his eyes in disgust.
“Why not?” Riven asked, speaking more to himself than to anyone else at the fire. The revelation was obvious and unnerving in that he should have seen it at once.
“Whatever it is, we fight it,” Kelly said. “If we’re strong enough, we’ll survive; if not, we will be joining the crickets.”
“So what do we do? Do we go now?” Tavia asked.
“No,” Riven said, considering. “Let’s wait until morning. Besides, I think that it would be good for us to do a Blessing before we set out and that could take hours. I need time to prepare.”
“Do we have any more wine?” Oirion asked Dave softly.
“I’ll look,” Dave said, getting up to check the last of the stores.
The sun was turning the lavender sky into brilliant shades of orange, pink, and gold. It was as if God had painted that sunset to assure Riven that He was everywhere, even here, in this place. Even if the Church had forsaken this land, God had not. It gave Riven a new sense of hope and he felt the colors warm the chill in his heart.
He wondered as well how it was that they had passed through the Barrier and not either been crushed or had their minds go. To every account he had heard, that was what happened if you got too close. He felt sane, but does a madman feel his own madness? He had never really thought about it before. It was an interesting idea, but he decided now was not the time to question his own sanity.
Riven scratched at his long beard and tried not to think about the restlessness that he felt or the hopelessness of the situation here. He drew a breath, whispered thanks for the sunset, and went back into the cave. At least now he had a little hope.
The fire was low, but he didn’t dare add more wood. He looked at it closely and felt a little tightening in his chest. He saw that the fire that still clung to life was from the grass that Shannon had dropped on the embers the night before. As far as he knew, not even his grandfather, a Master of the Fires, could pull that off. The cleric in Riven might have argued about it, pressed for how and why, but it hardly mattered now. The bits of driftwood were gone and they had needed the warmth.
Riven looked to where the man sat, back in the darkest corner, his black clothes making him seem a part of the shadows themselves. But he was impossible to read and impossible to approach about this matter or any other they had run into. Shannon was top of the list of frustrating riddles. Who the devil was he? Riven turned his back on the fire and pretended not to have seen the grass or to know what it meant. He had other things to focus on, anyway.
Riven wasn’t able to sleep and eventually went to stand watch all night, as he did almost every night. He did not look forward to his bed of coarse beach grass, sand, and unresolved desires to sleep, so he spent the night praying for strength and for patience with the people in his care.
Dave could not sleep. He gave up and got up from his bed in the dark, drawing his blanket about his shoulders. What was left of the fire was low and banked for a good reason. God only knew who or what would notice a fire. He stepped away from the others. Standing in the doorway, he watched the clouds move across the faint orbs of the moons.
“You should be sleeping,” Shannon said.
Dave didn’t bother to hide the start the Purtan gave him, Shannon having approached Dave in utter silence.
“I can’t relax. I am worried for the Captain,” he admitted. “Aren’t you, Uncle?”
“Elliott is well enough,” Shannon said. He put a hand on Dave’s shoulder. “His path is headed south. He is alive and he is not alone. I can tell you that for certain and I would not lie. We have no hope of joining him anytime soon, but one day, David, you and he may yet sail together again. Pray for his safety, but do not grieve his loss. He is far better off than we are, and I expect he is awake with fear and worry for you. But he knows I am with you and will never leave you.” He looked back to the place where Dave had lain, unable to sleep. “Go lie down. I will help you sleep. You need rest, David.”
Dave trusted his uncle and the soft words helped his worry. He felt the magic sinking into him already and knew he would pass out soon. He stumbled back to the place he had been and did not even have time to cover up. Shannon picked up his own blanket that he had yet to use and laid it over Dave, that he might not get chilled. He nearly moved away back into the shadows, but instead knelt beside Tavia and Travis. Tavia slept restlessly and the blankets had tangled, so neither she nor Travis had much. He pulled the wool cover smooth over them both and touched her forehead with a light brush of the tips of his fingers.
“Be at peace, woman,” he whispered in Crousen. After a moment, he rose and left the company deep in sleep to stand watch in the dark.
The highest ranking man of the Cloth would always lead the prayers. That task fell on Riven this time. He prepared himself while Oirion set up the small altar with the little battered cup filled from the last wine skin. There was no bread, just left over bits of dried clams, a few nuts and couple raisins that were laid beside the makeshift chalice. Riven looked at the pitiful sight and felt sorry for these people. He had done more with less, but that was either by himself or with other clerics, never for the people the Church was supposed to protect from these sorts of situations.
They all gathered around the little altar. Even Ivan knelt with his head bowed. Shannon didn’t move from the doorway, but stood watching. Riven was not going to invite the man. He could join them or not. Centering on prayer, he bowed his own head and let his body relax.
Drawing a breath, he began: “Father, be with us…” He had no doubt they all knew the prayers. It would be a rare nation not to belong to the Church. The common language and common prayers helped to bind the people and races together against the darkness and the things that bred in it.
Whispering the words of the prayer and letting his power rise, Riven lifted the little cup to bless it and then the bits of food. Setting them down again, he prayed in silence for God to guide them and aid them in this place. Heart calmed, he lifted the wine and gave each a little sip with the blessing of “May God’s light fill you.” Then each received a tiny bit of food set on their tongues, all but Oirion who took it in his hand.
With the ceremony over, wine shared and edibles split among them, Riven lifted his hands in a final prayer and whispered it over the group.
He heard them all breathe out in relief as they stayed kneeling together for some time. Then all at once, they got up, released from the prayer’s power, and moved to the door.
Everyone shouldered the packs the captain had tossed into the life boat as his final gesture of foresight. The leftovers that they had brought on the raft were down to a few empty bread tins, and just the pouches for raisins and candied fruit, but those were empty now. Each pack still had the basic gear that was needed to survive and a few trinkets to trade with. Along with the packs, each person had been handed by the Captain as he charged about the deck of his sinking ship, a blanket… the most important part of their survival gear.
Tavia was prepared to carry two, but Riven took the boy’s pack and blanket. He wasn’t about to let her try to carry extra weight in addition to the boy. They all got a canteen that was filled with the last of the wine and some water. Shannon, however, took no wine in his and allowed them to split his share. With everyone ready, as the first light of morning rose up, nearly hidden behind a bank of thick dark clouds that clung to the horizon, they set out.