Very early, he became known as a killer worth his mettle and a welcome hand on the edge of any spear-charge. As a soldier, his reputation grew fast and he was soon sent to serve as a trusted scout in the service of the Hawktail Rangers of the Red Tribe, a pathfinder along the darkest roads of Kol. This was no small feat.
After the war, and perhaps another after that, my father bought land east of the great River Thar upon the heart of the Crawl and married the blue-eyed and brown haired lass that would become my very own mother. Together they built a home and raised a family. My father hung his sword above the mantle and invested his bloody coin in a plow. I was born not long after my older sister, Kula.
Unfortunately, to sow fields and raise stock was not my father’s fare. While he put his head down and drove the sorrowful blade of peace into the unforgiving ground, the fire in his forgiving eyes flared like blue stars in the night. His mind wandered, and soon enough, he daydreamed of his memories of war and days gone by. Likewise, he struggled to grow much of anything. Often had to sell his sword and leave my mother home alone with both children to fend for ourselves. Between the cold breeze of the southern hills and the icy gusts of the mountains to the north, we had many nights of want and loss. Not far from our home, the river Thar ran wild and dropped unseen into the lonely depths under the sacred embrace of High Mountain. At night, the roar of her flow put me to bed over the rumble in my empty stomach.
I have a very early memory of my loving mother as she wailed and screamed at the meager sight of one fall’s harvest. “We will starve!” she shouted as the woman both hugged my father and beat his chest. My father only rubbed her on the head with love as she gripped his arms tight.
“I am sorry,” he whispered as he eyed the blade above the hearth. Right there, I could see the fire burn in his azure eyes. Even as a boy, I knew those portals longed for brotherhood, for far-flung exotic places, and, especially, for the solace of roaring battle.
Thankfully, we did not starve, though the blade above the hearth was gone one afternoon soon after and back at my father’s side. That day, he left for Stillwater Keep for the Baron Jaeger’s call to arms against the lizard folk of the Pines. He kissed me and my sister on the cheek as he left, a pile of gold and a slaughtered pig lay on the table next to my smiling mother. Needless to say, I was a thin lad but I always felt loved.
Whenever he came back, I used to go down with him by the rocks of the River Thar, near the broken chasm at Norwich Falls. It was a sacred place to most, not far from our hut. Many said the gorge was haunted, but with my father and his sword not far, I never worried of any danger. As the day would wear on, we’d both fish the deeper pools and pull out a nice supply of keepers. It seemed besides ghosts, tasty bluefin trout loved the place and, so too, the fish loved to hide from the larger reaper scat and dragonpout in the shadows by the overhanging cliffs. They were almost always hungry. A fly or a worm often did the trick.
When the fish weren’t biting, we’d sit down on blankets of soggy lichen and watch the water spill into the endless pools down into the lower gorge. We never went down there. One of the biggest pools sent the whole Thar down even deeper to the depths of oblivion, a mighty waterfall that only the eyes of the phantoms at the bottom could possibly envision. The sound was like thunder from the rocks around, and you could hardly shout over the noise so close to the edge. All that was left was to find a nice spot, eat your lunch and just take the deaf splendor of it all.
While I stared at my father’s eyes by the river Thar, I could always see within him something distant and lost. His blue portals always glimmered to me of worries, sword hands left behind, and of unfinished oaths sworn in blood-stained halls. He spoke little of his thoughts, and I never asked him about his troubles.
My dad and I sat there for long stretches and said nothing at all to each other. The roar of the water flooded our empty heads. I can’t say what my dad pondered, but mostly, I thought of fish.
Not far off, the canyon hung wide over-head and changed into a cave bigger than any I have ever seen in all my years. This was the true jewel of Norwich Falls; there were paintings of this place, set high in frescoes and in the stone temples of Highcrag and Stillwater…even the thin-skinned mariners of far-off Ferin heard the legend of this magnificent vista. “The cross roads of heaven and hell” …or so the work of art was called.
If you had the right spot on the rock, you could see down deeper into that cut, over the glass like sheets of dropping water, beyond the unseen waterfall and into the great chasm of what men once called the “Old Road”. To call it a cavern would not do it justice. There was a ruin down there, among a myriad of other wonders undreamed. Upon the edge of the void in-between, I always knew the best place to sit for a panoramic view of the subterranean land along that old black highway. Far off, the ancient tiles of stone were adjoined by glowing mushroom forests that quivered under the pallid light of the maw. The old road was an underground vein of days long gone by, a path beset by deep chthonic lakes and sprawling phosphorescent valleys of odd tubers and stalks. It was nothing like the pines and hardwoods of my simple place above, and thus I thought it was something wonderful.
Whatever those doomed depths were, they were a weird and wicked portal to me, though certainly the vista was beautiful when glimpsed from a safe perch. Of course the Thar too, mighty as she was, fled down under the rock and joined the haunted caves as it plunged forevermore into the depths, to fill the mountain’s strange thirst.
The Old Road was a legend for some, but we of the valley knew it to be something very real. Mostly hidden, in some spots the way to that ancient dungeon road had been upheaved into the world of the red sun. Some would have called it a thing of evil. Neither I nor my kin did. Despite her beauty, few wayfarers sought the pilgrimage to glimpse the place. My father always said it was “a miracle for the eyes of men to behold,” Even in the wild lands of Kol, few treasures were so misunderstood. Norwich Falls was one of those places.
My father pointed to me the barely visible limits of the cobbled path, a twisting road of engineered mastery. Down there a huge arch sprawled into a land bridge over what must have been the Thar. Fit for a royal caravan or wide enough to accommodate an entire army, the old road was truly impressive. Not far from the rocks of the path, what looked like the side of another chasm was, in fact, the outside of some monolithic wall, a stronghold of some sort, built into the very rock of the deeps.
Once in a great while, you could see the trotting form of some blowhard knight or glossy armored paladin gallop along the path. Who knew what foolish errand such a person was on? My father always laughed at them and threw a stone into the mist below.
We never dared go down and explore.
“The Drake Elves built this road, and all that lay under Kol,” My father told me once. “Why did they build such a place?” I asked.
“They were all slaves to the demons from below. At the wrong end of a whip they cut the mighty highway and lay her bricks through the mountain and the depths of Kol,” he added. ”Even better, with demons to drive them on, their jagged swords and targ shields conquered all the lands above and below the road they forged,”
“Drake Elves?” I asked. “Are those the men we still see riding the path down so deep?”
“No.” My father replied with a snicker. “Those are just men, I’d guess. The Drake Elves are long gone from this Earth…and so are their demon masters,”
“Gone?” I demanded “What happened? Why would they leave?”
“I cannot say little one,” my father sighed. “The Drake Elves broke their bonds one day and were never heard from again,” he added. “There is no tale of their last days…and their name has faded to time….but the road remains,”
“So they left?”
He just looked at me and nodded. He rubbed my head and patted me on the top of my head as he always did. “There is a yoke of freedom that all men must suffer,” he finally said. “It is not easy to understand,”
Again the next winter, my father left once more for war, drafted in the raiding party of King Maug’s son, Kreel Sauger, during the last fued of the Broken Kalladash. I swear, he half fought off a look of ecstasy on his face as the shirtless red-skinned riders came to fetch him with a spare horse. He nearly bowled over my mother on his way for the blade that hung above our hearth. So I learned later, he was once again made a scout for the King, bound to range the bloody hills and woods to our east as it smoothed into the plains of the Kalladash. He was gone for three long years this time.
During that time, my mother cried every night as she waited for him by the window. When she did, I went down to the river and tossed rocks into the dark and deep pools. For those three years, despite thin times, I somehow grew bigger and stronger, but I never dropped a line to fish there, not once.
When my father came back, he didn’t want to fish much anymore either. The lines formed sharper in his gaunt face now. He was sad most of the time, and spent his days staring at the walls and into the sky. By night, he would eye his blade endlessly above our mantle. Some days I would find him cleaning it and oiling the edge without end. He would go for long walks into the wild at times, and sometimes be gone for days. During that time, few crops in our field grew straight, and often my father would curse the soil with blistered hands and bloody paws as he eyed the half-barren ground.
Every now and then, however, he would wink at me and take me down to the river Thar, to the wild edge of those waters to fish her swirled current and pull trout by the dozen from her edge. The fires in his eyes cooled for that moment. As always, we would sit on our spot and eat our lunch as we scanned for the steel plated crusaders as they galloped along on heavy horse and quested into the darkness of the Old Road below. He watched me now, as I pointed to the clopping form of a horse and rider as they rode along the endless stretches that led down past the mushroom forest, past the haunted citadel and into the black void of the unknown. True to his form, he chuckled at the pompous figure and tossed a rock into the void.
One time, I asked him there, why he mocked those knights with polished plate and those who dressed so fair on their way down into the pit?
All he did was laugh and say “There are soldiers and there are crusaders,”
Again, we never spoke much on those trips. Our language was much simpler, and it was heaven. Still, back at home the crops languished, the house fell in to rot, and the cupboard grew bare. My mother wailed again, once more for hunger and loss. My father had brittle bones now, and his back split when he worked the plow. His joints and knees gave out as he advanced in age and labored with that great edge in the soil. The plowshare did him no favors. As he stumbled, I could see his eyes, how they still burned with that same fire of lament for untold broken spear-charges and faceless comrades he left behind.
Soon, I became a soldier myself. Without enough food in the stocks one winter, I left the Crawl for nearby Highcrag and, with strangely no protest from him, took my father’s longsword with me. With his good name, I enlisted into the Hawktail Rangers as a scout and was sent to train in the southern hills of the Red Tribes with the same crimson-skinned devils that had made a warrior of my dad. I learned how to range those hills fast and, like my father, grew better and better with both blade and bow.
During my training, I visited home at times and saw him and his half-dead fields of corn and parsnips. He was a bent old man now, and could hardly make the trip down to the Thar. Without the life of a soldier, without the promise that one day men would call him and his blade, he dwindled to nothing even faster. I knew then he would be gone soon, far before his time. No demon masters would come to call for him any longer, save for a drink and a tall tale.
My father would eye the blade and my lacquered breastplate the same way we both used to look at the deep roads down below the River Thar. I could still see the same old thoughts in his eyes as he burned with a loss of things he could never unsee. I understood now. When we did go down to the river, he stayed back like some ancient dog and watched me scale the rocks and slime. He gazed at me from afar as I sat in our spot and peered out over the edge of the waterfall.
For three years I served in the King’s guard, and saw plenty of terrible things of my own. No longer did I think of the strange thoughts that burned in my father’s eyes and wonder “why”. I remember one day, as I sat in a hole during a lull in the charge of nearby heavy horse. Over my head, arrows flew like flocking birds and the war drums sounded. Next to my tired body, another half-dead Ranger of the Red Tribe and I spoke between rushes of the attackers. We sat in the filth of our dead comrades and talked, not of battle or blades, but of fish and rivers. I mentioned him of the great Thar and the runs of fat Bluefin trout in the early summer. I told him of those ebony walls of the time-lost citadels buried under Kol and the power of that unseen waterfall. So too, he told me of the Red Hills. He spoke of riding the forests on horseback into the plains, hunting the Magra herds, and of spear-fishing the lonesome lakes of Ilik-Tharn, the Thar’s noble sister. Our people were not unalike. We laughed together as the war horn sounded to charge again and the spears began to shake.
I never saw him after that, nor did I ever get his name.
Not long after, my service ended and I came home for good. With my newfound status, I had the means to buy my own land not far from my old hut. A cottage much like the one I grew up in with a warm hearth and a solid foundation. My mother was gone now, and my father was little more than a tiny shade waiting for the Priests of Gur to wrap him. But I was as alive as ever. Soon enough, I found a woman and married her. I set my hearth in a new house and plowed fields of my own. As I set my father’s sword above that fireplace, he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered that he was proud of the man I had become. He winked at me with pride when my daughter was born. Then, not long after, a son with golden hair graced our home.
With time, I bought my own plow and, like my father, fought with its cumbersome shape every day. Blood and sweat stained my eyes as I dragged its angled form over the tough ground. Eventually though, I learned its mystery just as sure as the nicked blade above our hearth. In the fall, I stalked game and hunted the nearby forest within the low hills of the north in the shadow of the great High Mountain.
One day, those same red-skinned Rangers from the south came to our new home and offered me an empty horse.
“The drums have sounded in the east,” the crimson warrior said to me as my wife and children stood behind me in the wind. He looked at me and waited for my reply.
I smiled at the rider, pointed to my family and home, my fields and old twisted father, and told them I could not go.
From within the cottage, I saw for a moment the old man’s eyes burn with blue flames of unfinished vengeance. Yet, as he gazed at the tattoos of those red men and the horse with no rider, the fury of those orbs died down and once more and my father looked to be something softer. He smiled at me as the demon-blooded warlords nodded and rode off into the hills. Sure enough, I could hear the sound of the drums not far off. I did not think about it for long and that afternoon, I went to fish down by the river Thar. I had not known what my father would say to me, but he just laughed, spit off into the wind, and grabbed his pole.
My father died that next season. At his funeral, I saw the red-skinned Rangers of the south again and all those left alive who had fought with him. There were few men fit to hold a blade left who recalled his deeds. A wreath of Psag-flowers was sent in his honor with bundled reeds from the great apex of the Karau, the very soul of the Crawl. I, his only son spoke a few words. Then, we all stood silent around his pyre as I lit the flame and burned those same branches. Later, I took his ashes and set them above the mantle of my home… next to his sword wherein they both felt the warmth of our family hearth for days after.
Not long after, I took those ashes and went down to the river with my son and daughter. That day, I fished the wide pools with them both and sat upon the steeped rocks of the great gorge. Just as I had done with my father, we ate lunch in the mist and dangled our feet over the impossible edges. Far below, the old road throbbed in the darkness and the subtle sway of mushroom trees danced behind the steam. For a moment, I thought of my father and the blue bonfire in his eyes. Then, I said goodbye as I tossed the urn of his ashes down below into the wet oblivion.
He fell now to the bottom of the falls at last, to go that final stretch of a descent that neither of us had ever dared. Only now, he would glimpse those magnificent falls from the bottom pools and look upon the water as it was always meant to be watched.
My children looked at me confused. There above the ruins of the old road, I told them of the Drake Elves and their demon masters as we lunched on the rocks. I told them the same story of how they forged so much at the end of a whip but faded away not long after.
“All that is left to tell their tale is this old road that leads underground,” I said with a smile.
“Their broken shields and bones are buried underneath,”
When my daughter asked me “why” I said the same thing my father had, but now I understood more of it.
“The yoke of freedom is not an easy thing to understand,”
They both laughed at me as we watched the distant form of an errant knight charge along the ancient cobblestones deep below. You could not hear the sound of his horse’s hooves as the river roared around us. I did not wonder for long where he was headed. Thinking of my father, I laughed and tossed a small rock into the impossible expanse. After a few minutes, I cast my line back into the pools and we fished some more.
That night, our house was warm and a bubbling stock of fish roasted on the stove with boiled potatoes and ripe carrots. While the plates were laid before us, I eyed my father’s sword as we sat down to eat. Together, we said thanks for men like my father whose blue eyes once burned for us all. I said thanks for the red-skinned men from the south who rode for my family somewhere far away. I looked at my children and wondered if they too would take that sword from its mantle and one day leave me a wrinkled old bag…left to dream of big fish.
In my bed afterwards, while my children slept sound, I dreamt with my loving wife by my side.
In those dreams, I saw the Old Road and the river Thar. I saw a warrior there, below the edge of the darkness along the distant cobbled path and ruined oblivion. For a moment, I thought he was just another ghost among the rocks. Then the form of a man shaped more clearly in my mind. His sword looked so familiar in the phosphorescent gleam of the depths, as did his blue eyes. He stood upon the old road and looked upward at the falls, he looked right through me, bidden by drums ever distant as he called for his red-skinned comrades who rode with an empty horse saved him. From my normal vantage, I could not see the cascading waters, only his burning azure eyes through the rusted slits of a horse hair helm. Behind him, an army of scaled elves clamored with spears at their side.
As for demons….I saw none.
After I left this place, I slept soundly in my bed. The rain fell softly outside, and not far off, I could hear the roar of the great waters of the river. I did not dream any longer of old battles, crusaders, yokes of freedom, demons, or any more drake elves. Instead, I thought of my family, fields, the laughter of my children, and perhaps most of all, I dreamt of the deafness that is the great River Thar and the fish that run deep within.
© March 2017 Bryan Dyke
Bryan Dake hails from Vermont. This is his first published story.