The evening sun burnt the cloudy western sky the color of blood. This bloody horizon hung just above a tight line of warriors, faces grim. Behind them and all around the glade loomed great oak trees. A tall stone stood in the middle.
One man stepped out from between two of the old oaks on the eastern side of the clearing. The line of warriors opposite him raised their shields and readied their swords.
“You are not permitted here.” The man said.
A few of the warriors chuckled. One of them walked forward. He wore a long cloak of bearskin. The other warriors followed him. “We go where we please,” he said.
“No more.” The man said as he drew his sword. Behind him a blackening sky lurked, creeping slowly toward the west as the sun fled. The man took a step forward, raising his hand. “Flee while you still can.”
The warrior wearing the bearskin raised his sword and beat it against his shield. The others mimicked him. They continued to march toward the man. They sent their war cries to the heavens. The man sent their souls to the pits at the drop of his hand. Arrows fell among the line of warriors and in turn the line fell. Their blood fed the ground of the holy glade.
The man walked to where the warrior in the bearskin lay. He kicked the warrior and smiled at the moan that escaped with the blood from the warrior’s lips. He knelt and propped up the warrior’s head with his hand. “I gave you a choice; you would have lived if you had left. Die now with that in mind.”
The warrior’s lips moved. The man brought the bloodied face close to his ear. “Who has killed me?”
“Cokavmorar Nightwind of the Deavan,” The man said as he slid a dagger into the dying warrior’s heart.
Nightwind stood, leaving his dagger in the corpse. “To me, my brothers,” he said.
Hooded figures entered the glade from all directions. Dark cloaks hung from their shoulders. Each man wore a leather breastplate. On each breastplate the seven pointed star, the star of eternity and guidance, was depicted in a light grey color with a red arrow through it. The figures threw back their hoods. Every face, every feature, was Nightwind’s. They were Nightwind and he them. Nightwind opened his arms wide, “come and embrace me, brothers.”
The figures all rushed toward Nightwind, vanishing into his chest as they hurried to his embrace. When all the figures had returned to him, Nightwind removed an amulet from around his neck, looked at it, nodded, and deposited it in a leather bag tied firmly to his belt. He rubbed at the red line on his neck from where the amulet had hung by a silver cord.
Nightwind touched the stone, turned north as night fell completely, shrouding the forest world in darkness. He exited the dark cover of the tree, coming to an open field. He saw the waves, glittering in the starlight far out. His feast hall stood on a hill above the shore. The cliffs at its rear plummeted hundreds of feet into the waters. A sea of grass stood between him and his hall. In the starlight the grass was endowed with an eerie blue sheen.
Taking a step into the open field, Nightwind froze, rigid. He had heard some noise behind him. His ears strained to hear it again. There it was. He whirled toward it, drawing his sword. His left hand reached into the leather bag at his side. He closed his fingers around the amulet. It was hot, scorching his fingers. One of the hooded figures appeared before him. He stared into the face, like looking in a mirror, and saw pain reflected there. It was the pain of death and he felt it. Then the figure reached out his hand and Nightwind felt himself growing older as his face on the figure grew younger.
That figure left and another came, the process repeated. Nightwind fell to the ground. He felt his face, the wrinkles forming there. His vision and other senses weakened, but his memory remained sharp. In that memory he heard the words of the wizard who had given him the amulet. “Do not use it often or they will grow fiercer and free themselves, each one taking from you the years they served.”
Now, as he lay there in those fields, within sight of his hall, Nightwind regretted not locking away the amulet as the wizard had cautioned him to. Now he would pay the price of his decision, now he would die, and for the first time in his life he felt the cold grip of fear. He cowered in the face of death.
Then, as his last years were drawn from his withered old body and he struggled to hold onto a last few moments of life, he felt the amulet snatched from his side. Someone, hunched over, pale white hands wrinkled glowing in the starlight, stood over him, facing the last of the figures. The amulet dangled from one wrinkled hand and a staff was clutched in the other.
The figure hissed and screamed. Nightwind’s eyes closed, but he cast them open again, refusing to give in to what he feared. He saw the figure flee into the forest.
Nightwind’s savior turned toward him, face shrouded by shadows. “Rise, Cokavmorar Nightwind.”
Nightwind tried to rise, indeed the thought was there, but his body would not cooperate. “Who are you?”
“I am Elerae.” There was something soothing in Elerae’s voice. “Rest now, Cokavmorar. I will heal you now, giving you back some of the years you have lost. I only ask that you remember my name and what I have done when the time comes.”
“You have saved me, Elerae, I will never forget.”
“That is good, Cokavmorar, you rest now. When you awake you will be well. Fear not, death will not touch you while I am here.”
Nightwind closed his eyes and drifted into sleep. His fear was gone and when he awoke he was in a valley at the base of a hill. He looked up, recognizing the looming pinnacle of his feast hall surmounted by a dragon’s skull. He rose to his feet, feeling his former strength. He laughed, deep and boisterous, and a challenge was issued from above. “Who goes there?”
“It is I, Cokavmorar Nightwind, your lord!”
“My lord,” the response came, “welcome back!”
Nightwind heard the doors of his hall cast open. Golden light poured out into the night. The smell of meat and ale filled the air. A crowd of people gathered in the doorway as Nightwind walked up the hill toward them. Most were warriors, but a few of the braver daughters and wives had shoved their way through the crowd to stand by their fathers and husbands. They yearned for a glimpse of their handsome lord. When they saw Nightwind’s face, however, they vanished back into the feast hall and fell to gossiping. Something in his eyes frightened them; even the stoutest of the warriors could not look directly at them.
“Come!” Nightwind yelled, his voice mirthful, but his eyes betraying his true temper. “Let us not stand out here in the cold. There is feasting to be done!”
The feast that night was filled with Nightwind’s voice as he went among his warriors, talking with them. The women avoided him, even his betrothed. When he finally laid his head down to sleep in the early hours of the morning he found no rest in it. Nightmares plagued him. His fear of death gnawed at his mind. He wished Elerae had allowed him to die, for surely he thought final death better than fear of it. He could not have known it, but Elerae had healed him for a reason, and his resolve to die when the next opportunity presented itself would never come to be.
By Joshua A. Spotts