From the author: A man awakens naked in a forest with no memory and no clues to his identity. he displays mysterious powers during a fight with bandits, and the swordswoman Lyse agrees to help him discover who, or what, he is. The answers may be more than they bargained for, when strange warriors capture them for unknown purposes. In time, the two learn that gods sometimes control the world less than they like, and the world is a changing place. Some gods prefer things the way they were.
The man opened his eyes, blinking up at tall, green pines stretching up in a circle around him. He sat up and looked around. He was sitting in the middle of a blackened bowl, the sides sloping up away from him on all sides. The light was fading, and the forest was completely still. No animal sounds broke the silence.
The man could remember nothing before that moment. Had he been at the center of an explosion? Had he fallen from the sky and made the crater himself?
He did not see anything that he might have owned. No cloths were scattered around him, no horse waited to explain how he had gotten here. No weapons were at hand for his protection, and no equipment or evidence of artifice could explain an explosion. He did not appear to be hurt, in fact, he felt strong and whole.
He stood and carefully picked his way out of the crater. The sloping earth was warm and pleasant against his bare feet. As he left the crater, forest sounds gradually returned. The man looked around the small clearing. Many of the trees had been damaged by whatever had occurred, their broken branches aromatic with pinesap.
The man had no reason to walk in one direction over another, but he knew he was not content to stay still. He turned until the direction felt right and he started off, ducking under branches and stepping over logs. Sap clung to his bare feet, covering the pads with a coating of pine needles.
Perhaps he could find a stream to follow to a village. If people were nearby, perhaps they would recognize him and explain what he had been doing in the forest.
He wandered in whichever direction he felt like going, until he had gone about a mile. Darkness had well and truly fallen now, allowing him to see the glow of a campfire directly ahead of him.
He approached with no stealth, walking into a small clearing. Branches had wedged between trees on one side, accumulating moss and leaves to make a wind break. A small tent was erected next to this and a fire burned cheerfully despite the fact that nobody was there to tend it.
The man walked toward the fire, but as he cleared the last tree someone stepped around behind him, wrapping one arm around his bare chest and holding a short sword to his throat with the other. His assailant was shorter than he was, but the sword extended their reach. The blade felt cool against his neck.
“Why in Skel’s good graces don’t you have any clothes on?” she asked amiably.
The man looked down at himself, as much as he was able with a sword pressed to his throat.
“I don’t know.”
“If you think it makes you look less threatening, you’re wrong. It makes you look crazy, and crazy is always threatening.”
She released him, but took two quick paces sideways, holding her sword ready.
“I’m not crazy, just forgetful.”
She laughed once in disbelief. “You’re telling me you forgot your clothes?”
“I forgot a lot more than that.”
She continued to circle around until she had put the fire between them. He finally got a good look at her.
She was quite a bit shorter than him, with clear brown eyes the color of polished wood. Her chestnut hair was scandalously short, not even touching her shoulders. She wore light armor, with a leather breastplate over red padding and small bracers and greaves on her arms and legs. She wrinkled her brow as she looked at the man, trying to decide what to make of him.
“Aren’t you cold?” she finally asked.
He shrugged. “Not really.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
She ignored that.
“What’s your name?”
“I don’t remember that either.”
Her wrinkled brow pulled down lower as confusion gave way to anger, but she went to her tent and returned with a man’s shirt and breeches and tossed them to him. They were hopelessly small.
“That’s all I’ve got, and it’s a lot better than nothing.”
The man tugged on the pants and pulled the shirt over his head. The pants fastened easily and the sleeves extended all the way to his wrists. She looked from his face towering over her to the bottom of his pant legs, just brushing the forest floor.
“You must be smaller than you look,” she mumbled, puzzled.
The man sat down cross-legged on the ground.
“Do you recognize me?” he asked, “Have you ever seen me before?”
“No,” she said, waiting for an explanation.
“This is going to sound strange, but I just woke up in the forest, and I can’t remember who I am or how I got there.”
“And then I found you.”
She studied him. “I don’t believe you, but I can’t figure out what your game is.”
They sat in silence for a while. She continued to study him, and he stared back frankly. He had nothing to hide, at least as far as he knew.
“Very well. If you won’t tell me your name, then I name you Blunderbusss, because you blunder around in the woods making more noise than a blinking...”
A stick snapped distinctly in the distance, followed by the crunch and rustle of something large in the woods. Now that they were listening, they heard other stealthy movements from other directions around the camp.
The woman grinned triumphantly at him.
“Your friends are here,” she hissed. “You make a lousy distraction.”
She moved fast then, like a snake, going left around the fire and swinging a back hand blow at him with her short sword. He was faster though, and waited a fraction of a second until the blow was committed before simply bending forward at the waist and allowing the sword to cut the air over this head.
Rather than go for a second swing, she used her momentum to jump, planting a food on his back to simultaneously leap away into the forest and smash his face in the dirt. She disappeared into the gloom in seconds.
Blunderbusss was still brushing the dirt out of his eyes when four men stepped into the clearing on each side, surrounding him.
“Well, hello,” grinned one of the men, his feral smile revealing brown and broken teeth.
His clothes were a mismatch of rags with the exception of a pair of newish looking leather boots. Bandoliers crisscrossed his chest, and his lank, greasy hair was held back with a blue headband. In fact, all of the men wore blue headbands in various stages of turning to black with dirt and sweat.
“Nice camp you got here. Mind if we look around a bit?”
Blunderbusss attempted to stand, and one of the men behind him grabbed his shoulders none too gently and forced him back down.
“Now, now, no need to get up on our account,” the man chuckled maliciously.
The first man turned and poked his head into the tent while the three other stood guard.
“Well lads,” the man in the tent called, “it looks like...”
He didn’t get to finish his sentence. The woman was back, bursting from the trees. She plunged a knife into the lower back of one man with her left hand, and with her right she stabbed her short sword down into the back of another’s knee. Both men cried out and went down, but the woman’s momentum carried her forward and she stumbled, tangling with them.
The third man brought his sword up, but Blunderbuss kicked out at his ankles, toppling him forward. Blunderbuss wriggled out of the way to avoid his sword as the man fell on top of him.
One of the men tried to grapple with the woman, but she moved like an eel in his grasp. She regained her feet and hacked viciously with her sword, opening wounds on his hands and arms. He scuttled away from her as fast as he could. The other man was curled on his side moaning and trying to get a good angle to grip and remove the knife from his back.
“Don’t blinking move!” shouted the bandit leader, and everyone froze. He had a pistol in each hand, one pointed at the woman, one at Blunderbuss who was still lying on the ground, tangled with the third bandit.
“Drop that sword,” he commanded, and the woman dropped it. “Bolley, get up off your ass and get over here.”
Bolley stood and gave Blunderbuss a kick in the side for good measure before moving to stand next to his friend. Blunderbuss rested for a second and then got to all fours before standing.
“You cut up Weasel and Stout pretty badly, girly, and now you’re going to pay for it.” He lifted the gun toward her face.
“I’ll not allow it,” said Blunderbuss clear and strong, and the pronouncement rang in the clearing like a gong.
“Like blinking hell you won’t,” said the gunman, and he pulled the trigger.
The hammer sparked, the powder in the pan flashed, and the woman flinched, but the gun did not fire.
Blunderbuss took a step and then another, slowly walking toward the bandit leader. Bolley took an involuntary step backwards, but the bandit leader held his ground, tossing his spent pistol on the ground in disgust and training his other on Blunderbuss.
Blunderbuss didn’t slow or hesitate, only stopping when he stood directly in front of the man. With a snarl, the man pointed his pistol at Blunderbuss’ face, point blank, and pulled the trigger.
This time the gun did not misfire, instead exploding backwards into the man’s face. Hot metal tore into him, and even Bolley caught a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder. The explosion was focused backwards, and Blunderbuss was completely unharmed. His face wasn’t even singed.
Blunderbuss turned around and looked at the woman whose eyes were wide with adrenaline and surprised.
“How did you know his pistols would misfire?” she asked, breathless.
“My name is Aelthier,” he replied, “and pistols aren’t his, they’re mine.”
She had been reluctant to take the one whole pistol, but Aelthier insisted, assuring her there was nothing wrong with it. She was skeptical that the misfire was due to mis-care of the weapon, but she secured it at her waist.
Aelthier claimed the man’s boots, and like the clothes from Lyse, they fit perfectly.
Two encounters in one night were two too many for Lyse, and after they had moved their camp she did not light a fire, preferring cold and dark to cold and dead. She let Aelthier take the first watch, but he noticed that she laid the pistol carefully across her chest at the ready when she crawled into her tent.
Aelthier did not feel tired, in fact never felt tired the entire night, and so he let Lyse sleep. She awoke confused in the pre-dawn and found Aelthier sitting on the ground exactly where she had last seen him, as if he hadn’t moved.
“So what are you going to do now?” asked Lyse as she packed her gear.
“I’m not sure. I was hoping to find a village nearby where someone might recognize me or know what I might have been doing out here.”
“You’ll find more than a village. We’re just outside of Fallwell-by-the-Sea, and I suppose if someone knew something, that would be as good of a place as any to find out.”
“Is it in that direction?” asked Aelthier, pointing off into the forest.
“Yes, I believe it is,” faltered Lyse, surprised.
Aelthier nodded once. “I can find it.”
Lyse snorted. “Can you now? And can you also find your clothes on the way?”
Aelthier looked down and smiled. “Probably not, no.”
“Then I think you’d better let me take you as far as the city. After the help you gave me in that little fight last night, I’d hate for you to forget everything again and be stuck wandering out here. You might not run into someone as friendly as me.”
She reached her hand out to help him stand.
“You never know what kind of strange people might be blundering around these woods.”
“If a galley is hiring, they’ll give me a berth for the night.” She looked at him dubiously. “I’m not sure you could pass for a guard, but you might be able to sign on for something else.”
“Lyse, I appreciate all of your help, but I’m looking for information, not a job.”
Lyse changed course abruptly, angling toward a dirty dockside inn.
“Very well. You ask around in here, I’ll come back to get you when I’m done.” She looked up at the sign. “The Cup and Cutlass, I ought to be able to remember that.”
She looked at Aelthier. “I’m reluctant to leave you.”
Aelthier laughed. “I’ll be fine. You’ve done so much already.”
“Good luck,” she said and turned toward the docks.
Aelthier pushed open the door to the Cup and Cutlass. Inside, it was dim, the light struggling to push through dirty windows. It smelled like ale, most likely because a large quantity had been spilled on the floor over time and only haphazardly cleaned. The room was empty save two men at the bar who looked as permanent as the rusty cutlass that hung over the fireplace. They didn’t even look around as the door opened.
“Excuse me, do I know you?” Aelthier asked the first man.
“Eh?” asked the man, squinting at Aelthier through the gloom.
“Do I know you from anywhere?” Aelthier asked again.
“No,” snapped the man, turning back to the bar to indicate the conversation was over.
Aelthier moved to the next man and put a hand on his shoulder.
“What about you, friend?”
“Not blinking likely,” he said, shrugging of Aelthier’s hand.
The barkeep sauntered over. “Lookin’ for someone?”
“Not exactly,” said Aelthier. “Has anyone been looking for me?”
“Not me,” said the barkeep,”but we don’t get busy until the dock rats kick off at dusk. Why don’t you make yourself comfortable until then? What can I get ya?”
“I don’t have any money.”
The barkeeps smile dried up until it was only a sour pucker. “I guess you’d better wait outside then.”
“Look, I need some help...”
“Skel take you if you think you’re gonna find it here,” said the barkeep, and the two men on the stools finally turned and took interest in him. Aelthier didn’t think it was to help him out.
At that moment, the door opened and a big man peeked inside. The man looked at the four of them, and then beckoned to Aelthier. Aelthier just looked at him, too surprised to follow. The man beckoned again and then ducked out of the inn.
“Looks like there’s your man after all,” growled the barkeep. Belatedly, Aelthier started after the mysterious man.
When he got outside, the big man was just rounding the corner of the building and Aelthier had to quicken his pace to keep up.
The wall of the inn formed one side of the beginning of a long alley, and the big man was hurrying down it. He was draped in something like a blanket or robe, which covered his arms and legs, making him mostly a shapeless lump. From behind, Aelthier couldn’t really tell much about him, other than the fact he was a head taller and almost twice as wide as Aelthier.
The man crossed an alley and then slowed, allowing Aelthier to catch up.
“Hey!” called Aelthier, reaching out to grab the man by the shoulder.
Quicker than seemed possible, the man whirled around, grabbing Aelthier’s outstretched hand by the wrist. Gracefully, he pivoted and pulled on the arm, hoping to throw Aelthier over his hip.
Aelthier did not comply.
He flowed with the momentum like water, leaping and windmilling each leg over the man’s hip and rotating in air so that when he landed his spin took the man over his hip instead of the other way around. The man crashed into the building wall with tremendous force, falling unconscious to the ground.
Aelthier stood looking down at him, not sure what to do. Before he could decide, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise as if brushed by a gentle breeze. Suddenly, two massive arms grabbed him from behind, locking fingers behind his head.
“Oh little godling,” purred a deep voice in his ear, “you’ve grown strong very fast.”
Aelthier struggled against the arms, but they didn’t so much as sway. It was like pushing with all his might against the mighty trunk of an oak tree; it didn’t even notice.
The voice chuckled. “No, I am not some mortal to be tossed around, like my poor servant there. He should have known better.” Aelthier felt him shrug. “Still, he served his purpose, and here you are.”
He started to apply pressure with his arms and Aelthier cried out in paid. The rumbling voice continued evenly as if he were doing nothing more than buttering a slice of bread.
“There was a time when I would kill you here, like this. A quick slash to the throat from behind in the dark. There was a time when a warrior was someone who kills, however they can. The only thing that mattered was victory.”
The man squeezed Aelthier until the muscles in his shoulder screamed and he thought his arms would tear off. At the last second, the man released him and he stumbled forward with the sudden release, falling to the ground.
“Now a warrior must be civilized,” the man sneered. “Honorable. Have good form. You think you’re a god, but you’re really a slave. They decide what you are. You’re only a reflection of them.”
Aelthier rolled over on the ground to look up at the man. He was enormous, tall and broad, but not fat, with a bristling beard cascading down his chest. He seemed to have more weight than the things around him, as if he were made of something else. It was like glimpsing through the fabric into another reality, like a man-shaped hole burned through a piece of parchment by a spark. His eyes were ancient and feral, wise and inhuman.
Aeltheir had no idea what he was looking at. For the first time he could remember, he felt fear.
“I don’t understand,” he stammered.
“No, little godling, and you never will,” he said, and he kicked Aelthier in the face. Aelthier hardly had time to see the boot coming at him before he was sliding down into unconsciousness.
Obviously, they were no longer in town. Through the deepening gloom of oncoming night, Aelthier was able to catch enough glimpses of the countryside to tell the path was ascending through low hills. The men didn’t speak, but Aelthier could hear the breathing and movements of several other men besides the two who carried him. Aelthier lost track of time, focusing on each breath in and out to block out the screaming of his muscles.
The path wound higher and higher, passing through the increasingly higher hills and steeper inclines. From what he could see of the path, it looked more like a shepherd’s goat trail than a road.
Aelthier was sure they would stop at night fall, but even in full dark they pressed on, stopping only momentarily for the leader to light a torch. The two men carrying Aelthier did not seem to tire or flag.
Finally, Aelthier began to sense light ahead, and the trail deposited them into a large, flat clearing. The moon was full and bright overhead, and at one side of the cleared oval was a perfect circle of blazing torches.
The two men carried Aelthier to a spot close to the edge of the flaming circle of torches. The one holding the pole behind Aelthier set his side down and carefully untied Aelthier’s feet. A mallet was produced from somewhere and one of the men began pounding the massive pole into the ground.
Aelthier could feel a thrumming of power in his chest as if the ground were gently vibrating that seemed to emanate from the clearing. There were around a dozen or so men moving in and out of the circle of torches.
Aelthier’s relief at being able to stand again was short lived. The man or thing that had beaten him so easily in the alley was approaching from the ring of torches. The man holding the cord used to bind Aelthier’s feet held it out on his open palms, head bowed reverently. It glowed a pale blue.
When the big, bearded man was close enough, he took the proffered cord, tucking it into a pocket. He turned to stand before Aelthier.
“They believe I should be civilized, and so I am. Very well. We shall have open combat, equal and just. And then I will kill you and you will once again be mine.”
He smiled at Aelthier fondly, almost fatherly. His tone was reasonable.
“In the beginning there were so few of us. Why do they want so many? I am Beltar. I am War. What are these guns but articles of war? You should not be separate. They are mine. You are mine.”
He gave Aelthier a gentle pat on the cheek, then withdrew, walking to the other side of the circle to prepare. His minions withdrew as well, leaving Aelthier bound by his wrists to the pole, alone. The circle of torches made him night blind, but somewhere outside of the circle, a drum began to beat.
“Hey!” hissed a voice in his ear. “You want to stick around for this, or get out of here?” asked Lyse.
Relief washed over Aelthier as she sawed at his bonds with her knife.
“How did you find me?” He murmured low so his voice would be covered by the drumming, which was now being picked up by a second and third drummer.
“I never lost you,” whispered Lyse, “I decided not to leave you alone at the inn, but when I came back for you, you were just disappearing down the alley. I knew I couldn’t leave you alone.”
The band around Aelthier’s wrists broke with a little beat of power that pulsed against Aelthier’s skin like a small shove. Aelthier hoped it didn’t carry to the circle of torches.
“Let’s go,” hissed Lyse, tugging at his arm.
“Wait a second,” replied Aelthier. He reached up and grasped a few hairs from his head, wincing as he jerked them free. He placed them on the ground at the base of the pole and began chanting. Each word came to him as he spoke it and disappeared immediately after, so he had no idea what he was doing before, during, or after the spell. Nevertheless, it worked.
Wisps of darkness flowed in from the forest, collecting until they formed a pale, shadow-Aelthier sitting at the base of the pole. It was the same shape as him, but it seemed muted and insubstantial. It wouldn’t hold up to any kind of scrutiny, but from a distance, in the dark, it might buy them a few minutes.
Aelthier grabbed Lyse’s hand and she dragged him into the dark of the forest.
They were followed by the slow, steady pounding of drums which seemed to be growing louder despite the increasing distance. The rhythm was hypnotic, and Aelthier repeatedly found the cadence of his footsteps slowing to match the beat.
They had intended to go down the mountain, but they must have gotten turned around in the dark, because the ground began to slope up.
“We’re going the wrong way,” said Aelthier.
“We don’t have time to circle back. Besides, they won’t expect us to go up. Maybe we’ll lose them.”
“I can feel him now. War. I think he can feel me too, if he wants to. They’ll know where we are.”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way we run, only that we do.”
They knew the moment their escape was discovered, because the drum beat faltered. However, it soon resumed faster and louder than ever. It seemed to be calling Bel-TAR! Bel-TAR!
The woods were thinning now, with bare patches of rock showing through in places. With fewer trees, the wind felt stronger, and Lyse shivered with cold.
They came out onto a rocky point and saw they were now quite a bit above the clearing with the circle of torches. The forest stretched dark and quiet, a sea of trees swaying gently in the currents of the wind. Overhead, the sky was endless and full of stars. They couldn’t see any movement in the clearing, but the drum beat rose to them on the wind.
“Don’t stop,” urged Lyse, and they plunged desperately back into the forest.
Aelthier and Lyse felt exposed as the ground became rockier still, and more trees fell away. Only a few small, stunted pines clung to the rocks in twisted groves, and Lyse and Aelthier darted between then, using what cover they could.
Aelthier pointed. “Head towards the gap, at least it will provide some cover.”
Ahead in the dark rose a cleft in the rock, big enough to drive a cart through. The moon and stars provided insufficient light to see very deep into the passage.
Just to the right of the opening was a small, gray shack, more of a shed than a house. No light came from under the door, and there was no chimney for smoke to rise from. It was old and worn and looked abandoned.
“Lyse, don’t follow me into the gap. It’s me they want; if we split up, you will have a better chance of escaping. Believe me; you’ve done more than enough.”
“Nonsense,” she growled. “You move through the forest like a blinking Blunderbuss. You’ll never get away from them without me.”
Behind them, they heard a distant shout as their pursuers broke from the tree line and had a clear view to them across the rocky mountain side. Aelthier and Lyse knew they would be seen if they tried for the shack, so together they plunged into the crevice.
All the dirt that had been blown into the crack over the decades was packed down to make a relatively smooth, flat floor. However, the light in the cleft was extremely dim and they were forced to go slowly, with one hand on the wall.
“We’d better come out the other side soon. If they have torches, they’ll catch up,” said Lyse. Something about creeping through the dark made her want to speak softly.
When they had been walking for a while, the ground began to slope noticeably down. Aelthier stopped.
“There have been explosions ahead of us. Lyse, I don’t think we’re going to come out. I think we’re headed down into a mine.”
She was silent, considering.
“Any magic tricks up your sleeve? Now would be a good time to reveal them.”
“I don’t think so. I can’t do it on purpose. Sometimes when I need to know something, I just know it. Otherwise I don’t. I don’t know how to make it happen.”
“Well,” said Lyse, “we can’t go back, we can’t go up, and we can’t stay here. So I guess we go onward. Maybe a path will split off.”
They continued walking down the sloping path. They didn’t yet hear echoes of pursuit, which meant the men either hadn’t yet reached the entrance, or they were being very cautious.
It was almost pitch black when they reached the true entrance to the mine. The darkness felt oppressive, the weight of it hunching their shoulders and forcing them to keep a hand in front of their faces as if they could part it like a curtain.
The door itself was old wood, thin and crudely made to begin with. It was made of two overlapping pieces which hinged on rods driven into the rock on either side. A simple latch held it closed. It didn’t completely cover the yawning hole behind it.
“Maybe we could barricade it from the inside?” suggested Lyse doubtfully.
“It opens outward,” said Aelthier.
They stood in silence for a while, considering. Trying to navigate the mine in the dark would most likely be as dangerous as facing the god and men who were following them. Lyse, at least, might hope for mercy from a god she had prayed to from time to time, however small the hope may be. The dark mine shaft couldn’t be reasoned with.
“Wait here, I need to get something.”
Before Lyse could formulate a response, Aelthier unlatched the door and entered the absolute darkness of the mine.
Lyse moved to follow, but Aelthier was gone so quickly, there was no hope to follow. Lyse listened at the entrance to the tunnel, but the mine shaft was like a giant mouth, swallowing all sound. She could hear nothing, not even the echo of footsteps.
“When are you going to learn I’m the only thing between you and trouble?” she hissed into the darkness.
She propped herself against the cold stone of the wall, looking for any advantage they could use. She stood on the side of the door that was closed, preferring not to contemplate the deep black of the open mine shaft.
After an indeterminate eternity, the far end of the crevice began to lighten as the men approached cautiously with torches. She couldn’t yet see them, but their sounds and light preceded them.
Finally, she partially closed the open mine door and stepped in next to the wall, reopening the door and resting it against the wall behind her. Turning, she drew her pistol and her knife.
Just after she got into position, Aelthier came bustling out of the mine with a small barrel under each arm.
“Lyse! Lyse!” he hissed as he passed her hiding place. He trotted out to a spot a little ways up the approach and placed the barrels against the wall before returning.
When he came back, Lyse answered, “Open the other door and get behind it. Maybe they’ll think we went into the mine and pass us by.”
“I’ve got a better plan,” said Aelthier. “Do you still have the pistol you took from the bandit?”
“I’ll only have time for one shot,” answered Lyse.
“We’d better make it count then.”
He pulled her out from behind the door and positioned her in the mine shaft, partially blocked by the one closed door.
“When I give the signal, shoot one of those barrels. Whatever you do, don’t miss.”
Aelthier stepped out in the middle of the passageway in full view, several paces in front of Lyse, attempting to block her from view but not obscure her shot. The barrels were decently far up the passageway, just outside the range she could reliably hit with the pistol. Even with the glow from the approaching torches, Lyse wasn’t sure if she could even see the faint outline of the barrels, or if it was just her imagination.
They didn’t have long to wait. The men approached at a careful, measured, almost leisurely pace.
When they got close enough, Beltar roared out, “Masterfully done, little godling, but it looks like your resourcefulness is at an end. There’s no way out of this little mouse hole.” His men chuckled darkly.
Aelthier stood still and relaxed in the middle of the corridor with a smile on his face. The little company of men faltered and stopped, suspecting trickery. Beltar cocked his head and sniffed the air for danger, like a fox.
“You look like you think you still have some resourcefulness left after all. Should I be wary?”
Aelthier turned his back to them and began walking slowly toward the mine. To the warriors and even Beltar, with the instincts of wolves, this vulnerability was too much to resist. They broke from their wary stillness with a run.
“Grant my powder be dry and my aim be true,” whispered Lyse.
“Granted,” said Aelthier, and he dove through the open mine door.
The hammer fell, the powder flashed, and the snarl of the pistol was still echoing down the long throat of the mineshaft when it was swallowed by the tremendous roar of the powder keg.
The blast was a one-two punch as the second keg exploded, scattering the splinters created when the first blast destroyed the door in front of Lyse. She was blown over backwards and curled into a ball. Aelthier lay flat and laced his fingers behind his head as heat and debris washed over him.
Outside the tunnel, the concussion of the blast sheered the rock walls on either side, collapsing the crevice inward and burying everything under a shower of rock and dust.
“You sound alive,” croaked Aelthier.
“I’m not sure yet, ask again in a few minutes.”
Eventually, they got to their feet, muscles, bruises, cuts, and scrapes aching. They hobbled like the elderly to the mine entryway. Most of the door had been destroyed. Large chunks of rock had spilled into the tunnel on the side where the door had been open, but after they pulled down the remaining splinters of the other door, they found there was enough space at the top to wriggle out.
Slowly and laboriously, they worked their way out until they were back in the valley. It was dramatically different. The walls slanted out in a ‘V’ rather than being straight up and down, which allowed more light to filter down. Additionally, the rain of boulders and pebbles had filled in the bottom, raising the floor by several feet in places. The most dramatic difference was the cairn of tumbled rock where Beltar and his warriors had been. Only the wind stirred in the rock pile; there was no sign of life.
Aeltheir and Lyse had to pick their way over the silent tomb to escape the valley. They crept silently as if the warriors were only sleeping, and they didn’t want to wake them.
As Aelthier scrambled up the tumbled stone, his foot scraped loose a shower of small pebbles.
“Godling!” called Beltar from somewhere beneath the pile. “Godling! I can hear you up there.”
Aelthier froze, afraid to move.
“Godling,” Beltar called again, his voice persuasive, “Help me out. Move some stones. I’ll be in your debt.”
“I’m not sure that would be wise,” replied Aelthier.
Beltar’s voice lowered, turning menacing. “I won’t forget this, godling. I won’t be stuck in here forever.”
Aelthier laughed, long and loud, shattering the graveyard silence of the valley.
“What will you do, try to kill me?”
“Not if you let me out.” Rocks bounced and scraped as Beltar shifted somewhere below. “You did try to blow me up. I’m willing to let bygones be bygones.” He was doing his best to sound reasonable.
Aelthier chuckled. “I think I’ll take my chances. After all, you’ll have some time to think, you may change your mind about me.”
“Never,” growled Beltar.
“Things change. We change. They change us. You taught me that.”
Aelthier climbed to the next stone. “I think we’ll be sharing a lot of the same penitents in the future. Perhaps their positive feelings towards me will rub off on you. In any case, I don’t plan on going anywhere, so you might as well get used to me.”
Aelthier continued to climb, and Lyse followed.
“Godling! Godling!” Beltar shouted after them, but the rock pile and his muffled cries were soon left behind in the dark.
“So, I guess we know who I am now,” said Aelthier, stopping in the mouth of the long entryway to the mine to survey the windswept vista of the mountainside.
“What should we do next?”
This story originally appeared in The Novel Fox.