A Woeful Melody
“Another half hour and we’ll be there.” Gwynn says. I take her word for it, although to me, the forest all looks the same. The sun is low enough in the sky that the trees block almost all its light, casting long shadows around us. Gwynn and Maven gather vitality into the veins of their hands, emanating soft blue light in small half-circles in front of them. I follow as they lead me towards a large dead tree, slightly separated from the others. In the low light, I see moss crawling halfway up the trunk, and clusters of mushrooms crowding around its base. We stop about five feet from it and Gwynn crouches down to feel along the ground. It takes a few seconds before she seems to find something, digging into the dirt. She grips and pulls, lifting a section of the ground, dirt and all up, revealing a hole just large enough for one person to fit through.
“I’ll go first to light the way.” Maven says, stepping forward. “It’s only a three foot drop if you hang from the lip.” She does as she says, dangling into the black hole for a moment before dropping. I hear her land and see the blue light from her hand illuminate the surprisingly short drop. I follow her lead, and when I reach the bottom, turn until I find Maven’s light coming from behind me.
“Watch your head,” Maven says as she illuminates the way the stone ceiling curves downward sharply. I duck down and follow her into the tunnel. I hear Gwynn land behind me, and her light makes it easier to see. We travel through the narrow tunnel, crouched down until my leg muscles begin to shake with fatigue. Luckily, the tunnel opens up large enough for us to stand up and stretch our weary legs.
“It’s not much farther.” Maven says when we start moving again. Even with the light all I can see is solid grey rock. We cling to the right wall, with the left wall lost to the darkness. Looking up, the ceiling slopes upward until it also vanishes into the gloom.
Several minutes later, a soft blue light identical to Maven’s and Gwynn’s, comes from around a corner ahead of us. We stick to the right wall still, and turn into the source of the light. I cover my eyes, blinded by it’s brightness. Once I adapt, I pull my hand from my face, and on seeing the cavern, let if fall limply to my side.
How could a place like this exist? The cave opens up into an enormous subterranean valley. Boulders are strewn about like apples fallen from a tree, random shapes and sizes, and centered around a waterfall that comes down from a hole in the ceiling just in front of us. It forms a pool where it lands, and then creates a river which runs through the middle of the valley. Stalactites hang from the ceiling to dip into the water, with stalagmites rising from its depth, occasionally meeting in the middle, like fingertips touching. A luminescent blue moss covers everything in sight, even extending onto the rocks in water, bathing the entirety of the massive chamber in light. I stand still, staring. Maven’s laugh startles me.
“I told you it was beautiful.” She says, gazing fondly at the view. I turn to find Gwynn and see a small upturn of her mouth. Not an actual smile, but the closest to one I’ve seen her have since I’ve met her. It lasts for just a moment, then she reassumes her passive expression again. She leads us along the river, past the large boulders laying around. I watch them as we pass, marveling at their size and the way they reflect the light of the moss. I reach a hand out and feel the surface of one. The moss feels normal, but the boulder itself is smooth to the touch.
More like glass than stone. I muse, as I turn to look at the water. It’s surprisingly clear, and with some of the moss creeping under its surface, I can see almost to the bottom. A movement catches my eye and I watch as a fish swims up from the darkness, soon followed by a few more of its kind. They’re all identical gray and swim so quickly that soon I lose track of the original fish.
“You’re acting the same as Gwynn had when she first saw it.” Maven’s observation breaks my concentration and I turn to her ever-smiling face.
“Really?” I ask, actually surprised, considering Gwynn’s typically reserved personality.
“I can still remember how her face was lit with wonder as she took everything in. Isn’t that right, dear?” Maven turns her fond smile to Gwynn, who walks just ahead of us.
“That was several years ago, when my thoughts were simpler and I was just happy to be alive.” Gwynn answers curtly. I frown slightly.
Why does she insist on being so short with Maven? From what I can gather, Maven is a kind person, and someone Gwynn cares about.
So, why does she act so irritated with her? We continue in silence then, walking quickly, yet taking long to cover the deceptively far distance to the camp. I tamp down my awe as we draw near, instead assuming a neutral expression. I notice no wards surrounding the encampment, though a few watchmen are posted on its perimeter.
One of them, a short and stout man with a thick beard, intercepts us. His spear doesn’t move until he notices me. Instantly, he levels the tip to my chest, and drops to a half-crouch several feet away from me. His bushy eyebrows come together in anger and confusion.
“Gwynn, Maven, who is this outsider,” he spits the word out, “and why did you lead him here?” His gaze flickers between the two and then settles back onto me. His eyes are hard, but more so another emotion flits inside them. It’s well hidden, however, it becomes apparent when I see the slight tremor in his hands.
Have they all experienced such trauma that they would fear a single stranger? The gloomy thought is made all the darker knowing that Gwynn expects these same people to fight against the church.
“It’s quite alright, Gerred. He is a newly acquired ally of ours, who has no sympathy for the church.” Gwynn says, taking a step to stand between me and the spear tip. Slowly, Gerred drops the point of his weapon, but doesn’t quit glaring at me.
“If you vouch for him, then I’ll believe you. However, I’m not so sure the others will be as easy to persuade. Cerc’s got them riled up something fierce-like.” Gwynn fixes Maven with a sidelong glance before looking back to Gerred.
“What’s she saying?” Gwynn demands.
“That a stranger is coming, with unknown motives.” Gerred says, and I see his eyes drift to Kyne’s sword poking out over my left shoulder. Upon seeing the weapon, his lip pulls back in a soundless snarl.
“Stop that.” Maven commands, her voice giving no room for negotiation. Gerred looks at her now. “Are you drunk?” Maven asks sincerely, “Cause you must be if you believe this boy could kill Kyne.” Gerred’s face turns red, and I see him mentally weigh his response.
“You know she’s right.” Gwynn interjects. “It would take eight trained men to take down Kyne...or one pack of nighthounds.” She says, her voice trailing off. Gerred looks between the two of them, then back to me, before finally his shoulders relax, and a hefty sigh leaves him deflated.
“I hear ya. I suppose I’m letting my emotions get out of hand. But, is it really true? He’s dead?” He asks quietly.
“It is.” Gwynn says, then extends her left arm and the two lock forearms for a moment. As Gerred lets go, he glances back towards the camp.
“Well, I’d best get moving again, before Lyntin gets on my case.” He gives us a nod and continues his slow walk around the perimeter, scanning the length of the cavern. Gwynn leads us towards the center of the camp at a brisk pace. Although it was evening when we went underground, the camp bustles with activity as though it were midday. People on the edges of the camp are stooped low to the ground, picking gray mushrooms and clumps of the iridescent moss, which they pile into canvas bags. Several stand from their work as we draw near, waving to Gwynn and Maven and greeting them heartily, though as soon as they notice me following close behind, their expressions drop. They eye me warily as we pass by, not saying a word. I attempt to make myself as non-threatening as possible, keeping my head down and slouching, hoping to set them at ease. Maven flashes me a reassuring smile before returning her attention to the front. Inside the first ring of tents are scattered campfires, made from the moss, and burning a bright blue. People steadily stream back and forth across the camp, carrying bags and pots and pans. I only see men and women with grim faces and hard eyes, who glare at me. Over everything is a constant thwip thwip thwip that I can’t identify at first, though once we head further into the camp, I realize what it is. A large group of people sit huddled around a slightly bigger fire within several tents, holding their bare swords and running whetstones down their lengths. They glare at me, as they continue their work, and I quickly look away. While the animosity towards me is clear, no one attempts to stop us, which I can only assume is because of the respect Gwynn and Maven command.
A tent large enough to stand in sits in the center of the camp, and standing by its entrance is Cerc, wearing leather armor, and a hand on the sword on her hip. I notice Gwynn casually moving her hand to the grip of her sword as she gets close. Maven falls back to my side and leans over to me.
“Ready for a show?” She asks me quietly, then winks. I say nothing, my attention focusing on the inevitable clash in front of me.
“We were able to recover and safely bring the recruit, Diqan, with us. However, I regret to inform you that Kyne was killed by a pack of nighthounds while on his way to us.” Gwynn states candidly. Cerc says nothing for several moments, instead examining me bottom to top, her eyes lingering on Kyne’s sword.
“Were you with him when he died?” Cerc finally asks.
“No, he died before reaching us. We would have recovered his body, but it was too risky to stay any longer.”
“I see.” Cerc says, deliberately waiting as the people that heard Gwynn’s statements begin gathering around us. “So, you mean to tell me that Kyne died, yet this boy survived the ordeal? And now you let him, an outsider, carry Kyne’s sword around. You dishonor his memories by your actions.” Cerc’s voice is loud enough to carry to the grouped people, and clearly intended to heighten outrage against me. Gwynn doesn’t spare the others any attention, reserving all her focus for Cerc alone.
“How dare you insinuate such things?” Gwynn starts, her voice low and threatening. “You know as well as I do how dangerous night hounds are, and we both know Kyne. He would do anything in his power to protect others, even someone he just met. That’s the type of person he always was.” Gwynn looks back at me. “You didn’t see the way Diqan entered our camp. He was broken and scared by what he had seen, and I know that he feels the same pain we do in remembering Kyne. He gave me Kyne’s sword, but I gave it back. Why?” Gwynn looks out to the crowd, pulling them in with her words. “Because as we well know, when one life ends, another begins. With Kyne’s passing to the void, I have all the faith that Diqan will take his place as a strong fighter, and more importantly, a powerful friend.” Silence reigns as Gwynn and Cerc stare at each other, both unyielding. Those gathered watch uneasily, myself included, as I realize that my fate is about to be decided.
If they reject me, they can’t simply let me go. Not now, since I know where they’re hiding. Knowing that, I take a step forward, dropping my packs and pulling Kyne’s sword off my back. I hold it with my palms upward, and stop between Gwynn and Cerc. Feeling the heat of multiple eyes on me, I look at the sword in my hands while I speak.
“I know that I’m a stranger, and you have every right to be suspicious of me, but I urge you to truly believe me. Some of you have heard my story already, but I’ll tell it again so everyone knows.” I hesitate, then speak quickly. “A man I loved as a father was tortured by the church, and they attempted to steal my memories of him, so I wouldn’t know of their atrocious act. They failed, and on learning the truth, I left with as much haste as I could manage. I met up with a smaller group of yours and the next day I was left to train with Kyne.” I pause, gathering myself for the rest of the story. When I speak, my voice is weak. “I didn’t know him very long, but Kyne was equal portions stringent and considerate. Ensuring that I’m in good health, and pushing me to improve. So when we ended up on that riverbank, those beasts on our heels, and I could do nothing to protect myself, it was Kyne who pushed me into hiding and fought them himself. I saw him die for me, because I was incapable of protecting myself. I have no sympathy for the church and all the desire in the world to improve.” I stand completely still, afraid to look up, or to even breathe. When I finally gather my courage, I notice that of those gathered, most wear softer expressions than moments before. I let out a long breath, then an idea strikes me. I turn to Gwynn.
“I would love to carry Kyne’s sword into battle in the future, but I know that I’m not deserving of that honor. So, I offer you his sword instead.” I say, holding the sword out towards her. She meets my eyes momentarily, then directs her attention to the onlookers.
“As you can see, this stranger doesn’t seek to profit off the grief of others. He only wishes to aid us in our struggle. I know his intentions are pure, and I reject his offer.” Gwynn takes my hands and curls them against the sword. “Keep the weapon, and carry Kyne’s memory and spirit into future battles.” All is silent. Then, one exclamation follows another and another, until the group is welcoming me with unrestrained vigor. I grin widely, and Gwynn smiles lightly back at me.