The Tale of Water
A portal to another world on every water’s surface
foxtail brushes guard the gate and sway
and fireflies watch themselves in light upon the pool
unaware what monsters lurk in this other world
with swift teeth and hunger
water does not choose a side
Yet water would welcome you with arms of reeds
and braid your hair with secrets
a bed of moss and forgotten soil to rest from aches
the water and all its life remembers
gifts of willow from above sinking into this world
the light and the dark in strong currents
you spread your wings and free you fly
in the dark under the faraway moon
and the water holds you lover close
You have always lived here in the flowing world
beneath the surface, the gate of dreams
you only wept in the air for a brief, brief season
* * * * *
Grandmothers of trees whispered on the mountainside above them, and the upper slopes were misted by snow blown from the peaks in a strong wind.
“I apologize to everyone,” said Kymeret through a scarf of thick wool wrapped around his lower face.
“What did you say?” asked Yonai. She rested against a tree for a moment while they paused. She was wrapped in a fur cloak and wore no scarf. Her breath fogged the air as she spoke.
Kymeret pulled down the scarf. “I apologize.”
“For leading everyone on a quest into a mountain pass at the birth of winter.”
“You did not know where your quest would lead,” said Avaresk. “A god of fortune has smiled upon us, for at least we have found no orcs in the pass.”
“We have seen towns, dwellings,” said Yonai. “Empty. They have all gone to battle?”
“So it would seem.”
“What about their children?” asked Kymeret. “What beings would take whole families to a world war?”
“I can think of several,” said Avaresk, “but I believe the orcs who remained behind are hidden in secret caves for protection, as their villages have been left undefended. They will not emerge until their warriors return.”
Slumber tapped Kymeret on the arm, then gestured, How is your leg?
“It is well, friend Slumber.”
Avaresk smiled slightly. “You are a bad liar.”
“He usually leaves the lying to me,” said Yonai.
“It would be kind,” said Kymeret, “if we could stop before too long.”
Avaresk nodded. “The wind is picking up. Let us at least try to find the lee of a hillside before we rest.”
They found better than that before half a watch had passed. At first Kymeret was sure that his eyes were deceiving him. Then the familiar shape of an orc building loomed out of the quickening snowfall.
Yonai drew both her swords and took point, while Slumber remained beside Kymeret. Avaresk freed his hands from the depths of his furs and wiggled his fingers to warm them, preparing to cast.
Yonai leaned back against the wall beside the fur-covered doorway, trying to peer inside. Avaresk positioned himself against a tree, watching closely. Then Yonai lifted the fur and went inside. For a long moment, there was no sound. Then her head appeared and said, “Come in.”
The inside of the orc house was dark and cold. Avaresk held a small fire in his hand and took a survey of the space. They stood in a large room with a fire pit in the center, and several rooms in the back partitioned using furs. The main room seemed to be the primary living space, with cooking and eating centered around the pit, and sleeping and storage around the sides of the room.
Yonai emerged from one of the back rooms with kindling and wood, and she began to arrange them in the firepit. Then she looked up at Avaresk.
“Kindle,” he said, and fire leapt from his hand into the kindling.
With Slumber’s help, Kymeret settled down by the fire and removed his furs. His leg ached terribly, and he was worried about the worsening infection. There was a scent he did not like coming from the wound. The others had done all they could, but without expert healing—magical or otherwise—he worried that he might be facing greater hardship.
He didn’t want to burden the others with whining, though he admitted to himself that it might help his mood.
“Hand me your water bags,” said Yonai.
He looked up and saw her standing with her hand out. He loosened his water bag from a strap and handed it to her. She took several into the back.
Kymeret picked something up from the floor. What he first took as some hideous puppet for frightening children was, he realized, probably a child’s doll.
I suppose they do look frightening, he thought. The doll glared at him and bared fangs of carved bone.
Avaresk saw what he was holding and said, “It is possible that for whatever reason, the residents of this house left in a hurry.”
“To the caves?”
“I would imagine.”
Yonai returned with full water bags. “There was a closed earthenware pot in the back. It’s clean water.”
Kymeret stared at his before putting it away. “I do miss having a shaman around to sniff things for me.”
“Let us sleep,” said the wizard. “Tomorrow we can resume our journey.”
“How much farther, do you think?”
Avaresk sighed. “Therein lies the problem. As I said, it is doubtful that your rumors came from those who actually saw an Undine. More likely hint and rumor passed from mouth to mouth across the land until it sounded that way. But my orc friend called this area Terefal Torn in a language used among those they trade with.”
“Yes, here. Farther up this mountain, specifically.” Avaresk looked at Kymeret with some concern. “I’m afraid we will face steeper slopes tomorrow.”
Kymeret nodded. “Then I had best sleep.”
* * * * *
In between worlds a tall elf strode across yellow grasses with staff in hand. Long hair danced in the wind, and in his eyes, something began to awaken. Above his staff, quicksilver flowed and shifted and bloomed, unfurled beneath the sky.
Sometimes in the dream, the elf carried a sword of quicksilver instead of a staff, a sword with which to sweep the air and melt his enemies before him.
But the elf wasn’t fighting now. Long had he brooded beneath a mountain, time itself blowing over the tall peaks like wind fleeing a storm. Now in the dream he walked beneath the sun and sometimes looked around him, and up, up toward the thick clouds that passed over Irilanssa.
Still the elf walked, and the wind whipped against his robe, and his face was troubled. And then his eyes rose from the grass and looked around and, sensing the Dreamer, looked straight into Slumber’s eyes.
And Slumber said, Remember
But the tall elf—Sandoval, he had called himself—shook his head. He held up a hand toward Slumber, fingers spread, and then he closed his fingers and—
* * * * *
The sun rose late from mountain peaks, keeping the pass in near dark for the first part of morning. Kymeret slept until he was woken.
“Time to leave,” said Yonai. She looked at Slumber, and something passed between them without words. Slumber nodded.
“I have an idea,” said Kymeret as they stepped outside. “I have never tried this before, but I suppose it might work.”
He summoned his Titan without its armor and thought its shape into something like a chair, with a seat and a back. Slumber helped him sit upon his floating chair.
“I have met those who can summon arcamentals,” said Avaresk, “but most can only summon the simple shape for fighting. I have never heard of anyone with a gift such as yours.”
“He considers them friends,” said Yonai. “He talks to them sometimes.”
“Well, they certainly seem…” the wizard looked at Kymeret in his summoned chair, “accommodating.”
They journeyed up the mountain for some time. Avaresk led the way, and the Titan drifted behind carrying Kymeret, with Slumber and Yonai walking on either side.
“Yonai,” said Avaresk. She moved to stand next to him. “Does this appear to be a path?”
“Yes,” she said without hesitation. The two looked toward the left, following the path with their eyes. “Long untraveled, but perhaps we should follow it.”
“But does it lead to an orc hideout?” asked the wizard.
“If it does, we will rely upon you to talk fast.”
The turned to follow the path, and after some time they found themselves looking into an opening in a wall of rock. The cave entrance was small, little more than an irregular cleft in the rock face, and twisted so that they would have to lean to one side to pass through.
“I suppose I must walk for a time,” said Kymeret. He said farewell to his Titan and took the staff that Slumber offered him.
They squeezed through the opening and made their way along the winding passage. There were no passages breaking off to the side.
The passage opened up into a larger cavern, though they could not see far in the dark. The near side of the cavern was filled with stalagmites and flowstone, and Kymeret had some difficulty walking on the uneven surface.
Yonai knelt down to examine something in the dirt on the cavern floor. “I have seen footprints like these before,” she said.
“Orcs?” asked Avaresk.
“Not unless they are dead orcs.”
Slumber knelt to get a closer look. Then he looked up at Kymeret and made a gesture with both hands.
“Skeletons,” said Kymeret.
“Then I doubt we shall find orc families sheltering here,” said Avaresk.
The wizard led the way with a palm of fire, and Kymeret summoned his Fury to add more light. The way was slow going until the floor seemed to level out ahead of them, and they stepped into a large open space whose ceiling was lost in the shadows above.
Before them, several skeletons walked somewhat randomly. Now and then one would giggle at nothing. All had flames dancing across bones that were never consumed.
Kymeret sighed. “This was not what I sought.”
Avaresk looked at him. “Surely in your adventures you have seen the undead walking around, laughing at nothing.”
“Yes, but they weren’t on fire. These are on fire.”
“They are no doubt resistant. I shall use ice.”
Kymeret summoned his Titan and sent it ahead to confront the first skeleton. The arcamental was now adorned with armor Kymeret had found along the way.
With the creature preoccupied, Slumber and Yonai began attacking it with slashes of sword and spear, while Avaresk encased skeletal limbs in ice to slow its movements.
Farther away, more such creatures could be seen glowing with their own flame. But they continued on their purposeless journeys as if they could not hear the battle taking place nearby.
And how could they? thought Kymeret. I see no ears. For that matter, how can they see us? Whence comes this mad giggling?
Slowly they cut a path through the cavern of burning undead, trying to find a passage that would allow them to continue on through the mountain.
During one such battle, another skeleton strayed close enough that whatever senses it possessed caught hint of the battle taking place four paces away. It turned, the ring of steel upon its head glinting in the firelight, and raised both hands to send a bolt of fire toward Yonai.
Avaresk sent a flurry of frost and arcane bolts toward the new foe, and Kymeret’s Titan turned to get its attention.
After several such battles, they had cleared a path to the other side of the cavern, and a dark passage opened before them.
The wizard summoned his own flame again, and the four entered the darkness.
* * * * *
Sticks and leaves and needles of fir crunched under their boots as they passed through the forgotten forest. Though their breath still frosted before them as they walked, there was a warmth they had not felt on their hike up the mountainside, even in this night without moons.
After they had emerged from the cave, they found a high valley between tall peaks, a rich forest of evergreens and snowthicket threaded with mist, and small things scurrying out of their way on tiny feet. They made their way through the wood, leading Kymeret on his living throne.
The air grew warmer still as they saw light ahead, and passing through the last of the trees they came to a lake that shimmered under a waking eastern sky. A mist drifted above the water, and far away on the eastern shore sat a dolmen of moss-greened stone. The moons were risen and gazing upon the surface of the water.
“A tarn,” said Avaresk quietly. “A high mountain lake with, it would seem, hot springs beneath.”
The wizard turned to Kymeret. “It was Terefal Tarn we have been hunting all along, for I believe this is the place you seek.”
Kymeret gazed upon the tarn and the dolmen with wonder. “Perhaps she is here, in this water.”
“It is a long way around,” said Yonai. Indeed, the tarn stretched far to north and south. But at the water’s nearest edge waited a boat, a fishing boat with nets raised at either side. “An orc boat?”
“Probably,” said Avaresk. “There are only so many ways to make a fishing boat, but who else would be here?”
“Aside from us?”
Their voices danced around Kymeret as he just watched the surface of the water. Would he find what he sought here? Or had he led his companions all this way for nothing?
“Should we camp here on the edge?” asked Avaresk.
“No,” said Kymeret. He turned back and looked at the lake. “No, we cannot wait.”
“Do you feel something?”
At first Kymeret did not answer. He felt many things. Longing, a desperate longing to find what seemed a part of himself estranged. And also pain, as the fire in his leg spread from the arrow wound, beyond all their attempts to heal it. He did not know if they would find an Undine here, or if she would even meet with him.
But he knew that he was running out of time.
“I could summon a boat,” he said, “but it would seem that the orcs have left a craft for us to borrow.”
Avaresk took a deep breath. “Very well. If you have intuition that we must go now, then lets us go. The dawn will aid us soon enough.”
When they reached the shore, Kymeret stepped out of his floating chair. Then he turned and caressed the stone. "Thank you, my friend, for bearing me when I am injured. I would never have asked such a thing if not in time of greatest need."
When the Titan was gone, Slumber helped Kymeret into the boat.
Clouds above the mountain peaks began to glow with the first of dawn, and the sun would soon follow the moons into the sky. The fishing boat drifted through light mist upon the shimmering tarn. Kymeret’s eyes skimmed the surface, seeking any sign of living water waiting for him. But though the surface rippled softly in a twilight wind, it betrayed no sign of what he sought.
As the other shore approached, he turned his eyes to the dolmen, and now it seemed that something glowed from behind the stones, a pale gleam that appeared to shift and fold as a curtain in a breeze.
Slumber and Yonai pulled the boat upon the shore, then helped Kymeret step from the craft.
“Will you summon—“
“No.” Kymeret shook his head. “I should approach as I am.”
Painfully he walked, leaning upon the staff as Slumber watched in case he should begin to fall. He heard whispered words behind him, as Yonai and the wizard made a plan in case what they found beyond the dolmen was dangerous.
Slumber made as if to lead him around the dolmen, but Kymeret shook his head. “In all the stories,” he said, “one often finds the end of one’s quest through portals and passages. We have come through the darkness of the cave, and now I must pass through the gate of these ancient stones.”
Deep within himself, he wondered yet again if he were not leading them all on a hunt to the end of the world to find only his own death by an arrow wound weeks past. But it would not do to become lost in such thoughts.
If my death comes, he thought, it comes. I have tried my best.
They passed between the standing stones that supported a huge flat stone overhead.
Perhaps this leads to some other world in which my pain will fade. Idle wishes at journey’s end.
They emerged from the dolmen and saw before them another, smaller lake, held within the arms of another mountain. Dawn was yet to come to this vale, but something glowed in the center of the still water. He could not see it clearly, yet it seemed to dance and sway, both within and without the water, as if the water’s surface had no meaning.
Then the movement slowed, and the lambent glow dimmed. Though he could see no eyes or other features, he felt within his bones that he was being watched and measured. It wasn’t the mere appearance of water, but the movement of water, never still, never the same from one moment to the next.
He handed his staff to Slumber, and lowered his furs and cloak to the ground. In the warmth of this valley, he barely needed the furs anyway. Slowly and painfully, he limped into the water, trying not to fall as the pain soared each time he put weight upon his wounded leg.
“Be ready,” whispered Yonai behind him… but for what?
When the water was deep enough, he lifted his legs and began to swim slowly toward the being that was both of, and not of, the lake. Until at last he floated before the Undine that curled arms of water around to embrace him.
* * * * *
The air was gone, yet still he breathed. Water flowed down his throat and into his lungs, and he breathed. It was clear and sweet as a ripping brook after endless thirst.
He felt the water hold him, and he did not fall.
Kymeret heard the thoughts of the water wash over him. Not in words, though something in his mind confined the waves and swirls of thought into Elvish words so that he could make sense of them. In words his mind responded, because he knew no other way.
Kymeret of Faerthale.
Faerthale. Water flows past the glittering cities and their shadowed ruins, rains upon the birth and death of civilizations. And always the spilling of red water in ceaseless wars as mortals and their gods collide. Through hate, though the craving for power and indifference to suffering, through the barbed flesh of rage.
I know, he thought.
Water flows down mountains, through rivers past shores with names given them by whatever peoples live along those shores. But the water never hears those names.
And now he could not put his answer into words. Instead he remembered the journey, the longing, the shape of his heart as he led his companions into unknown lands. HIs vision of what he sought.
Hate or love?
Uncertainty, so the water repeated.
Hate or love?
He shook his head.
He nodded. I have killed many times.
Hate or love?
Are you asking me to choose?
Why do I kill?
Images of his companions in his mind, the sounds of their voices. I kill for my companions, my iskele. They are my friends, my family, my life. I kill with them, beside them, so that all of us might carry on. I would die for them, if they would live.
I fight and kill for love.
The water swirled around him, and the light grew until he was surrounded by a clear light that didn’t burn his eyes.
You wish to meet them? In his mind, he pictured his iskele, those companions he had grown up with, journeyed with, fought beside.
But the water meant something else. He saw his Fury, fire that also fought by his side, tickled his skin, laughed in playful, hungry chaos. He saw his Titan, beast of burden that had carried him, defended him.
And then there they were, but different than he had always seen them. They had always before shifted into shapes that his mind could understand and expect. But now the fire leapt unafraid in the spaces that the water left behind, and the stone allowed the water to caress its shapes and cracks.
And Kymeret could no longer force the thoughts of water, stone, and fire into boxes of words that he could hold and understand. He only felt the fire snapping at air while the stone grumbled, and patterns in the water spoke of mirth.
But he knew, somehow, that the Undine was surprised. That she had expected a man with chains forged of magic dragging behind him his enslaved arcamentals of fire and stone. Instead, he floated within a dance as long-time friends told tales of him to the water. And the water was pleased.
Mortal. The meaning of the splash was clear.
Yes, he thought.
And in bubbling laughter she spoke, and swirled around him in the lake, and then she flowed along his leg, and the warmth of healing followed. The pain drifted away on a current and he lay back smiling at the sky.
The sky. For he floated on the surface of the water, and morning light had bloomed above. Splashing around him were Slumber and Yonai, lifting his by his arms and calling his name.
“Fine,” he said, and smiled. “I am fine.”
And he raised a hand, and water flowed along his hand and up his arm to splash upon his face.
“She will travel with us for a time.”