Adventure of the Realm of Creation II
They spend the winter on the Island of Severity. Time seems to pass very slowly, though the weather never grows as cold as the knights are used to, nor do the days grow as dark. Nevertheless the season is somewhat grim. Eventually the fishermen of the island persuade the knights to accompany them on their trips, from which they always return crusted with ice.
Apparently, no one dies of old age here; they tend to succumb to the forces of nature first. Nor does any islander ever become violent with another; given the cruelties of the environment, it would be somewhat redundant.
February comes and goes, and they wonder how things are faring in their distant homeland. The marlin begin to swarm, and the fishing is good. The time to depart is coming; healed of their wounds, the knights begin to make ready their boat. Isaac mounts Old Strangler's beak on the prow.
At last the knights and their guide set out to the northeast, toward the Island of Beauty. One day, after a storm has passed and the sea is calm and clear, they think they can see all the way to the bottom. Then the bottom moves. It keeps moving. A tail passes. The four look around at the calm sea.
A second later, a mountain explodes from the sea besides them. It is a fish the size of a castle, and it surfaces, turns, and splashes back with a thunderclap of sound and a wave that pushes their small boat more than a dozen yards. Not Leviathan, they agree when their hearts have started beating again; Isaac says it was a whale, although he has never heard of one that big. Richard decides that when he gets home he is never getting in a boat again. The whale's head pokes out of the water and it makes a strange, moaning noise, then dives again. (Much later they are told that it is probably the whale that swallowed Jonah).
The next morning, they hear the sound of surf and see in the distance an island. It is shaped much like those in the Realm of Foundation, with a forested central mountain surrounded by land sloping down to the sea. It appears to be rather sizeable. The mountain itself has a raggedly flat top, suggesting a plateau.
They are approaching what looks like a keep of some kind, with high marble towers, and a town with marble walls.
The knights do what little they can to repair their ragged appearance, and step out to meet the crowd. There is no harbor, so they bring the boat in to the beach and draw it up a little ways on the brightly colored sand. Several men run down onto the beach and help them with the boat; they seem rather impressed by it.
A crowd has gathered to meet them. Everyone they can see is stunningly beautiful. Elffin's striking good looks, which stand out even in Camelot, are suddenly no more than average, and as for the others, they are looked upon with a certain disdainful curiosity.
Everything on this island is physically perfect. The rocks, the trees, the birds, the houses, all appear as they would in an ideal painting, all exquisitely fashioned or perfectly formed by nature. In the midst of the town stands a white tower, marble without any visible joins between blocks; it may have been cut from a single piece of stone. A river passes through the town. The wind seems perfumed by flowers. Somehow none of it is overwhelming, it's all just... perfect.
Just stepping onto the sand seems to give the knights a certain spark to their eye and new strength to their stance, and the grime of the travel seems to vanish. They are greeted by a bearded, elaborately dressed man who introduces himself as Micah, castellan of Lord Machir, and welcomes them as guests.
The people of the Island of Beauty, he says, do not go to sea; all that they need is provided for them on their island, granted to them by God. Even, Micah adds, in these dark days.
Dark days? The knights exchange a somewhat weary glance; it seems that again, it is their fate to try to resolve the difficulties plaguing these lands. God has set them a difficult task.
The crowd follows them toward the castle; Aeron overhears some unkind remarks about his and Richard's appearance, which he strives to ignore. Someone says that they "look like pale men," whatever that might mean, given that by this time the knights' skin has attained a rather leathery state. Except for Elffin, of course. No one knows how he does it.
They cross a delicately fashioned bridge to reach the town and its tower. The gates appear to be beaten silver. Within the tower is a great hall, decorated with glazed ceramic and carved stone. In one corner is a sand painting. In the center, on a ceramic throne, sits an old man, with an empty throne beside him. Like the others, they are very beautiful. On lower chairs, to his right is seated a middle-aged man of impressive build (his son, Ben Hadad), and to his left a lovely young woman.
At this point, Richard realizes that he is in Hell. Surrounded by the most beautiful women imaginable (well, maybe not quite as beautiful as Queen Guenevere), he would cheerfully do anything to have one of them, can't keep his eyes off themand he can't look anywhere without seeing at least oneand they will barely consider him human.
Lord Machir greets them graciously. When told of their quest, he grows solemn, and the young woman (his daughter Anor) bursts into tears. The lord tells her not to weep; perhaps God has sent the strangers to end the tragedy which envelopes their land. He tells the travelers that the island's king, Ahaz, sits in his Tower of Glory, where he has the cured skin of a unicorn, which is the holy parchment they seek.
The Tower of Glory, however, is being kept under siege by the Pale Men, who are led by an evil warrior who came from afar. He is, of course, the Knight of the Black and White Eagle. The people of the island have fallen to warring among themselves, and have been unable to bring a united force to break the siege.
The knights are not entirely surprised to find their enemy here before them, but they are troubled by the lord's words, and they take counsel with him and his son. The tables have stone tops, and the wooden furniture is inlaid with brightly colored ceramics. When Richard remarks that they must be difficult to move, he is told that they are never moved, that everything on the island is as beautiful as it can be; this is their gift from God. In this way many crafts have been lost to them, such as the ones used to build the five towers; once the towers had been built, there was no need to build more, and the means of making them was left behind in time.
Machir tells them about the politics of the island which have led it to the brink of internal war. King Ahaz is old; his son Chadron feels that it is past time for him to step down from the throne, but the king refuses to do so. Such a thing has never happened before. Chadron has taken refuge with lord Yazur in the Tower of Virtue, where he has gathered the island's finest young warriors and fallen into a life of dissolution. Ahaz outcast his son in retribution for his disrespect. Some of the lords have taken one side, and some the other.
The evil knight had arrived a few months ago and visited each of the courts, attempting to exploit their differences, apparently wishing to rule the islandalthough of course, he was far too unlovely to ever succeed at that, Machir remarks. Corvid being, as they recall, a man of comely appearance, Richard silently bids his chances of romantic success farewell.
Corvid had then turned to the barbaric Pale Men, who live in the deep forests of the island with the panthers and wyverns, and recruited them to his cause. He taught them how to make metal weapons and catapults, and laid siege to the Tower of Glory. Chadron's warriors had tried to break the siege, indeed several separate forces have made the attempt, but disunited as they are, none has succeeded. No one knows how long the king's forces can hold out. Worst of all, the Pale Men have been trying to dam the four springs which flow down from the mountain and bring fresh water to the four towers and their towns.
Lord Machir himself has few warriors in his Tower of Loyalty. Lords Joshua and Pernak oppose Chadron fiercely, but many of their younger fighters have gone over to the prince. Indeed, war itself is more of a hobby than anything else for the people of the island; other than the incursions of the Pale Men, who until Corvid's arrival were too poorly armed to present a serious threat, they fight only for the beauty of the art, and in usual times they carry only blunted weapons. Their attacks against the invaders have failed in part because their view of warfare is more chivalrous than pragmatic; a full-scale attack that relies solely on the bravery of the participants to assure success seems their favored tactic.
At least it seems that the Eagle Knight does not have any of his other knights with him. All the knights have to do is unify the island, break the siege, rescue the king, and challenge Corvid to a death duel. That shouldn't be much harder than killing a giant octupus.
They spend the night at the Tower of Loyalty, where Machir provides a gracious table for the visitors. The entertainment during the feast consists of a sand painting, something the knights have never witnessed. The finished scene is of them (or much-improved versions of them) stepping out of their boat on the island's shore. Richard tries to flirt with a serving girl and receives a colder than usual response. He's rather gloomy and quiet for the rest of the evening.
Most of the conversation concerns the siege and what the strangers might be able to do to break it. Most of them seem to think the knights have been sent by God, although a few do wonder why He sent such ugly assistance (aside from the red-haired one, who is passable-looking). There are a couple of rumors that Chadron's men are actually allied with the Pale Men and are just biding their time. One suggests that all of this is a punishment on King Ahaz for not stepping down as he should have. Ben Hadad is evidently torn between loyalty to his father and a certain wish to be with the young radicals around Chadron.
The stars that night are beautiful. Despite its troubles, just to breathe the air of this island is a delight. The knights share a single chamber with three beds. There's a mirror there, bigger and clearer
than anything produced in England.
After taking counsel with Isaac, the knights decide to reconnoiter the area of the siege and see if it would be possible to slip someone through the lines to speak with the king. Then they will visit lord Yazur; there they might speak to the prince and see if there is any way he would be willing to reconcile with his father, or at least come to some kind of temporary truce that will serve to break the current stalemate.
The next day they go up the mountain, with three porters to carry their armor. They are heartened to find that this island has smiths capable of repairing some of the damage it has sustained since they began their travels. The knights are again impressed by Isaac's durability, but also slightly troubled by a new note that seems to have entered his speech now that he has revealed the true goal of their quest; it is obvious that the sacred stones are a life goal that at times seems to almost devour him.
Outside the town are a few scattered farms and a number of mines, bringing up various stones and, oddly enough to their minds, some dirt. Maybe it's some special kind for the sand paintings. A well-used wagon road leads up the mountain, beside the river, where the water seems to be very low. From a distance they spot a giant stone structure, which eventually appears as a huge, featureless cube the size of any two castles, with doors on each face. The porters don't seem anxious to linger there; it is the island's Necropolis, where they store their dead. Isaac wants to know if they are preserved, as mummies, perhaps, to keep them from rotting, but the porters inform him that those of the tribe of Naphtali do not decay. The group moves on, quickly, discussing tactics they might use against the invaders, or to destroy the dams.
At dusk they are very near the area of the siege, and the porters are nervous. They camp just outside the dangerous zone. The porters seem upset about the lack of a fire; the knights are getting the impression that these people really don't know very much about fighting. Torches are visible in the distance, farther up the river, and the wind carries the sound of chanting in an unknown language. The Pale Men.
They get started just before dawn, leaving the porters at the camp as they work their way through the forests toward what is obviously the construction site for one of the dams. The Pale Men are obviously having some trouble building it, given the force of the water as it gushes forth from its spring, but it appears nearly finished. The Pale Men are bald and nearly neckless, with a gangly build, wearing what seem crude imitations of European clothing. The foreman keeps switching back and forth between their native language and French. There are roughly thirty workers, and fifteen more on guard, carrying maces and spears. While they watch, one of the workers is carried away by the current and quickly disappears.
Beyond the work site is a slope leading up to the edge of the plateau, atop which they can dimly see fortifications, a catapult, and armed men moving about.
After some minutes of observation, the knights devise a cunning plan. Well, maybe a slightly insane plan, but it's the only one they have, and they feel the need to act boldly. The four of them circle the work crew and climb the slope; there is a short stretch of open space they will have to cross before they can gain the top. After a moment to prepare, they sprint the final twenty yards, up the steep slope, toward the catapult. After a quick fight they overpower the startled guards and cut the engine loose, then push it over to the road, which cuts through the rim of the crater.
In the meantime, they get a look at the situation atop the mountain. Much their surprise, there is no plateau; the ring of rock is fairly narrow, enclosing a steep, round (beautiful) valley. At the center is the Tower of Glory, standing slightly higher than the depth of the crater, surrounded by the camps of the Pale Men. There certainly seem to be a lot of them. Some of them have noticed the disturbance and are heading in the knights' direction. They see the eagle standard on the far side of the crater rim.
Three arrows zip by, glancing off the knights' shields. Once the catapult starts moving down the slope, there's very little they can do but hold on. Richard misses his grip and sprints after it while the others reach back to try to grab him and barely manage to haul him on board as Isaac makes an attempt to steer. More arrows fly. The catapult bounces over the ruts in the road. A squad of Pale Men from the dam stands in the road to try to stop them. The two who manage not to run are run over. Then they enter the wooded part of the road, which takes a sudden sharp turn. The catapult does not.
There is a hideous amount of crashing noise. The knights discover that trees at high speed hurt a lot; Aeron cracks a few ribs and Richard might have a concussion, and Isaac took a nasty knock to the head as well. Their porters appear, yelling that the Pale Men are coming, so they find cover in the woods and tend each others wounds while they wait for the excitement to die down. Then they head back down to the Tower of Loyalty.
Everyone is surprised to see them return in such condition, and they are taken to their chamber and tended to. Richard's concussion having evidently led to his forgetting what happened last time, he tries flirting with one of the nurses, Nomah. Much to his amazement, she actually seems to like him, even if it is in a sort of pitying way.
Their mission has been somewhat successful; they have the lay of the land, know that it will be almost possible make it through the lines to speak with the king, and can estimate the strength of the enemy. The open area before the rim will make any approach difficult, and they discuss shield walls and the possibility of bringing up siege engines of their own. The idea of talking to the wyvern, the traditional enemy of the Pale Men, and perhaps arranging some alliance, is also considered. The only strategy that seems likely to succeed is a full-scale attack from all four directions at once. Once they have a foothold on the rim, they can work their way out in both directions, turning any captured catapults on the besiegers.
The knights stay for a while, healing up from their little adventure with the catapult. Elffin polishes his already scintillating social skills at the frequent parties, and even almost manages to keep up with their dancing. There is a good deal of pro-Chadron sentiment among the keep's younger population, but they are also very fond of their lord. There is a sense of hovering crisis and confusion, because the only tactic they know how to apply isn't working all of the sudden. Elffin tries to talk some sense into them by promoting the knights' plan, and the crowd catches fire with enthusiasm, ready to set off the next morning. Fortunately or unfortunately, they're as easily dissauded as persuaded, and they accept the idea that they must wait before making their move.
Lord Yazur holds the Tower of Courage, which is on the other side of the island. Their boat provides the fastest route. Around noon they pass the Tower of Virtue, and shortly after nightfall they arrive at their destination and beach their ship. This tower is studded with huge jewels, and the houses of the town are decorated with gems and precious metals. As they approach the tower, the knights are met by six armed men who have very clearly been drinking heavily. One is Manessa, son of Lord Yazur, and seems to be in charge. Once the knights have declared themelves as enemies of the Black and White Eagle, all suspicion falls away and they are invited up to the tower, where a sizeable party is going on.
Two men in loincloths are wrestling in the middle of the hall. The larger of the two they have heard of from Machir; he is Adam Stronghews, the best warrior on the island. On the far side of the room is slightly older man who doesn't seem anywhere near as drunk as everyone else; Lord Yazur. Prince Chadrun is playing a lyre for two attentive damsels.
Alas, Richard proves easily distracted as they make their way through the press, and wanders off. The others look around at one point and see him on the other side of the room, racing to the bottom of a wineskin. Elffin diplomatically suggests that perhaps he should stay and see if he can glean any information while he and Aeron go up to take counsel with the lord. Richard not being particularly skilled in such tasks, he learns little and meets such withering resistance from the women in attendance that he quickly retreats to a corner with some more wine, feeling very sorry for himself and put upon, and proceeds to get thoroughly drunk.
Yazur tells them about the failed attack of two weeks before, the unexpected tactics the Eagle had used. Elffin explains the plan the knights have come up with. Yazur is skeptical about their chances of unifying the quarreling lords. He is also extremely displeased by the way the young warriors have taken over his tower and proceeded to exhaust his resources in their constant debauchery; he feels he is no longer truly lord here, and regrets giving Chadrun sanctuary. He has no love for Ahaz, whom he regards as a tyrant, but he has come to view the son as no better than the father.
The knights decide that the fastest way to get the attention and respect of the warriors will be to defeat them physically. Defeating Stronghews, for instance, would certainly give the natives pause.
The knights make a plan, and manage to extract Richard from his puddle of self-pity before he winds up in the same condition as the rest of the party-goers. Early the next morning, as a fine mist cloaks the land, they put their idea into action. Striding into the main hall, the three see the detritus of the night's activities lying unconscious in pools of wine, and less pleasant things. Some servants accompany them with anything handy that will make a lot of noise. They're carrying the blunted weapons common on the islandthey don't want to kill anyone, after all, they need these men in fighting condition. They note that while the blunt swords are beautiful, they are not well-made or well-balanced.
Manessa is slumped next to the door. The banging starts. The knights issue their challenge; they're willing to fight the entire dissipated, cowardly lot of them. Manessa thinks he can do this by himself, and attacks Aeron. After taking a neatly placed blow, he sits down and decides not to get back up. A few others are awake, and beginning to take in what's going on, prompted by the visitors' taunts.
Stronghews goes after Aeron, who laid him out with one masterful blow. The entire room goes silent. Elffin makes a little speech about their intent to go against the Pale Men; Prince Chadrun's attempt to argue quickly becomes an attack, and then he, too, is on the floor. Lord Yazur appeals to the warriors to listen to the visitors and to follow them, to remember what they used to be. The knights can only hope that once they're sober, the men before them, currently having their injuries tended, will actually turn out to be capable fighters.
Elffin goes to talk to the prince, while Aeron speaks with Stronghews, to make certain that these two leaders will be with them when they make the attempt. Chadrun reluctantly agrees to accept a truce if the others will as well, though he warns that any agreement will hold him only until the Pale Men have been defeated. Stronghews seems downright comradely with Aeron after his defeat, and is entirely willing to take part in another attack as Chadrun's warchief. His enthusiasm is obviously greater than his ability, given what he and his men have accomplished to date, but he recognizes that the visitors have experience and training the natives lack, and agrees to follow their advice.
The visitors put sixty warriors through their paces and see that once they sober up they're not really bad at what they do, which comes as some relief. Their weapons are not as well-made as the knights', and like those of every island they have visited are made of bronze, but they are passable. Isaac goes to work producing the special shields they will need to get their men close enough to attack the rim, and shows the local armorers how to make them as well.
With that worry dispatched, the knights split up to contine moving their plans forward. Aeron remains behind to continue the training and make certain that incipient factionalism does not distract the young warriors from the task ahead of them. Richard, Isaac and Lord Yazur will visit Lord Pernak and attempt to persuade him to join their cause, while Elffin speaks with Joshua. The cousins will meet up again at the Tower of Loyalty, and if all goes well, the combined forces of the island will mount their assault in one week.
Night falls before Elffin can reach the Tower of Virtue, so he spends the night in a peasant hut, which happens to have an exquisite tapestry depicting the Battle of Jericho on the wall. In the morning, he goes on to the Tower, which is of plain marble. This area seems to rely on textiles for most of its decorations. Lord Joshua is expecting him, thanks to the messengers from the Tower of Loyalty. He is not, however, happy to see him; he regards Chadrun as a traiter, though he respects Stronghews and regrets his alliance with the rebellious prince.
Eventually, Elffin's well-trained tongue leads the way to an agreement despite the lord's resistance. Chadrun wants Stronghews to marry his daughter, Haggah, and to lead the force rather than Chadrun, with Aeron assisting him. If these things can be promised, he is willing to participate. Runners are sent back to Courage with the marriage contract. Lord Joshua announces that he will accompany Elffin when he departs, presumeably to make certain there is no deceit; as they converse, it is apparent to Elffin that his host is a very prideful, suspicious man.
Richard's visit to Penach at the Tower of Humility involves less political finesse (which is why he was sent there). He takes the boat; Lord Yazur is not very happy about this, but nothing befalls them on the journey. This tower features stained glass as its primary motif, mostly depicting scenes from the Old Testament.
Things get off to a rocky start; Penach demands of Yazur how he dare show his face at this tower, when he has given shelter to the traitor! Richard manages to present the knights' plan, with Isaac's assistance. Like Joshua, the lord does not want any part of it initially. Eventually he even directly calls Richard a liar. Richard of course issues a challenge, which is taken up by Penach's son, and is victorious. Penach is more willing to listen after that, but refuses to commit himself. He declares that he will follow whatever Lord Joshua decides.
Back at the Tower of Courage, training continues. Everyone participates enthusiastically except the prince and a few of his cronies. The runner from Lord Joshua appears to speak with Stronghews, who later speaks with Aeron. Stronghews has a problem with his sudden promotion to general, since he has oaths of loyalty to Chadrun. When he goes to speak with Chadrun about this, the prince is predictably displeased with them both and dismisses Adam from his service. Stronghews wants to refuse Joshua and remain loyal to Chadrunwho retreats to his chambers to sulk with some of his cronies, avoiding the general practice sessions. Stronghews proves unaware of the value of discretion, and soon pretty much everyone knows everything about what's going on and is arguing about which side is in the right.
Then Elffin returns, in the morning as everyone is drilling; Aeron explains the situation to him. He talks to the prince himself. There is a good deal of shouting, and eventually Chadrun attacks him bare-handed. Elffin fends him off and puts his sword to the prince's throat. Under the circumstances, Chadrun sees the light and reluctantly agrees to follow the plan. Stronghews and Haggah are officially betrothed. Joshua and Chadrun continue to dislike each other, but behave themselves when in public. Planning begins in earnest.
Richard had gone on to the Tower of Loyalty as previously planned; Elffin meets him there and explains the plan and the fact that the alliance they have negotiated is built on very shaky ground. There is the expectation that Chadrun might have some treachery planned against Lord Joshua, which they must be on their guard against; his capitulation was a bit too sudden. They return to the Tower of Courage.
The knights' armor has been repaired (and much-decorated), the large shields to protect from arrows are finished, the training has gone well, and everything is coordinated for the attack. Richard spends a pleasant (and chaste, thank you) evening with Nomah. The next morning, the assault on the mountain begins!
Their force pauses at mid-day to rest, then continues toward their goal. The men of the island seem to be aware that the entire future of their land may rest upon this battle. They camp for the night slightly below their previous resting place, hoping to remain outside the notice of the Pale Men.
In the morning, they creep through the forest ever so slowly, shields at hand, until the moment arrives; the shofars blow, the men shout and spring into action, and the assault is joined. There are no horns from the south, however.
New fortifications have been built since the knights' visit. There can be no slacking, no retreat. Arrows fly toward the attackers as they assault the barriers in the roadway, trying to push them aside. The Pale Men throw rocks and hot oil at them, forcing the attackers back from one of the barriers. At another of the roads, the warriors force their way through; abandoning the plan, they charge down into the crater. Elffin orders them back, supported by Stronghews, and they return before they can be slaughtered. Lord Penach is in trouble; Richard takes a detachment to his aid.
The fighting is fierce, but the attackers gain a foothold on the crater rim and start working their way outward. Stronghews takes some men and breaks through a lightly guarded position, bringing more men up behind him. Elffin is wounded to unconsciousness and carried off the field.
They spy the eagle standard, rallying the Pale Men, massacring Lord Joshua's troops to the north. Aeron takes some men and heads in that direction, lest they lose that whole sector of the rim. Richard attempts to work his way in that direction, as the rest of the battle seems to be fairly well in hand, but is slowed by the sheer number of Pale Men in the way.
Thus, it is Sir Aeron of Winterbourne who encounters Sir Corvid at last upon the field of battle, and they do not waste long in words. Aeron's sword appears guided by the hand of God Himself, taking vengeance against this false knight. The battle around them is silenced by the spectacle of the two in their dance of blood. Corvid foams and rages against his foe as they trade blows, but to no avail, for though the effort wounds him sorely, at last Aeron claims the spoils of victory. Corvid's armor and sword are of very high quality, but he doesn't seem to have any other belongings aside from a small talisman with symbols of Freemasonry etched upon it. Isaac takes charge of it, predicting a power struggle as soon as news reaches Europe of the knight's death.
The warriors of the island have won the day, but they have taken many losses. They are beautiful even in death. Prince Chadrun is among the dead. Lord Malchir and the others form a small conclave to congratulate the knights on the victory, and pass on the news that Ahaz has died during the siege. As his heir is also dead, this leaves them in something of a quandary. Eventually it is decided that the lords will hold a conclave and choose a new king. Lord Malchir is their choice, leaving the Tower of Loyalty without a lord; although his son takes over for the time being, a man cannot be both a lord and a king. Elffin suggests a contest of arms to choose the new lord, an idea the natives seem to like. The young warriors leave Yazur in peace and return to their own lands. Richard tries to write a poem for Nomah, but it doesn't turn out very well, much to his chagrin. Meanwhile, he dreams of Deboret; usually, she's yelling at him about something. It's very strange. Elffin finds a lady of his own to pass the time with. Aeron isn't interested; a glow of sanctity seems to hover around him since his battle with Corvid. Haggah and Stronghews get married to much general rejoicing.
The conclave also ceremoniously presents the knights with a square piece of the unicorn parchment in an elaborate case. Spring arrives on the Island of Beauty. After (again) recuperating from their wounds, they set sail for the Island of Mercy. During the journey, a storm comes up. Richard's armor washes overboard. So does Elffin. His cousin is saved; the armor is lost. Richard accepts this philosophically, as part and parcel of the luck that has been his since they set off on this quest. Then the wind rips the sail away. Once the storm has passed, they start rowing.
Hesod is a land of steep peaks and valleys, their heights shrouded in mists, as is much of the island itself; little is known of it. The tribe of Asher lives there, but there is no immediate sign of inhabitants. Eventually they discover a small lagoon at a river mouth, with a waterfall plunging into it.
Merely to stand upon its soil is to be eased of all hurts; they feel wonderful. Fruits grow lavishly on the trees for the taking, and birds sing everywhere, every kind imaginable. The interior of the island is a maze of narrow valleys. They start walking, leaving their armor on the ship. A brief shower passes, refreshing them. They find themselves singing, for no particular reason. Elffin feeds the birds some fruit. Lions are lying with lambs under the trees. The thought of eating meat suddenly seems vaguely repulsive to the visitors.
The night is peaceful; mist hides the stars. In the morning they wander further, in no hurry, sure that when the time is right for them to complete this portion of their quest, God will give them some sign. They find a deep pool and a waterfall and stop for a bath and a swim. They hear voices, and suddenly someone gives a shout and dives into the pool from the top of the waterfall. Then another.
The tribe of Asher turns out to a very friendly sort of people. They live in small bands and wander up and down the mountains and valleys. They have a special task assigned by God, which is to harvest material from the clouds and make it into copies of the Torah; they also weave incredibly soft clothing from this stuff. Watching them do this is absolutely fascinating, since they reach the clouds by catching rides on peculiar floating seeds. A group of men would stand and watch the tree for several minutes, waiting for a seed to ripen. When it does, it starts to move. A man scrambles up the tree, runs out onto the branch, springs off it like a diving board and catches the bunch of seeds in mid-air; they carry him up into the mists, from which he descends with hands full of gold and silver strands of cloud.
When the knights explain that they are seeking a quill, the natives are quite puzzled; the island holds at least one of every bird that exists in the world, but they know nothing of a special quill. They suggest the visitors should seek out the simurgh, which is the wisest of all birds, and lives on one of the island's peaks (no one knows which one). The Old Hermit might be able to help them find the simurgh; alone of the people on the island he wanders alone, rather than with a band.
The travelers spend a pleasant night with the band. In the middle of the night Richard wakes because a monkey is investigating his ear. When it runs away it uses Aeron's head as a springboard. After more fruit, they set off in the morning to find the Old Hermit, relying on Richard's skill in tracking to keep from getting entirely lost. They're in no hurry.
Crossing a river, the current sweeps Richard away and over a waterfall; splashing down into the pool below he nearly falls directly on top of a fat man bathing there. Soon the others follow. This is, of course, the Old Hermit, a jolly joking fellow. They share some fruit, and explain that they are seeking the simurgh. He points out the correct peak (a highly vertical one they could never climb) and explains that in order to speak to the simurgh, they must move a boulder from the trail. To do that, they must prove they are pure of heart, and to do that they must collect three items (collective groan): the tears of a raven, the blood of a pelican, and the heart of a swan.
The travelers assume that they are not to kill the birds in question, for to kill is forbidden on this island; therefore the items are riddles, with some hidden meaning. Perhaps these are metaphors for the virtues they are supposed to carry in their own hearts? Pelicans feed their young their own blood, so perhaps that means faith, or piety. Swans mate for life, so perhaps that is love. The raven is a battlefield bird that weeps for the dead it consumes; it might mean their sorrow for those they have slain in battle.
While they puzzle over this, the Old Hermit disappears from view. The mist has covered the simurgh mountain again, and they're no longer sure which peak it was anyway. Although they're sure the riddles are not meant to be taken literally, they head for the coast, where they might be able to locate a pelican.
If they have guessed right on the items, they have some problems, for none of them seem to have the sort of love that would be proper to a swan in their lives, and they're pretty uncertain on the raven part. They decide to find one of the other bands and see if they know anything about ravens. They get lost. Night falls just as they stumble across another band. This group seems less friendly than the first, although they are willing to talk about birds. When a raven is saddened by what it must do to live, it comes to this island to rest, and weep. Swans and their mates visit when they are first married, to enjoy the flowering of their love.
That night the Old Hermit appears; his sense of humor doesn't seem to agree with the band's leader, and he acts as if he does not know the travelers, who shrug and go along with it. He mentions that anyone who can answer five riddles can talk to the simurgh, but no one knows what the riddles are. The knights exchange a confused glance. One of the riddles is the old "What walks on four legs" which Isaac knows the answer to. Elffin asks what the other four riddles are.
What four riddles? the hermit asks. He who would speak to the simurgh must demonstrate knowledge of the kingdom of birds; only someone who can speak the speech of the birds themselves could possibly pass this test. There is said to be a fountain that grants knowledge of this speech; he points off in what could very well be a random direction.
This sort of thing goes on for a while. Eventually the Hermit takes his leave and wanders away. In the morning, the knights continue to wander, not even sure what they might be seeking any more. They come across a pond with some swans swimming there. They try talking to them, just in case. One of them nips Elffin.
Another night passes. Some time after dawn, someone says, "Good morning." It's a parrot. "Guava? Guava?" Elffin finds some and gives it to the bird, which immediately adopts him. He names it Guava. It seems to prefer riding on top of his head to a polite perch on his shoulder; perhaps something about the red of his hair. It chatters in a way that almost seems to make sense at times. Elffin asks it what they should do. "Old man," it says. "Old man. Simurgh! Old Man. Guava, guava."
What if the Old Hermit is the simurgh? They set off in search of him. Richard comes across a strange feather. They cross a clearing in which a band of natives is giving care of one of the cloud-spun Torahs to a large, albatross-like bird in a solemn ceremony. They have not seen the Old Hermit; the travelers spend the night with them and continue their search in the morning.
"Simurgh!" Guava announces. A huge shadow passes over them; they give chase. Elffin calls out, and they hear the Old Hermit answer; they head in the direction of his voice and hear something large crashing through the brush, glimpse him dashing away. They sprint after him, dash through a thicket and find themselves falling off a cliff, the vast wingspan of the simurgh cutting the air in front of them.
They splash down into water. "That," Elffin announces, "was not nice."
The simurgh perches on a rock in front of them and preens loose a large feather for their quill. She apologizes a bit for the trick; she's 20,000 years old and doesn't get to do this sort of thing very often. They explain their answers to the riddles, just to see if they were right, but the simugh won't confirm it.
Then she tells them, "Gaze upon the word." In rock of the cliff above them is inscribed the Hebrew letters that spell "entrance." This is what they must write upon their parchment, with their ink and quill.
The final step of the quest is upon them; the knights take their leave of the simurgh with many thanks, and find their boat. Isaac believes that they must each write one of the four letters in the Word, and shows the knights how to form them. The quill is large and somewhat awkward to write with, but the ink dries to shades of gold and silver when they finish. The knights collect food from the trees. They run into another band, which happens to have a large sheet, suitable for replacing their sail; God told them to make it. The travelers aren't even surprised. The word "entrance" is woven into the cloth.
Ahead of them lies the Realm of the Supernals. Guava comes along. "Jewels," it squawks. "Let's get jewels!"
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© 1999 David Twiddy