“They took your sister,” the pot-maker explained, “down by the river. We found her water jar on the bank, broken, and signs of a struggle. They took her into the forest.”
“Didn’t anyone go after her?” Thorn asked.
Wearing a chief’s straw hat, Ahgor shrugged, scratching his prominent belly. “All the young men were on hunt, and she was just a girl-child after all.”
Thorn’s hand curled into a fist. Rage flushed through him. He nearly choked on it. Ahgor flinched in fear, then recovered, remembering his position.
Xan--Looking like some great flightless bird with his feather cloak--grabbed Thorns upper arm as he turned to go. The weathered shaman stared with ancient eyes. “Don’t go after them, Thorn. I smell an evil wind. One of these strangers is a devil-caller. Mira’s probably dead already--sacrificed in blood rite.”
“I can’t accept that,” Thorn said, “not until I’ve done all I can to save her.” He pulled his arm free. “Which way did they head?”
“Into the great woods,” Ahgor said, “toward the earth-heart.”
The name gave Thorn pause. The earth-heart was a sacred place of legendary power, a green crystal the size of a chieftain’s lodge lay there. Some called it the exhumed heart of a world offering itself to the sky. Many journeyed there for Destiny’s blessing, for the blade protruding from the jewel. Engraved lettering on the black iron hilt promised that he who drew the sword would hold the world. The devil-caller must want Mira for a sacrifice to free the blade. She’ll be kept alive until they reach the sword so I should have just enough time.
He ran without further word. Beyond the village gate, shaped by the feet of hunters and woodcutters, a rough track led into forest where the jade gloom was occasionally broken by bright green shafts of leaf-filtered sunlight. Thorn slowed to a steady lope. The surrounding boles were impressive, requiring four or five men standing hand in hand to encircle any one of them. And the trees would only get larger as he neared the earth-heart. Their expanding girth was a constant guide along with the blue moss that favored the north side of trunks.
Crowded by brush and vines, the path narrowed to a game trail. He heard the clacking of the stones and knew there was a tribe of furred ones in the area, pounding open the shells of riverbed crawlers, their favorite food. The shamblers were generally harmless to men unless riled.
He kept his bearings, letting the forest pass in a blur. Soon he came to the great rock crease that walled the earth heart in. This was his chance to make up lost time. Most of those seeking the legendary sword took the easy route around the crater ridge to its broken side. He climbed it instead, clinging precariously to cracks and outcrops, dragging himself ever upward.
Fortunately, there were plenty of spurs and fissures for purchase. The ascent went quickly. The opposite side of the ridge was much less steep. He scrambled down it easily. There were no trees within the crater, only brush and moss-sheeted stone underfoot. He had a clear view of the earth-heart itself. It caught the noon sun, bathing the area with a diffused green light. He didn’t see the sword hilt as he drew near. The blade must be on the other side.
Next to the great crystal, he was dwarfed. And its beauty even pierced the worry clouding his soul. It was strange; he’d heard of this wonder all his life but it took his sister’s capture to bring him here.
An icy hand seemed to grasp his heart as he touched the crystal face with both hands. There was a pale smudge deep within it, surfacing as he watched. He saw a mask of gold-green ice within the stone, a woman’s face--only it wasn‘t a mask. The eyes were silver stars. They peered through him, scrying his soul. The disembodied face smiled in invitation, then receded from sight.
He wasn’t sure how long he stood there, abstracted with wonder. Finally, he shook off the spell, recalling his sister’s need. He began to circle the great stone. A quarter of the way around it, he paused, hearing voices. Peering carefully around the curve of the jewel, he saw the forest-choked break in the ridge wall. A small group of leather-clad warriors escorted a bald man in blood-hued robes with a necklace of small animal skulls. He held a tether guiding a girl with her hands tied behind her.
Mira! He throttled the impulse to leap out and take his sister back. With so many guards, he’d need the element of surprise. It was better to wait, letting the party settle in. Thorn pulled back a bit, drawing the long-knife from his boot. He had preparation of his own to complete.
He gathered fist-sized rocks and cut six matching lengths of pliant vine. He stripped the leaves from the main stem, and tied a rock to each strand. He knotted the other end of three strands, making a throwing weapon. Thorn repeated the process with the other three cords and rocks.
He’d used vine and stone tangles like these before on small game. Tossed at feet, running prey were easily dropped. Tossed around a warrior’s throat, the weapon could strangle and bludgeon at the same time. He figured he might have time for two throws, but certainly not three before needing the knife for close-quarter combat.
Thorn gripped the vines where they joined the rocks so they wouldn't swing and clack together. He wanted there to be no warning to his ambush. Edging back along the jewel, he took a position where one step would bring him into view. Snatches of conversation reached him. The head warrior was speaking to the devil-caller. “Solinus, why do you think this will work? Thousands have tried to pull the damned sword free, but it’s still here.”
“I understand the sword. The others didn‘t. The weapon refuses all masters. It will not come to the hand of one determined to dominate. A man must be willing to serve the sword to weld it. I will pledge myself to feeding it the blood it hungers for, giving it the girl. Her blood and the promise of more to come will lure the sword to come to my hand.”
Not if I kill you first, Thorn thought.
He risked a quick peek around the crystal’s curve. Things were looking up. The warriors were off to the side, well away from the earth-heart. Much closer, the devil-caller and the captain of the guard knelt by a pile of brush that was ringed with stones. As the captain lit the pile, the sorcerer laid out a mat. He sat on it, next to several small bowls, drawing an obsidian knife from his robes.
Solinus kept Mira close at hand. Her eyes were wide with fear, and bright with tears she refused to shed. Though ungagged, she didn’t bother to plead for her life.
She knows it won’t do her any good. I love the spirit in you, little sister. Well, I won’t get a better moment than now.
Thorn lunged in, his knife in his belt, a throwing tangle in each hand. He whirled the strands where they were knotted together, using a spinning step for extra power in his throw. The first tangle flew away, quickly followed by the second. They passed over the three at the fire, taking two of the more distant warriors by the neck.
“Thorn!” His sister called.
He drew his knife as the captain leaped up to meet him. They grappled, fighting for the knife. Thorn drove a knee into the other man‘s stomach, doubling him over. A second knee strike caught the warrior in the face, dropping him in a heap. Thorn turned toward Solinus. The sorcerer held a fistful of powder. He flung it toward Thorns face, creating a bilious chalk-cloud between them.
Reflexively, Thorn turned his face, falling back a step. A body slammed into him, driving him into the earth-heart. It was Solinus attacking. He’d dived through his own cloud, showing more courage than Thorn expected. The impact forced the air from his body. The knife fell from his hand.
Gasping for breath, Thorn noticed a black iron bar next to his head, the hilt to the sword of legend. He grabbed it as a sharp knife bit into his side. Things were getting desperate. The rest of the warriors were closing in and his body was failing him as shock set in.
Thorn tried to draw the sword, knowing this an impossible task. His hand lost its grip, slipping away. Time slowed as Solinus drew the jet knife back for a second stab, a delighted smile on his thin face. Thorn saw his blood staining the knife. Time slowed for him.
He knew this was his last moment. Failing his sister broke his heart. Mira, I’m sorry…
The world lurched to a stop. Long thin arms came out of the earth-heart, wrapping around him, sinking through him. He felt a rush, becoming a leaf blown across an abyss. Pain left him. The universe turned to luminous green ice. He saw the back of his body and realized that his soul was now inside the crystal.
He looked down at himself, a dark green shadow. The arms released him. He desired to turn and it happened. A woman wrapped in smoldering green silks hovered near. Her eyes were silver fire. He knew her face. She was the one he‘d seen in the crystal earlier.
Her beauty struck him like a blow though her touch was gentle on his face. Long have I waited for you, she said. Drink me in. Possess me as I possess you.
The deep core of his heart quickened. It was as if he too had been waiting forever for this moment. Thorn didn’t argue with his heart. The lady's soft lips brushed his. A terrible cold flooded his spirit-form, bringing a terrible strength--the strength of the world.
The woman stepped into him, vanishing. His jade-shadow shape grew incandescent. Then, he was outside the jewel again, his hand on the sword hilt, drawing the blade. Wreathed in unnatural fire, its metal was the green of tarnished copper. A whisper unfolded within his mind--HER voice. The lady now shared his body with him. The sword is my gift to you, she said.
Thorn brought the blade down, cleaving Solinus. He split. The pieces toppled to the ground. Small animal skulls bounced around him in celebration. The last of the warriors stopped dead in their tracks, faces twisted by fear and disbelief. They sheathed their weapons, crept closer, picked up their captain, and backed away cautiously. Thorn was glad they were not stupid enough to force his hand further. He had no desire to continue the carnage.
He stared at the dead mage, but addressed his ghost. “You were wrong; the spirit of the jewel doesn’t want to master or be mastered. That is not the path of love. The sword can only be held by one with no desire for blood or power.”
Thorn freed his sister. She hugged him fiercely, possessively. “Hey, let me breath!” he protested.
She released him to check his side. The wound was no longer there. Mira looked up into his face, her words small and thin, as if they’d just crossed some vast chasm. “Oh, Thorn, what have you done? What have you done?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. I think I just got married.
“What’s going to happen next?” Mira asked.
“I don’t know, but the forest is deep. And beyond, are mythic lands where rumor can’t follow. I’ll take you back to the village, and then go wandering.”
“No. You’re all the family I’ve got. Where you go, I go, no matter what.”
“Fine.” He laughed. “It looks like a good day to lose everything and gain the world. Let’s go.”
Mira took his hand as they crossed toward the forest that had already swallowed the warriors. Thorn’s thoughts sought the presence within him. What IS going to happen next?
The answer came at once; a cold tide washed through him. Life. Life is going to happen.
It was the only answer he got, the only one he needed.