The west is a world totally unknown to those of the east.
When approached separately to embark on a mission to deliver an important message to a man known as Altarus who lives far into the west, two strangers reluctantly accept. Just when they start to trust each other, they reach an isolated lake.
Lake is a short story taking place in the Realm of Tyronia and is not directly related to any other stories. It was started while on a cruise to Hawaii but completed later at home. As hard as I tried, it seems I do not do well when trying to mix cruising with writing.
Part 1: The Knife
The horse halted and lowered its head. The weak sun shone through the branches and caressed the animal's crest and the flank of its neck. Sitting on its back, Elohi welcomed the warmth on her hands and face.
As they travelled west, the air kept getting colder and colder. The animal had stopped to take in the sunbeams. Or maybe there was more. Its head was turned to the right. There, between the trees and their scarce foliage, Elohi noticed a clearing and what could be the surface of a large pond.
The daylight was rapidly fading, disappearing in the faraway lands of the west. Although there was daylight left, Elohi doubted they would find a more decent camp site further down the road.
"There is a lake, just yonder," she said, her voice surprisingly loud in the crisp air.
Ahead, her companion stopped, guided his mare around, and looked her way.
"Where?" he asked.
"Beyond that knoll," she said, pointing.
He started toward her. His horse was black, docile, contrasting with her own lean and rebellious steed.
"How did you even see this?" he asked.
"I didn't," replied Elohi, scratching her horse behind the ears. "It's this boy right here. He stopped. Probably thirsty."
"That animal certainly has a knack to find resting places. Either he is the brightest animal I know, or the laziest."
"It will be dark soon," Elohi said, smiling. "It might be a good time to stop, build a fire, get some rest. We have ridden hard these past hours."
Her companion surveyed the surroundings, looking back the way they had come and then far ahead, as if trying to see their destination. But there was nothing to see. The scenery had been the same all day. Hills and crests, covered in tightly packed trees, most of which had lost most of their leaves. And then there was the other family of trees, of a kind she had never seen prior to this odyssey. The trees with long and bushy needles were only one of the many details adding to the strangeness of the region.
"I don't know," continued her companion. "I heard the Deep is not a good place to linger. We really should have left earlier this morning."
"Agreed," said Elohi unable to stop her cheeks from reddening, "but we didn't and for good reasons." He looked back at her, a wide smile on his face. They shared a moment, lost in each other’s eyes. As he rode close, their fingers grazed together briefly in the space between the horses.
"There is no way we can make it across the Deep before nightfall," remarked Elohi. "Maybe we should have waited another day before leaving."
"Not possible, as already discussed," he said. "We have to push forward, be in Paragur in two days time and make our delivery. But we can't walk these treacherous lands during the night. You are right, these animals need a rest. Blazes, I even need a rest. It was a good day."
"It was," Elohi agreed. "Tomorrow, we turn south."
They had covered a great distance, going around the country of Zargon. The sun had accompanied them for the major part of the way, touching them from time to time, like it was doing now.
"It is settled then," he said, jumping off his mount, landing lightly on his feet. He had his bow in his hand. He had kept it close the last two days.
The ground seemed hard, as if solidified by the cold. Another bizarre fact. The both of them were further west than they had ever travelled before, in the territories of the White Knight. Without good motivation, they would never have attempted such a trek. Closing in on forty days.
Elohi dismounted, felt a light discomfort as she did so, a shortness of breath, an odd sensation crawling on her skin. If was as if the ground on which she landed didn't approve of her. Then his hand appeared on her hip, pulled her back. She pivoted to find his lips on hers. They kissed, her uneasiness easily brushed away.
As they untangled, she returned to her steed, patted its flank, whispering encouragement in its ear.
"That lake is large," said her companion, as he took his first steps off the beaten path. "I am surprised we didn't notice it earlier."
"Visibility is not the same in this country," Elohi said. "There is a constant fog sticking to everything."
He was shaking his head.
"Not a fog," he said. "It's something else."
"Do not talk like that," she said, "assuming and inventing. We are not that far from the Division, you know. Not yet, anyway."
He stopped his progress, holding his mare by its bridle, and turned her way.
"It depends what you mean by Division," he challenged. "Some say Zargon is the true centre, being neutral and all. That would put us far enough inside the cold realm."
"No, no," she said. "Those are fabrications to keep people from the west. Dalanie is of the west, but Hartos is of the east, just like Zargon. One can see it by their synagogues and the constant fire burning on their front steps. Red flame, not blue. No, we are not far in."
"Maybe," he said, unconvinced. "But we have crossed into the west, that you can't deny. Meaning we are outsiders here. We do not understand this land and its laws. We have yet to come across a village or a town. I know we wanted the roads less travelled, but I do not like it. The cold has a grip that I distrust." He sighed. "But you are right, I should not talk that way. We are here and this is now. We need to reach Paragur. Our water supply is getting low. The beasts need to eat, to drink. Let's make it to the water, have a short rest and be back on our way with sun up."
Elohi nodded and started to follow. The lake was indeed larger than what she had been able to see from the road. As she stepped in the bushes, through twigs without leaves, her steed resisted. She pulled harder and, reluctantly, it followed.
The embankments of the lake were strewn with uneven grounds, dry bushes, dead leaves and fallen trees. Elohi noticed one or two patches where they could possibly set up their tent. She noticed that from the water's edge, it was not possible to see the road.
"This is impressive," said Elohi, as she let her horse go free.
The animal started toward the water.
"Very," replied her companion.
"More like a sea," she said.
Her companion nodded and freed his mount. It joined hers. The two animals reached the lake and started to drink thirstily, shoulders touching. Like their riders, they had developed a kinship during these travels.
The spectacle in front of them was impressive and humbling. From where they were standing, the body of water was narrow, but as it stretched away, it widened and widened, until it was lost to the eyes. The place was hidden in what was probably one of the lowest parts of the valley, surrounded by trees and hills. The forest hugged the water on both sides. The place gave the illusion of being completely isolated, a world on its own. And yet Elohi knew that the road they had been following circled around part of the water, probably even followed it for a long while. Her companion was right in being surprised they had not noticed it earlier. From their elevated position, they should have.
Summits had also been visible from the road, rocky outcroppings climbing up, bearers of white snow, which was non-existent in Shinania. Back home, high peaks spewed ashes and lava or were covered in a blanket of vibrant greenery. They should have been able to see the white summits from here. But they couldn't. Maybe they were further in the Deep than they believed.
There was only the lake and the trees, enclosed by a deep grey sky.
"It might get very cold this night," Elohi said, feeling a chill in her hands.
"Let it be cold," said her companion, who appeared beside her. He had that smile, the one that had charmed her.
"I thought you hated the cold?"
"I do, but I have you."
She liked the teasing, the game, the diversion. She also realized that she was starting to like this man very much.
"Why is it that we didn't meet before?" she asked.
"Our paths probably crossed," he replied.
"I do not think so. I would have noticed you."
He kept on smiling, getting close to her, putting his arms around her waist. She could get used to this, the companionship, the feeling of belonging.
"You are right," he agreed. "Because even in a crowd of a hundred, or of a thousand, or of many many thousands, had it happened, we would have found each other."
The camp was in place, the animals brushed and cleaned, the water gourds filled. Elohi had just finished setting up their small tent. Her companion had a fire going and was taking out dry bread and fruits. She joined him, took a seat on a dead tree, fallen on the uneven ground.
The sun had disappeared a while ago. Complete darkness hadn't reached them yet, but Elohi could imagine that the night would be very dark. It was yet another difference. In Shinania, nights were beautiful, with a constant redness on the horizon, the flames of Shillis, ever burning, protecting them, keeping them warm.
But not here. The lands of Kyrma were harsh and unforgiving, dark and cold.
The horses had moved further away, to a comfortable spot, yet close enough to be in sight. The saddles were set, in case a quick escape was needed. Her companion's mare had found soft ground and was lying down. Her own mount was standing, its gaze turned toward the lake. It always stood for a while, as if watching over the younger mare until she fell asleep.
"I don't like this place," said her companion. "Even the flames cannot push back the cold."
She agreed. Her hands were held against the fire, almost too close for comfort.
"Maybe we should not have come," he said suddenly.
The words took her by surprise. She looked at him.
He looked back, realized what he had just said.
"I am sorry," he added almost right away. "I should not have said that. It is just... this place, this cold. It is making me say things I do not mean. I cannot wait to reach Paragur, drop the package, and then go back."
It was hard to tell what he had meant or not meant. Was he regretting the words because he thought it might hurt her feelings? After all, if they hadn't come, they would not have met. Or was it related to the mission itself? She didn't know what his reasons were for accepting the task.
Elohi had been easy to convince, and cheap. Her title demanded it of her. And because of that, she had been given a minimum of information about the importance of their package. War was building and alliances were being created. Alliances of which their country was excluded. It was said that Hartos was already gone, swallowed by Hitis. Without this alliance, their country would be on its own and risk the same fate. East asking west to join forces. The situation was dire indeed.
But her companion? He didn't know any of this. It could be patriotism. It could be curiosity, or adventure. Or it could be money.
"You know how important this is, don't you?" She felt compelled to ask.
The question didn't seem to disturb him and it reassured her.
"I do, and I am truly sorry," he repeated, looking directly at her. "I swear, I meant nothing by it, was not thinking. I just feel out of place, here. Do you not feel it? It is… uncomfortable. I do not know how to explain it. A feeling. Crawling shivers under the skin."
The words reminded Elohi of her discomfort earlier, as she had climbed down from her horse. She could see that he was scared but would not say it.
"I understand," she said. "I have felt it too."
He seemed comforted by her understanding. He reached out with his hands and she took them in hers.
"His name is Altarus, isn't it?" he asked.
"It is," said Elohi.
They had fallen into the habit of repeating and saying the name, a few times a day, not to forget, or to keep it real. Writing it down on paper had not been allowed. It was his way to show that he was focused.
"At the end of the Long Promenade. We should be able to find him easily, as it is the largest temple."
"And it is located at the heart of the city."
The exchange died there.
They both knew they would not take a single step into that temple. They had never talked about it, but it was a simple fact. They also knew that in the last few minutes, the romance had dissipated. At least for this night.
They were still holding hands.
They ate in silence, put their apparatuses away, and slipped, side by side, into the tent. Elohi touched the knife, laying in front of her in easy reach. The two previous nights, she had been lost in their embrace and passion. She had forgotten about the knife, even though the habit of sleeping with it was several years old. This night, she felt she needed it and nothing would make her forget.
When her companion put his arm around her, Elohi deposited the small blade and slid back, so she could feel his body against hers. He put his head close to her shoulder, breathing against the back of her neck. It was loud, smeared by a nervousness that just wouldn't go away.
Elohi opened her eyes to the deepest of blackness. She waited several long moments, not moving. Slowly, hazy silhouettes and shapes started to appear. The canvas of the tent, the inverted V of the opening, trees with long, thin and uncovered branches, stretching toward the lake, in perfect unison. All toward the lake, reaching but never touching, never even close to touching. Then other larger trees, triangular and full of needles, patches of opaque darkness in which anything could be hiding.
There was something else, something that had awoken her.
She sat, pushed aside her companion's arm. She was fully dressed, as was he. He moaned, turned on his back.
"What is it?" he said, his voice low.
He pulled on the blankets, tucked them under his left side, the side further away from her. He moved closer, followed her.
"I don't know," Elohi said, probing the surroundings.
His weakness was the cold. Hers was the darkness. It wasn't as black as she had imagined it would be, but somehow the strange luminescence was worse. She suddenly felt sick at heart, missing her home deeply. Especially its night sky.
Here, there was no sky. No stars. No moon. Just pale illumination, radiating from nowhere and fading away into the distance and the trees. It could be the effects of the fog, or moonlight after all.
She felt restless, nervous. None of what she was seeing had pulled her out of sleep. It was something else.
"I'll have a look around," she said.
This woke him completely. He sat, kept the blanket on his shoulders.
"The fire is out," he noticed. "You should take a candle."
She liked the idea and took one out. Then she lit it. Its light didn't really help.
"Keep talking to me," he said.
His voice was everything but reassuring. He sounded more scared than she was.
She moved out of the blankets, setting them back around him.
"Be careful," he said.
Elohi kissed him and wrapped herself in her cloak. She took her knife in her second hand, grabbing it tightly. She moved out.
"Talk to me," he said. "Let me hear your voice. Tell me what you see."
"Everything is calm," she said. "I... can't see very far, can't hear anything abnormal."
She took a few steps, searching for the stars, but not finding any. It wasn't as cold as she had thought it would be. She looked toward the horses.
"The animals are fine," she said. "They didn't move. I'm going to them."
"Be careful," he repeated.
She heard her companion move, assumed he might get up after all. She reached the animals and was surprised to find her steed awake, still standing on his feet. Usually, it would lie down after a while, close to the mare. But it was standing, eyes wide, looking toward the lake, fixated. He didn't acknowledge her presence. She caressed him slightly and took a few steps toward the lake.
Then she stepped back suddenly.
What she had seen couldn't be real, could it? Rapidly, she took a few long steps, returned to the tent, knelt in front of it. Her companion was still inside, hadn't moved.
"What?" he said. "What is it?"
Her breathing came in repetitive short bursts. He was up now, standing, his bow in his hands. He stayed beside her, looking out.
She was shaking.
"Elohi," as he put an arm around her. "Look at me. What have you seen?"
Slowly, she looked toward the lake again.
The water was calm, unmoving, placid.
"I... hate this place," she said, and suddenly felt very tired.
Sleep had not really come to her since they had lain down. She had closed her eyes, and drifted, but never far, never sleeping. She had not recuperated.
"I don't know," she murmured, her voice cracking now. "I thought, I thought I saw waves."
He nodded, accepted her words, almost without surprise.
"Let me have a look."
"Stay with me," she said. "It must have been nothing."
But she knew what she had seen.
Brief and strong and out of the ordinary for a lake. Something had surfaced.
"Just a moment," he said and she could see the blue of his lips. The cold was hard on him, harder than for her.
He took the candle, stood and went to the water's edge. He didn't squat, didn't look at it that much. Like her previously, he looked around and his stance exposed all of his discomfiture. He returned presently.
"There is something out there," he said, "but the water is calm. The air is cold, so damnably cold. The horses haven't moved or made any sound. Whatever it was, it didn't scare them."
His words were reassuring, but it wasn't enough. She wrapped him in the blanket. He needed it.
"Come," she said, "let's get a little bit more rest, just enough to get back on the road."
"I'm not sure we can travel in this darkness," he said as he moved in. "But I am willing to try."
They didn't close the flap, had not been willing to close it completely since they had entered these strange lands.
She took a seated position. Just as he was about to deposit his head on her chest, she bent down and kissed him. The warmth of his lips was more comforting than his words had been.
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep," he said.
"I still have to sleep tonight," she admitted.
"Tomorrow, I'll guide us and you can sleep while riding," he proposed.
"I would like that," she said. "Thank you."
He nuzzled against her. Not long after, his breathing settled as he drifted toward slumber. She smiled and deposited a light kiss on his head.
Part 2: The Bow
Shasu abruptly awoke.
It was day.
His first reaction was one of deep liberation. They had made it... But rapidly he was invaded by a pale panic coming from afar, growing and growing.
He looked beside him... He touched the ground... Realized there was nothing there. No one. He pulled the blanket off him, shook it roughly and threw it aside.
"Elohi?" he said, his voice low, broken and unconvincing.
The tent flap was closed. The panic was in the tent now, with him, surrounding him, buffeting him. He felt prisoner, unable to breath because of sudden claustrophobia.
He rushed out, tearing the tent flap apart as he emerged. He had forgotten his bow and felt defenceless, but wouldn't go back for it. He stretched his neck this way and that, looking around and seeing the trees, the fixed grey ceiling that was the sky, and last, the lake.
The water was tranquil, so perfectly unmoving, dead calm.
Shasu was alone.
How much time he had lost, Shasu couldn't tell. He was now sitting on a fallen tree, the one on which she had sat the night before.
Elohi... just the thought of her name was almost too much.
His ears and throat were hurting from screaming her name so many times. He had run around, could see the devastation he had left. He had looked for her everywhere. He had uprooted trees and broken branches in his explosion and madness. He had let fly several arrows into the water, the surroundings, toward imaginary targets, now unable to remember where or why. He had cried and screamed, possibly blanked out for a while. He had followed the embankment one way, west and then east, then back and around several times more.
He had not been able to find her.
Or the horses.
He knew he should be leaving. The day was slipping away. He should not stay here, could not spend another night here.
But Elohi... He could not leave without knowing what had happened to her.
In between spasms of panic, he tried to assess the situation. His reaction scared him, almost as much as the tragedy that had befallen. He had always prided himself for his composure. But this trip had changed everything. The deeper they had tread in this region, the more agitated he had become. He had tried to hide it from her, to stay calm, to show courage. Her presence had helped, his infatuation with her had helped. But this morning, a morning almost completely gone, he had lost control.
The fear was acute but surreal. Shasu didn't want to think further. It would be easier just to forget and he knew he could.
But the last thing he wanted was to forget her. And so he tried to make sense of what had happened.
It had to be something from the lake. Some creature had come out and taken her. If so, it would have happened while he was asleep. Did she get up and exit the tent? Did it catch her while she was laying beside him? Was that even possible?
He had fallen asleep with images of the lake, of waves, wrapped up in cold and fear, but shielded by the affection of her arms. How guilty he felt now. How...
I should not have fallen asleep. I should have stayed with her.
His eyes became teary. His slumber had been deep. Sudden and deep. Almost unnatural.
His thoughts turned to the lake. He had seen nothing. She had mentioned waves, but the water had been calm.
Maybe she had imagined it. Maybe...
Another idea came to him, unbidden. He didn't like it but forced himself to think it through. What if she had made it up? What if she had set him up?
He didn't know her well. He couldn't imagine why she would have tried to scare him and then abandon him. Maybe for his share of the ransom? He didn't think her capable of such an act, but the complete lack of evidence suggested...
Shasu stood and went to where the beasts had been. He looked on the ground, tried to read their movements. He was not the expert at this. She was. She would have be able to determine where the animals had slept, lain, walked, drunk.
He made his way to the road. It seemed further than it had been the previous night. He looked both ways. The road was desolate. Toward the east, it went up and up, toward their homeland. Toward the west and their destination, it continued to slope down and turned abruptly toward the woods. They had hoped for a road south. It didn't seem to matter as much now.
The ground was hard and the hooves had left almost no mark of passage. Almost. He thought he saw something that could be their movement from the day before. It certainly matched what he remembered. Toward their destination, the ground was undisturbed.
If she had taken the horses, she had made her way back, toward Shinania. He looked closer and decided it was a possibility. He should have felt frustration at the idea, but surprisingly, his thoughts were of elation. If she had betrayed him and made her way back, that meant she was alive. And safe.
Shasu returned to the camp. He was almost smiling at how easily she had deceived him. If it wasn't for his predicament and the land around him, he would have done so openly.
That was when he saw the carcasses.
Two of them. The horses.
One was black and the other mostly white, a dirty white, a sickly white. They were side by side, not quite floating but certainly not sinking. They just drifted in plain sight, at the edge of the water, close to where they had slept the night before. They looked as if they had been placed there.
There was no mistaking them. The black steed was hers. The white was his. How he had missed the dead animals earlier, Shasu didn't know. Maybe the carcasses had been under water during his wild frenzy. Maybe he had seen them but his mind had blocked the sight.
Whatever the reason, the horses were here, now, and dead. He didn't dare go any closer. There was no blood in the water, no sign of what might have happened.
Even with the gruesome discovery, Shasu still hoped, forced himself to hope, that Elohi had gotten away.
He returned to the tent, looked closely at the place they had lain... could still feel her warmth, the touch of her lips...
It was on the ground, forsaken. All of Shasu's doubts evaporated in an instant. She would not have left without her mother's blade.
Her backpack was also there, and consequently, the package they were to deliver.
The cursed package.
And yet, without it and the assignment, he would not have met her. He could still see their first encounter in his mind, feel the awkwardness of that first meeting. It had been at a public inn, selected as neutral ground in the village of Aril, far in the east of Shalyr. When he saw her, he had asked again to travel alone, but his request was instantly rejected by the leaders. They gave the package to her and left.
Once alone, Elohi admitted to have asked for the same. It was their first bond, that avowal of distrust. It took a few days for them to get close and accept each other. And once they did, everything changed. A new life and infinite possibilities opened to him.
And just as abruptly, she was gone.
He was facing the lake, wrapped in the blanket. The cold, which he had forgotten for most of the morning, had returned.
His eyes were riveted on the bag laying at his feet. He had sworn not to open the package. In fact, the leaders said that it would not open for him, even if he tried. He wasn't certain he believed the claim. He tried to calculate if he could still deliver it on time in Paragur. Without a horse, it was very unlikely. He had a vague sense of its importance. Everyone knew about the wars. For the both of them to be sent into this territory, where their presence alone could cause a war, it had to be significant.
Elohi certainly believed it was worth the risk. She knew more. She was his superior, if it came to that. But she had treated him as an equal.
He remembered his stumble of the previous day and her shocked reaction to his words. There was no point in pretending any longer. It was true that deep inside he had doubted that the delivery of the package was worth the dangers. His reasons for accepting had been baser. A generous purse of rare metal pieces, bearing the flame on one side and the red goddess on the other.
She would have made him a better person. She already had, in the short time they had been together. Sobs came and shook him. He let it pass, let her image haunt him while it did, forcing himself to remember her scent and her voice and her smile.
The hurt lasted a long time. Another succession of lost moments.
Against all odds, he had hung on to the reverie that she would come back, walk up to him and kiss him. The delusional hope had not happened, and yet he knew he had had to wait.
Shasu stood. It was late day, almost dusk. The tip of his fingers were numb and flexing them hurt. He realized that he had not looked toward the lake since seeing the horses. He dreaded the basin of water, was afraid of it, had been afraid of it since the previous day.
The waves had been true. He knew. She had seen it. It had been painted on her frightened expression. Something had emerged from the lake. Without a shape, it had stood by, silent as emptiness, and watched as they returned to their tent. It had waited patiently, knowing they were afraid. It had waited and once sleep had divided them, it had lured her and taken her.
Bow in hand, head down, Shasu now made his way to the lake's embankment.
He looked up. The water hadn't moved. It was the same as he remembered, as he would always remember, knowing the sight was burned in his memory as deeply as the red tattoos on his forearms.
He had looked, he had hoped and he had waited.
There was still no sign of her.
"Elohi? Elohi!" he screamed, his throat raw and burning.
There was only one place he hadn't searched. It stretched in front of him, murky liquid, grey as the clouds.
He didn't know if he could enter the water.
When night fell once more on the Deep, Shasu was still standing in front of the placid lake, alone.
This is the end of the story.