Highshield Chapter IX
© 2017 Randolph Lalonde
Even the foothills of the Onhin Mountains were dangerous and craggy. Lena, Grenn, and Storo were settling in on a shelf set against a tall flat face of green and grey stone as daylight began to wane. “Do you think that moss up there is any good? It looks thin, like I’d have to scrape it off, but I bet it’s rare, maybe something an apothecary would want?” Storo asked, looking up at the sheer rock face.
“That’s copper, there’s no moss on that stone, not on the western face, at least,” Lena replied.
“Oh, tricked my eye.”
“Be careful near the edge,” Lena told Shani, who approached the lip of their path gingerly. Past the edge was a straight drop down to stone and brush.
Storo turned towards the girl and smiled, joining her and kneeling down behind her. “Look, out there, the crown of Brightwill – Samlen in Highshield.” He pointed. His finger led Shani’s gaze past the thick green forest at the foot of the mountain, over a sea of farmlands laid out like a patchwork quilt of land parcels, to a tall white wall protecting more farmland and a city beyond. “When I was a boy there were almost no farms past the wall, but Lords and Kings cut down the forest for leagues and leagues, and now these fields are planted.”
He looked to Shani and shook his head with a smile. “You’re probably more interested in the city proper, in Samlen.” He pointed at the tall spires and whitewashed buildings beyond the wall, a thick belt of civilization between a wall and a seemingly endless ocean. “I haven’t been there for years, but it’s a marvel.”
“A crowded, dangerous marvel,” Grenn said.
Storo looked over his shoulder at him, and to Lena’s horror, Shani broke into a run. In an instant she crossed the five steps it took her to leap from the high ledge where they rested and was in mid-air. For a frozen moment it seemed the girl was suspended in the sky. In a motion so quick, Lena could barely see it, Storo leapt forward and caught the girl’s ankle, his momentum carrying him over the edge.
Lena and Grenn were on their feet and at the edge of the stone ledge in an instant. “Got her!” Storo called up from where he hung from a jutting rock by one hand. Even hanging upside down with the forest hundreds of feet below, Shani struggled, flailing and screaming. “Let me go! Let me die!”
Storo’s grip on her ankle was firm, but his other hand strained to keep them both up. “I can’t reach you,” Grenn said after laying on his belly and stretching as far as he could. “Just hold a moment longer, I’ll get a rope around you.”
“No, I’m goin’,” Storo said. Lena could see his grip on the stone slipping. “Catch her,” he warned through a grimace before swinging the girl up and letting her go. The effort didn’t dislodge him, but it shook his grip enough so he slipped after Grenn caught Shani in his arms and fell back onto the ledge.
Lena watched as Storo fell through the open air, wishing she could do something, but she was no wind weaver. He braced himself long seconds into his fall, and was struck by an outcropping, sent spinning through the air until he landed on a stony cliff top far, far below. “Wydu and Miradu, take his spirit into your service.”
“Why did you do that?” Grenn shouted at Shani, who squirmed and writhed to escape the vice of his arms. “What’s wrong with you?”
Lena turned towards the girl and her hireling. “Shani!” she shouted, wishing she hadn’t given the girl the name.
The girl stopped squirming and her blue eyes locked with Lena’s, she was furious. “I don’t want to be here, I want to go back to Wydu! I hate this place!”
“Little girl,” Lena said as she held her anger in check. She strode towards Shani, whose eyes widened in fear. She caught the girl’s jaw in an iron grip and stared into the child’s eyes. “You are here now, servant of Wydu. Why did he send you here?”
A tear rolled down Shani’s cheek, her defiance replaced with fear and regret.
“No, you don’t get to weep,” Lena said. “Not after what you just tried to do, not after what it cost. Now, answer my question; why did Wydu send you to us?”
“To elevate His glory,” she replied through more tears. “To bring the kingdoms of the west to heel, to bring Him more power in the world in preparation for their return.”
The first part, elevating Wydu’s glory, didn’t surprise Lena, but the rest was dangerous knowledge, the kind of thing that could damage relations between the Temple and the kingdoms it was attached to. “You must never tell anyone else about your whole purpose. Only tell them that you are here to elevate Wydu and Miradu’s glory.”
“But I don’t want-“ she started to whine.
“I won’t hear it!” Lena shouted into the child’s face. She pointed her chin towards the city in the distance. “Do you see that? It is what Storo was trying to show you, an entire city with all its riches and luxuries that will bow and scrape to you. There are princesses in this world that will never know the adoration that you will have. This,” Lena said, gesturing to the mountain ledge. “This rough passage is only the small cost of your return to this world, a return that thousands of people would wish for their dead. You have the entire Order of Wydu, tens of thousands of followers and teachers to give you an enviable life and raise you into such a woman that people will praise you as a Goddess yourself by the time you’re finished growing.”
“I was the companion to a God,” Shani replied, much calmer.
Lena released her and threw up her hands. It was time for another tact. “I wonder, have you ever seen what Wydu does to those who fail him? A God with a cloak of chains tied to lesser deities that he has bested? A great God who sits upon a throne built from the bones of the ancients.”
“He doesn’t torture them all,” Shani said. “Isema the Wise took care of me, he was kind to him even though he was chained to Wydu’s throne.”
“What about the ones that Wydu was angry at? Did you see what happened to them? Imagine if you returned to him as a failure? Do you truly think he’d want you back after you wasted your life? Wasted all the effort and power it took him to bring you into the world? What would he do? How horrible do you think it would be to return to him as someone who wasted a gift more precious than anything?”
New tears, and real fear filled Shani. The girl hadn’t thought of that at all in her efforts to return to the afterlife. As her weeping deepened, Lena gestured for Grenn to release her and took the girl into her arms. She was shaking. “I only want to protect you,” she told the girl who clung to her. “Wydu is wise, witty, but he can be wrathful. I would have you spared from that. Let me care for you. Promise me that you’ll make the best of this life and all it offers.”
“I promise, I’m sorry,” Shani said, her weeping already beginning to ease.
“Wydu will welcome you back someday, after you’ve done his will and had your fill of this world, but only if he knows you’ve lived in a way he sees as admirable.” Shani’s quakes and her tears coming to a slow stop. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Shani replied. “Can you be my mother?”
Lena was awed by the request, surprised by the quick turn. “You’ll mind what I say? No more attempts to rejoin Wydu before your time?” she asked.
Shani shook her head, blonde curls ringing her head like a halo. “I’ll keep my life and listen to you.”
“Then I’d be proud to call you daughter,” Lena said.