The river spat me out on the rocky bank like a decrepit piece of driftwood. I lay splayed out on the rough sand, my hair drenched and covering my face. I wretched and coughed up the salty water and pulled myself to my feet. It felt as though someone had taken a big stick and beaten me black and blue. Groggily, I pulled off my boots and dumped out the water and sand and tugged them back on. It occurred to me that I didn't know where Cameron was and I stumbled across the bank scouring the river for her petite form.
I spotted her body laying motionless on the other side of the coursing river, and my heart plummeted. I plunged into the icy water, half swimming, half walking, desperately fighting the current. I ran to her side, the sand crunching beneath my boots, and fell beside her. She had blacked out, and I shook her awake. I tried not to think about what would happen if she didn't wake up. I found myself sobbing, gasping, shaking her more and more violently. Finally she emitted a few shuddering breaths and water spilled from her mouth. I could barely retain my relief.
"Cammie,. . . Cameron, are you okay?" I demanded, supporting her shoulders. Her black hair was drenched and plastered to her pale face. She nodded and made to get up.
I helped her walk along the bank, clutching her shoulders, while she had yet to regained her strength. All of our supplies had gone with the animals, and the water was brackish, so I had nothing to give her to help remedy her condition.
"We're almost there." She muttered, and made a feeble attempt to break free from my hold, but stumbled and nearly fell. I smiled and was reminded of when I hadn't been able to walk for several weeks when my spine had suffered minor damage, and remembered the old woman helping me hobble across the kitchen. We plodded along at a steady pace for about an hour, the time dragging as slowly as our feet.
I figured it was time to begin preparing for our entrance and finding a secret path inside. Cameron looked grave and barely spoke. The mighty fortress appeared before us, carved into a large recess in the cliff and stretched across the bank. A formidable wall wrapped itself around the perimeter of the fortress, and I began worrying about how we would get inside.
"Cameron, how are we getting in? It seems like we're just walking up to the gates." Her expression remained stiff and solemn.
"Trust me." She mumbled. I felt my heart begin to beat faster and my hands tremble. There was something wrong. I could smell it. There was some sort of plot woven into this that I could not see, like smoke. We were almost at the gates now, and Cameron showed no sign of leading us elsewhere.
"Cameron, what's going on?" I stopped. I gripped her shoulders tight. She looked so weak, so pale, I wondered if she had her sense knocked out of her in the river.
"Just a little farther." She croaked through parched lips. We stood at the foot of the gates, staring up at the great mass of wood. There was a deep rumbling, and the gates began to creak open. No! Something screamed inside my brain. Cameron was a traitor and I had to defend myself. In one swift movement I grabbed the hilt of her scimitar and slipped it out of the scabbard. She spun around, startled into anger. I held the curved blade defensively, and stared at her in disbelief. How could she? The deep rumbling ceased. A figure came up behind Cameron and placed two large hands on her shoulders. Cameron looked down, causing hair to veil her expression.
"Oh Cammi, I see you've brought me a present." A voice purred.
My eyes widened and my whole body tensed, and my grip suddenly felt slippery on the hilt.
I looked into the face that had tormented me in so many dreams, waking and sleeping, who had given me so much pain and taken all that meant anything to me. All I could think was 'he is gonna die'. I bared my teeth and my eyes burned with liquid anger. My broken face contorted into a grimace of rage and I gripped my scimitar tight. Troy merely smiled, that same cruel smile I had seen a thousand times before in my nightmares. Beneath his cool exterior though, I sensed the same anger and intensity that waited patiently to be released.
He pushed Cameron aside and she stumbled to the damp ground, her eyes suddenly wide in terror. Troy unsheathed an enormous sword, so massive I wondered how he could walk around with it. The blade was long, wide, and sharpened just for the occasion. It glinted malevolently in the sun and poised itself for the dance with death.
"Tell me, Warren, how a creature, human or animal, could be imbecilic enough to waltz right back into the doom which it so cleverly managed to escape. Which by the way, is a mystery which I would be delighted to hear." I said nothing, and did nothing but bore into his eyes with my own. I waited expectantly for the first blow.
"No matter though, your survival was an unforseen misfortune, soon to be corrected." At this he dropped the nonchalant manner and bared his teeth, and swung his mighty sword. It was heavy and slow, and therefore easy to dodge. I leaped lightly from place to place, circling him, trying to discern a weak point. But somewhere within a pang of doubt nagged at me; it was very possible I would not win this battle. I thrust my little curved blade at his heart and his blade met mine and drove it away. Thrust, jab, stab, prod, again and again, as though I was trying to weave an invisible thread through his movements. But I could never get close enough; my blade was just too short. For a moment I hesitated, catching my breath, and the enormous blade flew through the air like a diving dragon. My blade met his, only, his kept going and mine stayed put, sort of. It cut, cleanly through my little scimitar, like and ax through a twig.
The majority of my blade clattered to the ground, and I gawked at it what was now a mere stub. Troy grinned darkly, and closed in on his defenseless prey.
"You see, Cameron, I have hunted many animals, and killed them, and they are all the same. They are wild and think they are free from extermination, which just makes their death all the more delicious to the taste."
I looked at the shard remaining on the hilt, and a flash of thought jumped through my brain and rocketed through my body. I don't know what made me or told me to do it, but I did it. I took the little blade and flung it at Troy with all my remaining strength. For an instant it rotated like a spinning wheel of death, and Troy saw it just in time. He stepped out of the way, but not fast enough. It slashed right through his arm guard, and embedded itself in his bicep.
His face contorted in pain and his knees buckled and he dropped the bastard sword. He roared in pain and seized his arm, clutching it in his agony. Taking my chance, I grabbed the sword and pressed the long blade against his neck. I saw Cameron in the corner of my eye, laying on the ground, paralyzed with fear.
"Here he is," I thought bitterly to myself. "Yours to take and destroy, yours to make suffer and to torture with all the pain he made you endure. Scar his face. Take his lifeand crush it." All I could do was glare at him for several long moments, all these thoughts coursing through me, and my hand trembled on the sword hilt. At last, I forced words through clenched teeth.
"I am no animal."
Slowly, I drew back the blade; it glinted angrily as though disappointed at being deprived of it's kill. I stepped back, the sword still raised, and watched Troy's look of stunned disbelief.
"Unlike you, Troy, I am not an animal." I said, shaking my head. I helped Cameron to her feet and turned my back to the defeated creature clutching its wound. I turned around, remembering why I had originally made this god-forsaken trek.
"By the way, whatever did you do to my horse and my elven friend?" He merely glared at me through two dark holes in his skull, defiantly retaining his silence. But I understood. I nodded.
"The least you can do is to get us some horses, then." He looked up and sneered at me.
"You'll get your horses." He spat. Knowing he was lying I strode over to him and grabbed his throat.
"Now." I hissed and returned my blade to his neck.
Twenty minutes later Cameron and I cantered our fresh horses along the river bank, the great walls of the canyon looming above and all around us. It felt good to be riding again, and to know I had defeated, at least for the time being, the enemy that had darkened my mind for so long. It was also good to know that I had been strong enough to resist the temptation. I had never been tested so strongly before, but I had endured.
Yet, I could not escape the cloud of Roann and Blaze's deaths that enshrouded my heart. Roann at least knew that he very well might die, and was able to achieve his dream before he went, which, perhaps is all that really matters in the end.
Cameron was silent, and I was engrossed in my own thoughts, so we were accompanied only by the perpetual roar of the Ganguin and drum of hoof beats, which was noise enough for me.
Eventually we came to a walk to give our horses a chance to catch their breath which gave Cameron her chance to voice herself.
"Warren, if you don't mind my asking, what exactly was all that about?" I glanced at her. I couldn't believe it. She was genuinely ignorant.
"I thought you knew all about me and Troy. You were working for him weren't you?" Suddenly, I stopped and brought my horse to a halt. She had been working for him, hadn't she? A bounty hunter, no doubt.
"Look, don't think of me like that. I'm really not a cruel person, but I do what I have to in order to survive. Troy would have offered a huge ransom for your capture, enough for me to stop working for this beastly landlord. You have no idea how I've been living." I just couldn't take anymore. I ran my horse in front of hers causing a great deal of whinnying and prancing about.
"No! You have no idea how I've been living! Did you ever wonder how my face got this way? Did you just assume I was born like this? Well, I've got news for you, baby, because I can assure you my life has been hell unlike anything you could imagine. . .you just, don't. . .you can't understand. No one will ever understand." No one has ever had to suffer like I have, that's why. I hung my head and grimaced. I wished I hadn't let all that spill out. She shouldn't have heard all that.
Then why was I letting her follow me? If I hated her so much then why did I ask for two horses instead of one?
I remembered with a bitter laugh how I had been so infatuated with her in the canyon, how I had actually briefly contemplated kissing her. That had been a wild flight of fancy, but still, it all seemed a lifetime away now.
It was then I understood. I was lonely. I am lonely. I was afraid of continuing whatever journey I was heading on without someone beside me. I looked at Cameron, her body gently rocking in time to the horse's movements, her gentle touch and strong mind. Seeing her this way I understood. At last.
"I was thinking we should head for Guendil canyon, where the sphinxes are said to live. Maybe visit what family I have remaining and see if they can tell me about my mother."
Cameron smiled at me, her face lighting up for the first time since I fell off Twig.
"You realize we have no food, no water, and no idea whether or not the Guendil canyon exists?"
"We'll wing it. Catch fish, gather, and there should be some freshwater springs here and there."
"Oh," Cameron brightened up for a moment and smiled " and I guess you don't have to worry about paying me. I'll let you off this time. For free. My treat, okay?" I raised my eyebrows at her but chose to say nothing. She was so different from the bounty hunter I had met in the village, now that she was letting me get to know her.
I gazed up at the towering cliffs, who looked back at me with stolid defiance. The sky was darkening and the three moons awoke to shine faintly above us.
So, this is life beyond the Realm of the Elves.