Forward: To better follow the adventures of Xandr, Thelana and Emma, it helps to know a little about The Dark Age of Enya. In short, the three battled a dragon and then a centaur, in order to rescue Princess Radia, the avatar of the Goddess Alashiya. During the fight, Thelana risked her life to save Emma, turning their hatred for each other into a friendship. Radia, however, was unable to saved, and her human form became one with the natural world. After killing the centaur, Xandr vowed to come after his master, the Dark Queen Hatshepsut. But first, he and his allies have to complete the Tripod Oath, which means they must rally the kingdoms of Aenya to fight against the Dark Queen’s army of goblins. If you are familiar with The Dark Age of Enya, you may be wondering, horses? When did they get horses? Originally, the horse-napping scene was included in this story, but I since have turned it into an original short story. So if you want to know how Thelana got their horses, you can read all about it here.
Far from any gathering of mankind, in the midst of a wild, dry, hilly country that, as far as was known to them, had never been claimed with any name, a man and two women sat closely about a fire, the gnarled boughs of the olive trees filtering the green moonlight.
The man stoking the flame was, in the eyes of his companions, quite beautiful, even in his haggard state. Together they had endured the tribulations of a great journey, and if there was an ugly wound on him, they could not find fault in it, as they fared no better in that regard. His complete absence of clothing, even to hide his loins, was no distraction to either woman, even to the one who found it necessary to cover herself. But what had never become commonplace was his uncommon beauty. His shoulders were broad and his torso round and powerful. His arms and legs were taught and well defined even in his relaxed posture. He was natural in shape, statuesque in form. Only a great scar, from shoulder to hip, disfigured him. His dirty blond hair draped over his shoulders and a single unkempt braid rounded his collarbone, and his beard grew wild and disheveled. His nose sloped from a broken ridge, settling between eyes of deep blue with a tenderness and intensity that somewhat contrasted his savage appearance, eyes of a man who had lived to see too much.
The woman beside him was in every way his female counterpart. If ever she had known the habit of clothing or shame, it was far from evident. Like him, she was beautiful, but in a fashion that most civilized societies would consider boorish and unwomanly. Aside from her blatant nudity, she sat in an ‘unladylike’ manner, with her legs folded crossways, her feet atop her knees, her arms loose against her lap. Her skin was a ruddy bronze, lacking the complexion of high-born women, the paleness that comes from too much sitting under a roof. Likewise, she was flecked with a variety of scars, a few that might shame even a battle hardened soldier. Her flesh was hard, with fingertips like sandpaper and soles like shoe leather, but least womanlike of all, her breasts were small and stiff, barely shifting as she moved. And yet, no man could call her less than beautiful, should they become accustomed to her raw nature, for hers was a beauty universal, undefined by fickle trends. There was a gracefulness about her, in her every movement, as if her muscles were more than adequate to accommodate her, so that even motionless she contained a boundless energy. Her hair was a peppery chestnut brown, wrapped in a single braid, and her eyes glittered like emerald moons, containing depth and weight as from some sadness, but also a playfulness and innocence betraying her age.
The second woman sat across from the man and was, in this setting, the most unusual of the three, the antithesis of the first woman. Robes of pitch-black draped loosely in some places and tightly in others, worn and poorly stitched. She was both taller and fuller than that of her nude counterpart, with a robust pair of breasts showing beneath her clothing and an equally wide set of hips. The little skin that she revealed was pale and off-color. Her hair came down in long dark waves like a raven’s feathers and was nearly invisible in the night. A tiny diamond glittered in her long, slender nose, and a gold loop dangled from her left ear. Her lips were full and rosy, and her eyelashes crowned her wide, bird-shaped eyes, eyes both as dark and enigmatic as her trappings, exuding both an intelligence and timidity, and a certain yearning.
A lizard was roasting on a makeshift skewer, rotating endlessly over the campfire as the man turned it. “If that is part of the Pewter Mountain range, and we are facing south, then my guess is that we are sitting somewhere in the Endless Plains,” he was saying.
The naked woman lifted her eyes to him. “We’ve been trekking west for cycles, Xandr, I certainly hope you’re right, and that we’re not lost.”
“If what you say is true,” the robed woman interrupted, “then it must be the opposite face, because I do not recognize it; and remember I grew up in sight of those peaks. The Pewter Mountains of Northendell have always been too high and sharp to climb, so the other side was always a mystery to us. But it offered security.”
“That’s it then!” the other exclaimed with frustration. “We missed the city! We’ve wandered too far north!”
“Do not fret,” Xandr replied. “Remember that we reached Mythradanaiil by ship; there may have been no way to reach Northendell otherwise. We were too far north to begin with. After all that we’ve seen and done, we should thank the Goddess that we still live.”
“Too true,” the dark robed woman agreed. “And you were prepared to die in that abyss, Thelana!”
“I was prepared to die killing goblins, Emma, not slowly starving to death in this wasteland! Look at me . . . I must have lost ten pounds eating snake tails!”
“Oh, I believe it was you who first convinced me to eat such things, much to the disagreement of my palette!” she snapped.
“Well, forgive me if you high brow city folk are too good for it! But I grew up on this cuisine!” Tearing off the head of the lizard, its eyeballs were soon popping between her grating teeth. “Where is your servant now to prepare your four course meal?” said she, as innards spilled from her lips.
“Hey now, I wasn’t the one complaining about it,” Emma rejoined, and she broke a charred leg between her fingers, carefully nibbling. “Hmm, needs salt, or cumin.”
Xandr rarely said a word during these interactions, but watched with amusement. It was true that the two women were different in almost everyway, and their differences would no doubt clash, but there was no real spite in their words. It appeared to him, in fact, that for a while after leaving Fire Mountain, their relationship had grown more affectionate, but it was not to be long lived, and after some days something invisible seemed to push them apart.
“I do apologize, Thelana,” Emma said suddenly, delicately wiping her lip with the hem of her garment. “I didn’t mean to belittle your culture. After all,” she added, “you did save my life . . .”
Thelana withheld a smile. “Really, Emmalina, you don’t need to keep mentioning that. We were in a fight. You were a part of the team. I had to defend you.”
“Yes, but you threw yourself—” she cut herself short as her eyes drifted unwillingly to the scar across Thelana’s mid-section.
Oblivious, the brunette continued to chew, unceremoniously wiping her face with the broad side of her arm. “Eating vermin is not part of Ilmarin culture, anyway. We ate plants mostly, and large game, only we killed it ourselves; we didn’t have such things as butchers and markets.” Her perfect, emerald eyes shifted to Xandr, and they seemed to glitter all the more in beholding him, as if he were made of moonlight. “So, if we are, indeed, in the Endless Plains, and we are not going to Northendell, where are we then headed?”
“South, to the sea, to Hedonia.”
The two women gasped. “But Hedonia has been destroyed,” said Emma. “Or isn’t that, at least, what you told me?”
“I did not mean the city itself, but the empire. There are many coastal cities about the Hedonian Bay, that may or may not still be part of the Hedonian Empire. Whether the destruction of their capitol fragmented their statehood, I cannot know. But even the smaller factions are powerful, and can aid us significantly in the fulfillment of the Tripod Oath.”
“But how will we convince them?” asked Thelana. “Who are we out here to request an audience with governors and magistrates? We are but poverty stricken nomads. They will not even let us into the city without clothing, as you may already know.”
Xandr laughed. “Do not worry about that. Tales of our exploits will have preceded us, and even in their corrupt and backward society, a poor man who has slain giants and dragons will have more value than a pompous aristocrat who has bribed his way out of military service.”
“Or so you hope,” Emma contested. “Wealthy men have the power to invent their own histories, whereas a pauper can only pray their truth be known.”
“I suppose all remains to be seen,” said Thelana. “Let us merely hope that the Endless Plains do not prove true to their name.”
“It is named after the many travelers who, in search of a northern passage to the Pewter Mountains, became lost circling endlessly within its boundaries,” Xandr explained, “as it is said that all of the plain looks similar and there is no way to navigate it.”
“. . . and the silhouette of mountains to the north perpetually goads them onward, though it is some kind of illusion, I’ve read,” Emma further noted.
“Well at least we now have horses to carry us!” Thelana remarked.
“True,” said Emma, “but wouldn’t it have been better to take them during the night, so as not to frighten those poor people?”
“Hey, we have an oath to fulfill, and who knows how far the Dark Queen’s armies are encroaching about the bright hemisphere as we speak! We came to that stable in the morning, and I was not about to waste a whole day for the sun to be hidden.”
The raven haired woman got to her feet. “Perhaps we ought to check on them.”
“I tethered them tightly to the tree,” said Xandr.
“But how are they feeling?” Emma questioned, and walked off, Thelana close behind.
As they moved away from the canopy of brambles, a dark sky loomed immensely before them, bejeweled with innumerable stars. As they approached the silhouette of the three horses, before the sunken turquoise moon that was Infinity, a purple flash of lightning branched earthward. Now the dark robed woman brushed her hand across the snout of the blonde mare, the one that had carried Thelana, and she whispered to it, and it neighed responsively.
“What is she saying?” the Ilmarin asked. “Does she like me?”
Emma turned to her. “They are frightened by the night sky. It has never been known to them, as they were born and raised in the stable. As for you, well, she does not say. But they were miserable before, and are happy to run freely in the fields, instead of being led about a tent pole. Her only regret is that she misses her mistress, the kind woman that used to feed and comb her.”
“That must have been the woman I frightened,” Thelana mused. “I have never seen anyone so terrified. Her life will probably never be the same.”
“Well, this telepathy spell is exhaustive, what else should I ask? And make it quick!”
“Oh, ask their names!”
“This one was called by her mistress,” and she grinned, “Buttercup.”
“Buttercup! I’m not calling my horse that! It simply won’t do!”
“It’s all right. She does not like the name either. She thinks it is unflattering. Horses are a proud species. She would rather have a name befitting . . . you, actually, ‘the woman who runs free,’ or that is what she is calling you.”
“In that case,” said Thelana, “I will name her Arrow. Tell her it is the thing that flies from my bow.”
The horse neighed noisily. “Yes!” Emma exclaimed, her eyes intently shut, “that is a good name.” Breaking out of her trance, she turned to Thelana, “and I will call mine Shadow. And as for the Batal . . . the name of his horse should suit him also, so let us call him Warrior.”
A cool wind carried down from the Pewter Mountains and even with the dying embers of their campfire and their resilience to wild temperatures, Xandr and Thelana found comfort beneath a layer of pelts. The pelts had once been arctic beasts, but were now a necessity, serving as clothing in the snow, or rolled up as supply packs when traveling, or bed sheets during the hours of sleep. But with a sudden jerk into a sitting position, the pelt tumbled down across Thelana’s thighs, and she was wide awake. Xandr, who slumbered with one eye open, his fighting hand fingering the pommel of his great sword, was also awake. He could see Emma opposite the cold circle of firestones, laying on her side with her back to them, her robes pulled tightly about her. He turned to Thelana then, watching a droplet of terror induced sweat roll down the side of her face.
“Was it the same dream?” he asked her quietly.
She faced him, unsurprised by his alertness, and answered with a whisper, “It is.”
“Tell me again. Where did you go?”
She shifted sideways, feeling the warmth emanating from him. “All right. I will share it with you. But we must try not to wake Emma.”
At the mention of her name, the dark mages’ eyes fluttered open, but she made no other motion, as if she were continuing to sleep.
“I had gone back,” Thelana continued, “to when I was a child, just before the goblins invaded Ilmarinen, just before our family fled to the mountains. I was playing in the woods by the Old Man, hide-and-seek, and oh, two of my sisters were there. I saw Nicolita and Britannia! And Borz was there also!”
“Borz? Who is that?”
“He is my brother. Oh, Xandr, I saw them, just as plainly as I see you now. There was such beauty all about us, and such peace within my heart, unburdened by knowledge of the world beyond. Then there was something there not from my past . . . something I have never seen before. It was a lone, iron door, standing in the midst of the field where the Ilms grew, and there was no wall anywhere about it. It appeared to lead simply into the field, but when it opened, there was nothing but darkness, horrible darkness, and there came an armored thing . . . a man, I think, with a sword for an arm, and he grabbed me suddenly, and oh!” She covered her eyes with her hands. “Xandr, I was powerless.”
He lowered his gaze. “I was the only one to suffer from these nightly journeys. And now, somehow, I seem to have bestowed this curse upon you. My fate has become your fate.”
Her emerald eyes fixed upon his blue, expressing all that was within her. “Oh, Xandr, I no longer care for Fate. She is a harsh and humorless mistress. It is only this very hour that matters to me. Why won’t you hold me to your bosom, for the night is cold, and let come what may.”
“All my body yearns, with great agony, to hold you, Thelana. But I fear what may come of it . . . it has been a long time since that night in the Dead Zones. It is true that we are both Ilmarin, and our command over our own desires is firm, but now that we are joined, in love,” and the last word came softly, “the body cannot but follow. If only you were willing—”
“Oh, but we cannot! You know that! Xandr, I want our privacy; how can we do such a thing with Emma so near? And besides, she must not know about us; she will be hurt.”
“How can you know that?”
“I am a woman, and that binds me to knowledge even two Ilmarin cannot share, of things known only to women. I see how she looks at you. It is plain to see. Sharing affection in front of her will tear her apart.”
He smiled curiously, suppressing a laugh. “You once wished to kill her, remember? And now you worry about her feelings?”
“That was once, before knowing her. But now she is my friend, and I love her. We can’t do this to her. We must wait until we reach, dare I say, civilization,” and the last word she spoke disdainfully.
“All right,” said he, “lay your head upon my breast, and I, with an iron will, will think on other matters.”
She pulled herself alongside him, one arm wrapped tightly about his broad torso. Their bodies seemed to fit like two pieces of a puzzle. But it was, otherwise, a platonic union. “Oh!” she muttered under her breath. “And to think that in the Dead Zones, by the oasis, it was a hollow incident, an action of no greater worth like in that of a brothel.”
“No, Thelana,” he said gently, “it was not so. I loved you then as I love you now.”
She hugged him more closely, never having known such happiness. “As do I.”
But unbeknownst to them, silent tears rolled from Emma’s eyes and were smothered in the dust of her sleeping grounds, for there was a wound in her far more painful than any spear point or arrowhead could ever make, a perpetual, gaping wound that would not close and time could not heal, and its name was loneliness.