AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD
Many, many, many generations before in the Realm of Airhini…
During the night, many had arrived from the villages and burrows of Airhini, gathering in the village square until they filled the expanse and more. They parted willingly to provide a clear path for Shwane, leader of the Two-Legged, as he and Thoralf left their hut and strode purposely toward the wood platform at the center of the square where Badger, leader of the Four-Legged, waited anxiously. Thoralf did not follow Shwane up the wooden steps but took a place with the others standing around the base of the dais.
Shwane greeted Badger with a solemn nod of his head then turned to face those crowded into the square and waited for them to quiet before speaking. “For all time, the Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged have lived in peace, toiling together to provide for all. For all time, the Two-Legged and Four-Legged have lived in the valley protecting Airhini from below while the Winged lived on the butte and protected Airhini from above. For all time, Airhini has provided shelter and nourishment in return. This morn we wake to find the peace of the Realm broken by one who speaks of change in the order.” A nervous wave of murmurs washed over those gathered in the square and Shwane waited for them to subside. “He who seeks to have voice, come forward.”
Thoralf turned her head when a Two-Legged standing beside her moved toward the dais steps. “For the Realm, consider your words,” she told the man who paused to respond.
“It is for the Realm I speak,” he said before continuing. Several in the crowd called out words of support while many others cried out in protest as the man climbed the steps.
Shwane raised his arms asking for silence. “You seek voice?” he asked when the crowd had quieted.
“I am Phante.”
The man stepped to the front of the dais to address the gathering. “Shwane speaks true. For all time, Airhini has seen one order. But, I ask, is it not time for another?” He pointed to the top of the butte towering above the valley floor. “I ask why the Two-Legged live not atop the butte?”
Shwane motioned for the shouted protests to cease. “I protest his words as do you. But to silence his words means the silence of all,” he told the protestors. “The butte is home to the Winged,” he said directly to Phante. “It is the order of the Realm.”
“The Two-Legged toil in ways others do not. Does that not deserve reward?”
“All toil for the Realm. None deserve reward.”
“No! It is the Two-Legged who build the huts and storehouses. It is Two-Legged who tend the orchards and gardens. It is Two-Legged that fish the rivers and lakes. The Four-Legged and the Winged reap from our toil yet share not of it.”
“The toil of which you speak is for the Realm.” Shouts of agreement erupted from many in the crowd and Shwane patiently waited for them to quiet. “You disrespect our brothers and sisters,” he said. “Badger finds fertile ground where seeds will grow. Gopher digs furrows. Horse carries water to nourish the crops and carries the grain to the storehouses. All serve the Realm.”
“What of the Winged? How do they serve?”
“They travel great distance on the wind to bring us warning of storms.”
“Which we can see for ourselves when the sky darkens,” Phante scoffed.
“They bring news from other villages.”
“Do we not speak? Do we not carry such words from village to village?”
“The Winged serve the Realm,” Shwane asserted.
Phante shook his head. “No! They do little but float on the sky. They serve not the Realm!” he shouted. “Not as Two-Legged serve.”
“You speak not true,” Shwane protested just as loudly.
“You decide,” Phante spoke directly to the crowd. “Was not a call sent throughout the Realm for all to gather this morn? Two-Legged. Four-Legged. And the Winged.”
“Aye,” came the collective response.
“Yet the Winged do not appear.” He waited as thousands of heads turned in search of those missing. “They dishonor the Realm.”
Shwane felt the mood of the crowd shifting.
“I challenge,” Phante said in a loud clear voice that carried to all who had gathered in the square. “I challenge Shwane.”
“For what purpose?” Shwane asked.
“I will lead the Two-Legged to a new order. No longer shall the Winged look down on those who toil. No longer shall Two-Legged look up to what is not theirs to claim. Will you follow?” he shouted his question to the crowd.
“No!” Shwane protested but his voice was lost in the surge of voices agreeing with Phante.
“I claim the butte for those who serve most… the Two-Legged! This morn, a new order rises,” Phante raised his arm and pointed to the top of the butte. “The Order of the Stone. I claim the Butte for the Realm of Arhdahl!”
Thoralf watched as hundreds of Two-Leggeds struggled to carve a narrow path in the cliff face. Toiling precariously close to the edge, they chipped away at the stone, creating a route that would eventually reach to the top of the butte. “Their work is near complete,”
“Aye,” Shwane agreed.
“It is a sad day for Airhini.”
Shwane nodded. “Aye,” he said gravely as he spotted a familiar figure emerging from the boulders that marked the beginning of the path. Phante walked to join three other Two-Legged. “It is time.”
“Be strong, my husband, you carry my heart.”
Shwane wrapped his arms around Thoralf, hugging her tight. “As you carry mine,” he said before releasing her. He pressed his hand against her cheek for a moment then turned and quickly walked to where the group of men stood talking.
Phante watched Shwane approach. “Continue our toil,” he told the men with him. “We soon will step upon the butte.”
“I say again,” Shwane told Phante, “you must stop and return to the valley.”
Phante laughed. “You hold no place in the new order.”
“I serve the Realm of Airhini. As so should you.”
“No more. I serve Arhdahl.”
“Of what you speak is not right,” Shwane said. “For all time, the Realm of Airhini has been at peace. The Two- and Four-Legged living in the valley and the Winged living atop the butte.”
“No more,” Phante declared. “No more shall Two-Legged speak of the Realm of Airhini. No, this eve the moon will rise over the House of Oneida in the Realm of Ahrdahl.” Phante smiled. “Look about, Shwane. Two-Legged stand ready to follow me to Ahrdahl.”
“And what of the Winged?”
“They will live here, with the Four-Legged.”
“And if they choose not?”
“Then they will breathe not.”
“The butte is reached,” a Two-Legged shouted as he ran down the path, his announcement greeted enthusiastically by those waiting to leave the valley for a new home.
Phante smiled. “Join us, Shwane?”
“No, Phante. I serve Airhini.”
Phante reacted swiftly. Pulling a polished stone blade from within the folds of his sash and swinging his arm in a wide sideways arc. Shwane gasped when the blade sliced into his side. “Then you serve no more,” Phante exclaimed while thrusting the knife deeper into the flesh of his shocked victim. He did not pull the blade free but waited for Shwane to collapse to the ground, releasing his own body from the weapon. “For Ahrdahl,” Phante shouted raising his arm into the air, blood and flesh covering both blade and hand. “What say you now, Shwane?” he asked the man dying at his feet.
Shwane struggled to stand but could not. Blood flowed freely from his wound and he found each breath to be more difficult than the last.
Phante turned away from Shwane, leaving the Leader of the Two-Legged to die unable to see anything but his back. “With your last breath, the Realm of Airhini is no longer.”
Thoralf gasped and grabbed her side. The pain was like none she had felt before and it forced her to her knees. She released a low, mournful cry.
From the shadows of the forest a cloaked figure emerged. The Crone shuffled to Thoralf and reached down a gnarled hand. “Rise.”
“Shwane served Airhini but now he breathes not. Rise.”
“I can not.”
“Look about. Others feel of Airhini as did Shwane. Now they wait for command. Shwane can not. You must stand in his stead.”
Ignoring the pain, Thoralf pushed herself up from the ground and did as she had been instructed. All along the base of the butte, Two-Legged and Four-Legged stood ready to defend their Realm.
Badger rumbled over to Thoralf. “The Winged are already in battle. The Four-Legged will join them.”
Thoralf turned her gaze to the top of the butte where the sky was full of Winged as they struggled to drive Phante and his followers from the butte. She accepted a spear held out to her by the Crone then turned to the place she had last seen Shwane alive.
“His strength is your strength,” the Crone told her.
Thoralf raised the spear high above her head. “For Airhini,” she cried as she ran toward the the path.
All along the foot of the butte… all along the length of the path… all over the top of the butte, Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged joined in battle against Phante and his followers. Day turned to night then back again until only one Winged was left to defend the butte.
“He is wounded,” a Two-Legged told Phante.
“Yet, he fights.”
“You have naught to gain, Feath. All others breath not.”
“I defend Airhini,” the injured Leader of the Winged declared. His wing was broken and, unable to escape, he had been backed into a field of boulders where he was being attacked from multiple sides.
“Airhini is no more. You defend not. Cease your struggle,” Phante commanded as he inched nearer to Feath, being careful to stay out of reach of the Winged’s deadly talons.
Realizing his fight would soon be over Feath grew still. His feathers were covered in blood and one wing hung useless but he drew himself up to his full height and ruffled his wings into place at his sides. “Listen to my final words, Phante,” he said in a surprisingly strong voice. “In the name of the Realm of Airhini, I curse you. From this eve forward, all who carry your blood will bear a mark.”
Phante laughed. “What of this mark? How will it harm me?”
“You will bear the mark of the Assassin of the Winged.”
Phante laughed again. “Your words hold no power. With your last breath, the Wing will be no more,” he said raising his arm and driving his sword into Feath’s chest.
“It is done?” a Two-Legged asked after watching Feath crumble to the ground.
“No,” Phante answered. “Clear them from the butte. I want none left. Clear their bodies and their nests.”
“What is to be done with them?”
“Send them over the edge to rot in the abyss of what was once.”
Thoralf knelt beside Shwane. Carefully, she turned him onto his back being careful to cradle his head in her hands.
Badger rested beside Thoralf, her front paw bandaged. “You will join the others on the butte?” She looked up as another body was hurled off the cliff by Phante’s victorious forces. In the eve’s growing darkness, she watched the lifeless body drop until her weak eyes could no longer discern it from the shadows cast by the cliff’s rough surface. “Airhini grieves,” she said, saddened by the sight. “Go. The path is to be sealed soon.”
“No. My place is with my husband.”
“You must go.”
“For what purpose?”
“To serve Airhini.” The Crone materialized from the night’s shadows and shuffled to Thoralf.
“I serve no more. I will remain with Shwane.”
Groaning from the effort, the aged Crone knelt down beside Thoralf. “Your bond was strong,” she said placing a hand over Shwane’s heart.
The Crone shifted her hand to Thoralf’s belly. “His heart beats within you.”
Thoralf placed her hand over her own heart. “Aye, it has always been so.”
“No,” the Crone took Thoralf’s hand and placed it over her belly. “His child grows.”
Thoralf gasped. “It cannot be so,” she said although she desperately hoped the Crone spoke the truth.
“His child lives. You must join the Two-Legged on the butte.”
“I can not,” Thoralf said sadly. “To raise Shwane’s child among his…”
The Crone looked into Thoralf’s eyes. “One day, one will be born who will return order to Airhini.”
“I do not understand. A child of Shwane will not be welcomed on the butte.”
“Not today,” the Crone agreed. “But another day, when memories have faded and most know not of Airhini.” The Crone placed her hand over Thoralf’s. “This child will stay within you until that day.”
“How can that be?”
“Your strength. And the strength of Shwane will make it so.”
Wolf trotted up and placed a book on the ground. “Is this the book of which you asked?”
Badger nodded. “Aye. You serve Airhini well.” After Wolf backed off several steps, Badger addressed Thoralf. “Take this book, it is written by Shwane’s hand. It speaks true of Airhini. One day, your child will call upon you to read from the book.”
“The call is given for all Four-Legged to enter the path,” a shout came out of the darkness.
The Crone handed the book to Thoralf. “Take your child to the butte. Come forward,” the Crone beckoned to a Four-Legged standing nearby. “He is Teacher. The blood of his blood will keep the memory of Airhini in their hearts. They serve as do you. Go. Before they close the path.”
Thoralf bent over and placed a final kiss on Shwane’s lips then stood, helping the Crone to stand with her.
“He will wait.”
“For how long?”
“Until your service is complete. Go. The last warning has been sounded. Trust none but the Protector.”
Thoralf nodded and with a final look upon her husband, she allowed herself to be guided toward the boulders that marked the path’s beginning. As she walked, she tucked Badger’s book into her pack so none would see it.
“It is a long journey,” Badger said to the Crone.
“Aye.” The Crone responded then disappeared into the darkness.
Thoralf walked up the path, aware that two guards followed several steps behind. Any Four-Legged who had chosen to remain in Airhini would not be allowed on the butte once the guards reached there. Wanting one last look of the valley where she had lived and loved, she stopped and turned. It was too dark to see much more than the few torches and campfires of those who remained. As she was about to continue, her eyes caught movement behind the guards. Just then, a sliver of moon appeared behind the night’s clouds and she spied a fox walking up the path. And with each step the fox took, the path behind vanished from sight. At first, she thought her eyes were playing tricks on her but as she watched she became convinced they were not.
“One last look?” one of the guards asked when they came upon Thoralf.
She smiled. “Aye.”
Continued in Chapter Fourteen
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