Part II: The Storm Breaking
She knew she could find her way to where the stone-spawn were. If she knew who her enemies were, she could find them. That had often been an immensely useful gift in the wars. Aia skimmed across dense mounds of treetops rocking in the wind, fields of tall grass that rippled under her, reeds by riverbanks where herons and geese glanced up at the strange human creature.
In the days when she was used to doing this, she would have done it easily and probably enjoyed it. It was not without some thrill now, but the effort quickly became a strain, and soon a painful one. Yet she forced herself to keep up at the same speed, knowing that if she reached her goal too late it would all have been for nothing. When she finally allowed herself to rest, amid some boulders near the edge of a ravine, it was because she knew, even without seeing it, that the stone-spawn were on the other side.
The time was hard to tell from the clouded sky, but she knew darkness would soon be coming. At this time of day, Aia would ordinarily have been fixing supper for herself and perhaps Nok. She was still panting from her long flight, and now she had to fight and destroy every stone-spawn in that ravine, quickly, with lessened abilities. “If I had even had a day to prepare…” she moaned.
As she heard herself moan, a spark of anger flashed in her. “Aagh! Get up! Hurry!” With a sharp jerk she rose and climbed toward the ravine’s edge. “After all,” she muttered, “I’ve gone weary to battle before. A fast, hard ride, a host before us at the end, and the day still won. No host behind me now, of course, but how many have the enemy?”
The answer came soon enough. When she peered over the ravine’s jagged edge, on the steep, rocky slopes below lay the stone-spawn, ten of them, covered with tough, lumpy, greenish-black hide, each one twice the length of a man from snout to tail. Their six legs were short, but long enough that they could scuttle about rapidly on their sharp-clawed feet. Their black eyes were small, not being used much in the holes and dark places where the creatures preferred to live; but all along their massive snouts were wide, deep nostrils with skin flapping over them. From the way they were growling, looking around, and waving their tails, they had likely smelled Aia’s approach already. At that distance and that light, she could not make out distinctly the fangs jutting out from their long, wide mouths, but she knew them well enough.
Aia gave a little wry laugh. “Well, I’ve seen worse.” After all, earlier that day she had wished for a death in battle. Perhaps it would be fitting for it to come now.
But there was no more time to lose. Lake Komurot wasn’t far from here. At all costs she must keep the creatures away from Domel and Junac’s people.
Perhaps Aia could draw them farther off before fighting. She had often heard that these brutes were keenly alert to shakings in the earth. Straightening, she stamped her foot, sending quivers through the rocky ground like a little earthquake. Small rocks went rolling and rattling down into the ravine.
Instantly the whole brood turned and came tearing up the slope toward Aia. Grimly encouraged, she took a flying leap backward, and another, soaring down a hillside in a couple of seconds. She sent out a stamping signal again, letting the stone-spawn come at her for a breath before she flew out of reach again.
Again and again Aia played this game with her enemy. She had no particular idea where she was going, except away from Lake Komurot. About the same time that she lost count of the jumps, she made a heartening discovery. Her jumps had been growing longer. Perhaps her powers only needed some work to come back to her. Perhaps the others would grow strong again once they were used for a while.
Yet all too soon, an instinct urged her to stop. She would tire before her enemies would. And after all, they had gone about half a mile by now; that was more than enough.
As so often before, she took in her surroundings at a glance. She was near the base of a hill, a high, steep, rocky hill, amid a wide, harsh plain with only ragged strips of grass and small shrubs. It would be the perfect place to raise a wind—if the wind would come.
The stone-spawn were coming up fast; they would soon be upon her. Aia breathed hard and called from within for the wind to blow against her enemies. What came was a fine blustering storm wind, but nothing to deter stone-spawn.
“Grow stronger!” Aia shouted. Without stopping the wind, she jumped once more, to reach higher ground, then sent several boulders from the hillside hurtling at the monsters, just as they reached the hill.
The creatures tumbled back, roaring and snarling. A few looked as though their limbs were damaged, but they came rushing back up with no less energy. Aia hurled bolts of fire at them, as hard as she could muster. She could once crack a stone-spawn’s hide with these blasts, but now the brutes were only more angered as they charged. A few lucky shots, though, did fall in the creatures’ flaring nostrils; two of her enemies stopped to howl, and appeared confused and crippled after that.
All this time the wind was rising before her, hurling a river of dust and pebbles and debris at the monsters’ faces. The stone-spawn were slowed, particularly since the dust was clogging their breathing and making them sneeze a great deal; but they were enraged and numerous, not yet overcome. Aia was wearying too; she had not used so much of her power since the wars. She breathed hard again and muttered, “Come now, Tuanor to victory!”
For an instant she considered making another retreating jump, to an outcropping of stone jutting out from the hillside which might provide a better advantage. Just as quickly she decided against it. The protruding ledge was worn and cracked. If it fell with her on it, the battle would be lost.
Instead she again lifted heavy stones, larger than before. Some had to be wrenched loose. With her strength ebbing, she did not make the move as quickly as she had hoped. A terrible blaze of pain in her right leg, and she slammed the largest rock on the stone-spawn that had clawed her. The heavy missiles tumbled through the monsters’ ranks, crushing legs and snouts. Three of them did not charge again.
Aia gritted her teeth. Her leg was throbbing, she could feel the blood dripping from it, and her energy was failing fast. “I’ve beaten some of you … I’ll beat the rest!”
She wanted to raise the rocks again, but could not manage it. She tried striking at the brutes again with the fire-bolts, but it was hard to aim for swift-moving creatures’ nostrils, or their tiny eyes. She even tried battering them with the loud vibrating signals that she had used to frighten Nok when he first came; those had always been easy. Perhaps those confused the stone-spawn, but they didn’t deter them. The wind was slowing them down, but Aia began to wonder whether she could hold them off long enough for it to grow to a really useful force.
Then before she knew what was happening, one stone-spawn came scrambling up over two others and lunging for her. It hissed as it sprang off their heads and flew at her face. Even more quickly, something crashed into it and knocked it aside. The monster snarled and struck at the new attacker, who tumbled away.
A thousand thoughts came in the space of a few heartbeats. Aia looked just long enough to see her woodscat friend lying wounded on the rocky ground. If she could not destroy the stone-spawn, it would mean not only her death but his. And, probably, not only their deaths, but those of more innocent folk like Domel and Junac and their people.
I live to serve. The question of what she could or could not do faded away. The brutes had to be destroyed.
Just as the stone-spawn that had jumped at her was coming again, Aia called once more for the wind to rise. What came this time was a veritable gale, streaming out from all around her as if her body were the open gate of all winds, raising wild clouds of gray-brown dust into the air.
In her days as the Windstormer, it was this tactic more than anything that had won her the trust of her allies and the fear of her foes. Men claimed that she could blow armies away like leaves, and not without some grounds in truth. The stone-spawn didn’t blow away, but they could no longer advance. Their claws clutched at the ground, and their nostrils and eyes were shut tight.
Aia turned to the jutting ledge of rock higher up the hillside. She stared hard at it, took one more deep breath, and with a cry and a furious effort tore it cracking and rumbling from its place. Quickly, straining her whole mind and body, she heaved the immense stone through the air and brought it down on the frozen stone-spawn, slamming like a giant’s hammer and rolling back and forth until every one of them was dead.
With that, Aia’s last energy went out like a candle. The deafening fury of the wind dropped to silence; the raging clouds of dust swirled slowly, drifting and settling. Panting, she stood a few moments longer, then sank to the ground. She leaned back against a jag of rock and stared at the broken stones and broken monsters’ bodies.
She could hardly believe what she had done. After years of quiet solitude and dreaming about the days of battle, she had fought again, and had conquered.
With a fresh pang of worry she remembered Nok, but he was sitting up and licking himself. The stone-spawn had struck him on his flank, and had not cut deep. Presently he finished and came up to Aia, licked her bleeding leg, and said softly, “You are stronger.”
“Thank you, lad,” Aia whispered. She reached out to his big head, and found that even that small movement cost effort. “What would I do without you?”
The woodscat leaned his head close and purred. At length he said, “You need to wash. I know where’s water. Can you come?”
It was some time before Aia could find it in herself to answer. She didn’t want to get up, but she knew he was right; her wound had to be cleaned. She ripped a piece off her apron, wrapped it tightly around her leg, and rose. “Yes, show the way.”
By now it was dark, but that was no trouble for a cat’s keen eyes. They went slowly, with Aia sometimes leaning on Nok, but arrived sooner than she expected at a little creek, its placid tinkling joining with the rush of the wind. Here Aia washed her leg, bandaged it again, and drank gratefully, while Nok stalked through the water until he managed to catch a fish.
As he spat out the last little bones, he asked, “What now? Back home?”
Aia gave a feeble laugh. “Soon, but not until I’ve rested a bit. And perhaps … not right away.”
As soon as she gave herself permission to sleep, sleep came like an undammed river.
Weary though she was, Aia didn’t sleep long. She had not needed a great deal of sleep in recent years. Dawn was still faint in the east when she woke and felt ready to go on. Nok was already awake, eating another fish. Still another lay on the ground beside him. Seeing her rise, he pushed it toward her. “Mrr, breakfast?”
Aia smiled. “Thank you, but I’ll let you take that too this time. I’d rather not spend the time cooking it. I’ve another journey to make.”
“No. To the Thelm Cavern.”
Nok spat out fish bones and looked puzzled. “Cavern? Why?”
“Domel and Junac called it the great river cave. The Thelm river runs through Lake Komurot and on by the cavern. Their people meant to go that way. I must go and see how things are with them now, tell them the stone-spawn are no more, learn whether anything still threatens them.”
As he munched the next fish, Nok considered this. “Mrr … to humans again?”
“You needn’t come any farther than you wish,” Aia assured him. “You’ve already done much.”
Nok chewed, silent in thought for a while more, then shook his head. “I come with you. Help you. Only hide from humans.”
Soon afterward they set out. Aia, whose leg still troubled her, rode on Nok, who insisted that his own wound did not bother him any more. First they returned to the place of last night’s battle, where the stone-spawn’s blood had become a black crust on the ground. Aia wanted to bring with her some proof that the creatures were destroyed. Looking around the gruesome scene, she came at last on a single clawed foot that was almost severed. She managed to detach it, but had nothing to wrap it in; so, gritting her teeth a little, she put it in the pocket of her apron.
From there Nok sped along at a steady lope, and soon they passed from the harsh, barren country to the green valleys. As they journeyed, the pale dawn brightened to fiery rays and at last to full golden-white, in a shining blue with a few scattered clouds.
The sun was not halfway to its peak before they reached the Thelm Cavern. It was difficult to find if one didn’t know it, a well-chosen hiding place. The cavern was the hollow heart of a scrubby hill beside the river. Vines turning dark red, willows with yellowing leaves, and tangles of wild, weedy plants covered its mouth. The edge of the river came into the cavern—far enough to form a sizable pool, as Aia had once seen—so that not many would be tempted to try to wade up that way.
Aia slipped off Nok, who scampered away and vanished into the bushes. Her leg gave her only a mild twinge. She listened for voices inside, but all she heard was wind and the water in the rocks. With some caution, she came nearer, pushing through bushes and reeds and stepping across green-slimed rocks until she stood almost at the entrance. What she heard this time sounded like soft voices being hastily hushed.
Aia was fairly sure now that she had found what she sought, but thought it best to proceed cautiously still. She didn’t want to startle them, nor did she know what they might do. Remaining where she was, she called, “Who comes here to the Thelm Cavern? Let’s talk freely together. I am Aia, the Windstormer of Tuanor. The friends of Tuanor need not fear me. And the land’s enemies, I do not fear them.”
“Gran!” shouted two small, excited voices. Aia smiled, as more hushing followed, and a man’s voice replied, “Come then, Windstormer. Let’s talk as you say. We too belong to Tuanor.”
Aia stepped into the cave. In the dimness they were little more than shadowy shapes, a crowd of men, women, and children, all in the same simple, coarse garb as Domel and Junac. The boys themselves were squirming and waving from the edge of the group. Foremost was a tall, wiry man whose weathered face bore a look she understood at once, worn and weary yet still fully alert. He fixed Aia with a searching look, neither hostile nor yet welcoming.
She groped in her mind for the right first words, and in her pocket for the bloody clawed foot.
A few hours later, Aia’s thoughts were in a whirlwind as great as any she had raised.
She had been met at first with wordless astonishment when she first claimed to have singlehandedly killed the stone-spawn; but Domel and Junac’s knowledge of her, as well as the severed foot, helped to support her story. A brief demonstration of her powers was enough to convince nearly all the others, who then welcomed her as their rescuer and emerged into the sun. When they learned she hadn’t eaten that day, they offered her a generous share from their own breakfast: dried fruit, herbs, and a kind of thin cakes made with honey.
During that breakfast, the boys eagerly told her about the night before: how they had met their father looking for them on the way to the camp; how, while they were all in flight, Gomaca horsemen had galloped through their midst with fire that turned out to be some strong-smelling oily stuff, which they threw over the people; how, amid the cries and frenzy to quench the flames, they had hastened to the cave as quickly as they could, and remained there waiting all night.
They proved to be the children of several peoples, of foreign tribes and of Tuanor folk, all displaced from their homes, helping each other as they sought a safe place to establish a new one. Many were of mixed blood, including Domel and Junac, and the chief, Ekurat. He was, Aia found, intelligent and well-spoken; after they had eaten, she spent a long time talking with him about the present state of Tuanor.
Though she tried to be prepared for anything, she had no shield against the pain of learning what her Tuanor had become. “The ruler is whoever can beat his neighbor, and his kingdom is wherever he can reach,” Ekurat said matter-of-factly. In the country he knew, warriors without lords, fierce tribes, bands of robbers, even monsters or magicians in some places, wandered unchecked except by a stronger man.
“And the common folk?” Aia forced herself to ask.
Ekurat shrugged. “Everyone gets on as best he can. Some live traveling. Others find hidden places to live. Others again build walls and arm themselves.” Upon further questioning, she learned that there were still numerous villages and towns in the land, but these always had to be prepared to defend themselves.
Ekurat also listened with interest to Aia’s account of the old Tuanor. His people’s memories of its decline were much less detailed, as their elders had had little to do with the throne or the wars. “From what you say, the kingdom was long decaying before your time,” he observed gravely. “You had a hard fate, to fight the end of a great, slow defeat.”
Aia was startled into silence. Before her time? Was it not, then, she and her comrades who had lost the battle for Tuanor? “Fate, you say?” she said at last. “What do you mean?”
Ekurat was quiet a while, then answered, “By fate I mean what comes to each one that he can’t choose. There’s fate and there’s how a man answers it. Last night I thought my people’s fate was likely to be death at the jaws of scrabblers—and so it would have been if not for you. But we were all resolved to resist it however we could.”
From this talk Aia walked alone up the hill, turning over all she had learned. Over and over she heard the chief’s words: So it would have been if not for you. So it nearly had been, too nearly; and so it was for too many other innocent folk. One good work had been done, one evil prevented; but what of the rest of Tuanor?
Could she go back, now, to living in quiet with her animals and garden? She had been sure her warrior’s life was over; and now she was old. And yet … there was no denying it, she had strength in her yet.
For hours Aia stared into the depths of the sky, listening to the breeze, the birds, and her thoughts. At long last she gave a short nod and went down the other side to find Nok.
He hadn’t gone far, and soon came frisking out of the undergrowth to meet her. She sat beside him, scratched behind his ears, and spoke slowly, choosing her words with care. “Nok … how would it be if I were to go away on a journey? Perhaps a long one?”
He cocked his head, puzzled, but only said, “Where?”
“Well, it seems that many of my people need help, and have no one to help them. And now that I’ve found my strength again, I can’t live in ease as I’ve been. I must do for others what I’ve done for those boys and their people.”
“Mm,” Nok purred. “They are like cubs alone in a forest.”
“Just so. That’s why I must go, to look through the forest and find the cubs.” Nok gazed quietly at her, and she went on, “I’ll return to the cottage, to prepare—and to fix you a special supper, as promised. After that … I mean to journey a long time. To find and defend those lost cubs. It may be long before I come to the mountain again.”
As often, Nok was slow to respond, taking time to put his thoughts together. “Mrr … and your animals?”
Aia sighed, knowing that this might be the greatest shock. “If they accept it, and I think they will, I mean to entrust my farm to Ekurat’s people. I think they will have peace there, as the place is seldom troubled.”
For what felt like a long time, Nok was silent. Even his face, gazing vaguely over her shoulder, was hard to read. Aia waited, dreading how he might answer, how he would bear his life being turned around yet again. At last he turned his bright yellow eyes straight toward hers. “Mrr good. I come.”
“Will you?” Amazed at such a ready reply, Aia hardly knew what to say. “You know, lad, I mean to go fast and far, and likely to some hard, perilous places. I have no doubts that Ekurat and his people would look after you if I asked them.”
“I want to go,” Nok insisted. “You are all my clan.” His tail waved with excitement.
To her own surprise, Aia laughed for sheer joy, and put an arm around his furry head. “Let it be so, then,” she said. “And bless you!” Nok purred and pressed his face into her shoulder.
The lively autumn breeze swept around them, sending a loud rustling through the fields and scattering yellow and orange leaves through the air. Aia rose and looked up into the bright blue and white heavens. The burden of the past was losing its hold, and she was not troubled about the future. In her heart was a lightness and freedom that she had not known in many long years.