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Chapter 16

Preparations for Battle

Cheryl was back on her feet within five days, and while she was laid up she had a constant stream of visitors. Ralph seemed absolutely disinclined to leave her side, and even Lenny showed affection alien to him.

"You know Cheryl," he said quite seriously, "the hand of Abba must have held you as you fell." His face seemed paler then usualin the glow of the torchlight.

"I know," she said with a smile. "But why do you say that?"

"According to the laws of physics, you should have been crushed when you struck the eagle." He shuddered at the thought. "But you are quite well, and mending rapidly. The King must have controlled your fall."

She nodded thoughtfully. "Now that I look back, I seem to remember a feeling like a warm soft wind cushioning me, but then I blacked out. I think you're right: God was holding me."

When she was allowed to sit up a couple days later, Viara came to say goodbye.

"But Viara," Cheryl said in dismay. "Do you have to go?"

"I'm afraid so, Cheryl. Abba has given me a gift for hearing the High Music, if faintly at times, and I know it would be folly for me to continue with you, much as I desire to do so. You children must go on alone."

Cheryl sighed and rubbed an aching temple. Viara was not noticeable, and hardly what one would call heroic, but she had a quiet wisdom and confidence that had bound their incongruent band together. She would be sorely missed.

Viara saw the girl's distress, and she suddenly knelt and kissed her forehead. Cheryl looked up in surprise. "Fear not," Viara said with a gentle smile. "Abba has given you the same gift. You too can hear the Melodies of Wisdom, if faintly, and you understand the tongue of the eagles. I do not fear for you."

Cheryl smiled back and wiped her tears. "I'll miss you, Viara."

"Yeah," Ralph agreed. "You're somethin' else."

Viara's eyes sparkled with laughter. "As are you, little dragon-slayer."

"I wish people'd stop calling me that." Ralph grimaced. "I'm not really that brave. It was the emeralds."

Viara shook her head. "You misunderstand. The jewels of Maychoria can only give courage if it is already in you. The property of the stones is to bring out and enhance the virtues of joy, courage, peace and wisdom. It is the nobility of your spiritual heritage that gave you the strength and boldness to do the deeds you did, not a kind of enchantment laid on you by the gems."

Ralph was suddenly interested in his feet. Then he looked up again. "But I let myself get carried away. You followed me off a cliff, and I almost got myself--and Cheryl--killed."

"Yes," Cheryl said. "And I let fear rule me, if only for a little while."

Lenny made self-deprecating noise. "And I allowed peace to deepen to lethargy."

Viara nodded. "There is wisdom to be drawn from these experiences, unpleasant though they were."

"Yes," Cheryl agreed, brightening. "Courage must temper wisdom, and joy must balance knowledge of evil."

Lenny nodded thoughtfully. "And peace must not become complacency."

Soon after Cheryl left the Chambers of Healing, a council of the Dwarves was called. Aláric the Healer was there, and the Prince of the Dwarves of Shimron Meron, Pekílim, and the seven advisors of the Prince. After Pekílim the introductions grew rather confused in Cheryl's mind, and she remembered only the name of Caerákenoe, a most venerable dwarf with a flowing white beard down past his belt, which enclosed a still-lean body, unlike the bulging paunches of some of the dwarves. Caerákenoe was the expert on old legends, Cheryl was told. He was obviously ancient enough to be in several of them.

Most startling of all was the tenth member of the dwarven council: Falkor, the Prince of the Eagles.

First thing after introductions Cheryl turned to the lordly bird. "Thank you for saving my life, Prince Falkor," she said with the curtsey Viara had taught her. "Without your help I would surely have perished."

The great golden wings puffed out from the body in the equivalent of a shrug, but she could see by his piercing black eyes that he was pleased by her thanks. "I am a mere instrument of the King's will," he said. Falkor's voice was large and booming though not shrill, as if he was accustomed to calling across the heavens and could not lower his voice to compensate for the relative smallness of the cavern. The tone in any other creature could not be called humble by any stretch of the imagination, but in the noble eagle, Cheryl knew that it was so.

One of the dwarven advisers, whom Cheryl now remembered was called Málkali, wanted to get down to business. "And truly the King chooses strange instruments, to send these infants to fight a Witch. I cannot see the why and wherefore of it."

"Great events turn on small hinges," Caerákenoe replied. "Think of the old tales of Truth. Had not one lowly member of the Three Peoples chosen to follow the seductions of Kataphage, much suffering would not exist. Had not one ancient dwarf chosen to fly in the face of advice and explored the forbidding slopes of the giant known as Shimron Meron, we would not now be sitting in such comfort and relative safety."

Cheryl spoke now, timidly at first, but with more confidence as she continued. "On Terra we have an ancient maxim:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost,
For want of the horse, the rider was lost,
For want of the rider, the battle was lost,
For want of the battle, the war was lost,
For want of the war, the country was lost,
For want of the country, the empire was lost,
For want of the empire, the world was lost,
And all for the want of a horse shoe nail.

"I do not presume to say we are fit for such a task, but perhaps our very unfitness makes us the only ones who will succeed, for we see how weak we are and submit our wills and actions to the King."

Then spoke Pekílim, "The Lady is more wise than we, though yet a babe. Heed her words."

Málkali shook his dark head. "Yet do they have nothing to help them? They are small, my Prince. Do they have weapons, skills, talents, strength sufficient to the task? They are children."

Arim spoke first, a little hotly. "Yes, we are small, and we are children. That does not mean we will fail. Abba is with us." He grinned suddenly. "You speak of being small, yet you are a dwarf." A general laugh met that remark, and Málkali flushed.

"Thou speakest of physical strength," Aláric said. "I can tell thee they do not lack that. But I do not think that will be most important to the journey they go on. It is not against armies they strive, but spiritual forces."

Pekílim nodded and gazed pointedly at Cheryl, who was obviously the leader of the four. "Have thee inner strength sufficient?"

Cheryl did not hesitate, but answered firmly, "Yes, Prince Pekílim. Each of us has already stood alone against great danger, with the exception of Arim, our Maychorian friend. But I do not fear for him, for I see in him an undiscovered strength able to bear much, and my sight is good."

"I do not doubt thee," replied Pekílim, and the other dwarves agreed. Each had already heard the tale of the children's previous adventures, and Falkor and Aláric had first-hand account of their indomitableness.

"What of weapons and armor?" queried a dwarf who had heretofore been silent: Beráka, the armorer and smith, who had rough, work-hardened hands and a straw-brown beard cut short to prevent it catching fire in the forge. "Have they none?"

"See." Cheryl drew out Morrévril, and it was shining, the gold light from the blade catching in the marcellia jewels and dazzling the eyes of the watchers. Even Falkor cried out and put a shielding wing over his bright dark eyes. "It is the sun!" exclaimed the eagle-Prince in his peculiar booming voice.

Ralph had likewise drawn his eagle-dagger a moment after, and as the gold light faded, the blade of the dagger began to glow as well, not gold, but silver. It was indescribable, for as Morrévril's gold was touched with silver, the eagle-dagger's silver was touched with gold.

"It is the moon," Falkor said as he lowered his wing. Morrévril had ceased shining, and the light of Ralph's blade was now bearable as it too faded.

Beráka's eyes were wide, no less than the other dwarves. "It is Morrévril, the Darkrender," he said softly. "Once again the sword of legends has appeared in the hands of a small warrior to fight for right." Then he looked on the tibian blade and emerald adornments of Ralph's little eagle-dagger, and his voice was no less amazed. "And that is Thoníphage, the Fire-eater. Truly I have lived to see fulfillment of prophecies, dreams and legends come alive, old children's tales shown to be true! Sheath thy marvelous weapons, children, and do not draw them lightly."

The two Terrans obeyed, and Lenny showed the dwarves his magnifying glass. "This is Chumégal, Peace-magnifier. If it is ever my lot to use a weapon, this is my choice. It will intensify and direct the light of the other jewels, and no evil creature can stand against it. But my path is not that of a warrior, but a healer."

Aláric smiled, but Beráka and Málkali looked concerned. "And what of armor?" the smith asked. "I see none, and 'twould be an evil chance to send thee out with no defense but thy weapons, wonderful though they be. And young Arim should have at least a dagger, though perhaps not one so famous as Thoníphage."

Pekílim agreed. "Before they set out," the Prince commanded the armorer, "thou wilt outfit them with helms, shields, and chainmail hauberks. It would indeed be evil to allow allies of the dwarves to pass out of Shimron Meron without such protection and help as we can provide. After this they will find no friends along the way."

Caerákenoe shook his head. "Thou forgetest, my Prince: not alone do Katamobi stalk the wild. The messengers of Jah frequent Trakinos as well, and the golden light of victory will illuminate their path and make it straight. And often it is that those on the side of righteousness find help unsought along the way, as the elf Morain did in the tale of Morain and the Vorprix."

Ralph's interest was sparked. "What is this story? What is it about? Can you tell it to us?"

Caerákenoe smiled. "It is the tale of how a small warrior found Morrévril in the forest of Kemalay before the lands of Viara and Verdain were destroyed. It is a lengthy song, full of battles and monsters and beautiful sights now perished out of the world, and it would be too long for me to tell it now. When thou returnest from thy battle and we have peaceful days again, I will tell it to thee and thy friends, and thou wilt know the story of Morain's battle with the Vorprix."

Ralph was disappointed and paid little attention to the rest of the council, which seemed chiefly concerned with the right tunnels to take through Shimron Meron to reach the Trakinos Desert.

As it happened, Ralph was sitting rather close to the mighty eagle, and he could see that Prince Falkor was just as bored as he. Everything Falkor had said had needed to be translated by Cheryl for the dwarves, but Ralph had been astonished to realize he understood the eagle's speech as well. Now he leaned over to Falkor and whispered, "I guess you feel as cooped up in here as I do."

Falkor looked at the boy in surprise. Ralph had not spoken in the eagle's language, but there was a certain undefinable quality in the boy's voice that suggested he could learn the aquiline tongue.

Falkor managed to make his voice a whisper--a very difficult thing for the giant bird--and his words were like the wind over a hole in the mountainside, faint and high. "You understand my speech, little one?"

"Yes." It was said in such an off-hand, casual way that one wouldn't have thought it was a skill given to a mere fraction of people. "I don't much like caves, and I don't much like hanging off cliffs, but I didn't mind hanging onto the dragon while it flew. It was like being a part of the wind, though a wrong move and I would've died. I loved it, and I can see you like flying, too."

Falkor could not smile, but his eyes grinned. "Indeed, little one. This cave is much too small for eagles such as we."

Ralph hesitated, then grinned. "Cheryl does say I'm like an eagle, but I didn't know it was so obvious."

The smile in the eagle-Prince's eyes broadened. "It takes one to know one, as they say, Little Eagle."

Ralph's eyes shone. It was a nice nickname, and he liked Falkor.

Sarah had finally laid aside her misgivings. It had taken a long time, for her training in the right paths was good, and the prayers of Cheryl and the others were very strong, but she had succeeded at last and was ready to believe anything Ryoo said.

At breakfast Ryoo looked searchingly in the girl's face, and saw that the 'cleansing' phase of her indoctrination was complete. With a feral smile the Witch picked the rest of the meat off the bone she held in her slender hands and said, "'Til now Inaryoo, we have worked very hard, with no time for diversion. After breakfast follow me, and I will show you what I do for entertainment."

Her interest sparked, Sarah had Mariel attire her for the outdoors and followed her teacher into the blazing sun. Ryoo led her out of the castle and into the streets of Kakon. It wasn't an ordinary city at all. There were no peasants in the street, not one. All the doors and shutters of the tumbledown houses were shut and barred, though that had to be stuffy for anyone inside. Even stranger, the rough huts that could hardly be called homes were built uniformly of black metal and black stone, though where it had been mined and quarried Sarah could not tell, in this forsaken desert of a country.

They soon came upon a large cart piled high with baskets of slimy gray clay. Two human slaves were pulling it through the streets by means of coarse, heavy ropes. One of the men seemed to walk in a dream; his movements were precise and methodical, his eyes dull and unintelligent. The other one was younger and acted much the same, but observant Sarah noticed the bright blue eyes peering discreetly at her.

Both were dressed in ragged gray tunics, their clumsy sandals nearly worn out. The bearded, brown-eyed man was obviously in some kind of trance, and Sarah found the eerily exact movements of his thickset body chilling. Though the other man was pretending to be in the same state, his movements were much more impatient. Sarah realized with a start that the young man was quite handsome, his smooth face overshadowed by huge dark eyebrows over the intense blue of his watching eyes.

"Halt!" Ryoo said imperiously, and the slaves obeyed, but the eyes of the younger one flashed. "We will ride to the smelting ovens, Inaryoo," the Witch explained as she climbed up to sit atop the heap of baskets, first laying her cloak over it to keep from dirtying her rich garments..

Sarah followed, puzzled. Once she was seated by her master, Ryoo gave the order to continue.

"Master," the girl said hesitantly.

"What is it, apprentice?"

"I don't understand. Where do these rocks come from? What are they for?"

"You see that rise beyond the city wall?" Ryoo gestured with a sweeping hand past the black wall of Kakon to a gray hill rising some little distance from the city.

"Yes," Sarah replied, squinting. Blasts of air carrying sand swept over the uninviting hill, buffeting the small dark figures that crept on the slope.

"That is Noros'b, the hill of hardness. There my slaves procure iron ore for my construction projects. The smelting ovens are laid there for convenience in refining the ore, but we also use bog clay from the Urnvile--it keep the slaves busy."

"Noros'b," Sarah echoed, tripping over the guttural at the end. After a moment she asked, "Where are we going?"

"Beyond the smelting fires lies the entrance to my dungeons. I will show you when we arrive."

They turned a corner and passed through an open gate, and Sarah became aware of several columns of smoke in the vicinity. They crossed the plain to Noros'b, and as they drew nearer there came a sound of roaring, as of a great fire, and a few isolated shouts. And then they were amongst the smelting ovens; huge gray beehives with square doorways filled with bright flames. The tremendous heat struck Sarah like a blow, and sweat stood on her face.

Here were unfortunate slaves laboring in the scalding heat, converting crude ore into metal, pouring ingots, and disposing of dross. Most of them didn't even have gloves, only gray rags wrapped around their hands. All looked tired and hot, red-faced and nearly dropping. On the outskirts of the ring of heat rested another group of gray-clad laborers, fanning themselves and drinking huge dippers of dirty-looking water that stood there in shoulder-high cisterns. A constant interchange went on between the two groups as each worker grew too hot and weary to go on and went to rest and drink while one who was a little cooled and refreshed took their place.

Here the wagon halted. Ryoo dismounted her high perch, and Sarah followed. Seemingly unaffected by the heat that was nearly overpowering her apprentice, the Witch took brisk paces into the swirling, fire-incensed area. Sarah, having already picked up something of her mistress's imperious manner, turned sharply to the two slaves that had drawn the cart and ordered, "Get back to work!"

The bearded one immediately began unloading ore as if turned on by a switch, but the young man looked sternly back at Sarah for a split second, as if berating her rudeness. Then he silently turned to the task, his broad shoulders and muscular arms falling easily into the rhythm. Sarah sniffed, then turned and hurried to catch up with Ryoo.

The Witch strode unflappably on through the rolling heat. As she passed, each slave paused in his or her work and bowed to the ground before her, and they showed the same worship to Sarah. But the girl cared little, though it gave her a certain thrill. She was near fainting in her black robes as she ran after Ryoo.

Just past where the terrible heat began to lessen, they came to Noros'b and saw downward leading steps cut into the side. The steps led to a door set in the side of the hill.

When they came back out of the door an hour later Sarah looked shaken, but Ryoo had a malicious grin on her face. She had fully enjoyed every moment. Sarah had not. She felt sick, and barely saw her surroundings, but stumbled blindly after her mistress.

The young man with the blue eyes watched them go.

"The girl's education in the ways of evil is coming on apace," Juthwara said at the meeting of the Jubilee Guild the same day. "But we still have reason to hope."

"What reason?" said Eben, the young man who had told of how he and one of the Sleepwalkers had taken the Witch and her apprentice, Inaryoo, to the entrance of the dungeons. "She is completely given over to the teachings of the Evil One."

"Nay, young friend," Juthwara replied, his dark eyes gleaming in his boyish face. Despite his youthful appearance, he was older and wiser than anyone else present, and definitely in charge. "Did you not say that when she returned from that pit of misery she appeared shaken and ill? Abba is not finished with her yet, and neither should we be."

Mariel nodded. She had been carefully observing the Witch's apprentice for almost a month now, and she agreed with the Elf. Inaryoo was nearly immersed in evil, but there were yet sparkles of light in her dark shroud, though the girl struggled to conceal them and pluck them out.

And so much could change so quickly…. The girl smiled secretly. Only two months ago she'd been a terrified slave laboring in Castle Ryoo, and look at her now. Confident, lighthearted, unafraid of Ryoo and yet the best servant in the castle, a member of the Jubilee Guild in the confidences of Juthwara himself, the best spy the resistance group had, and most of all, a child of the one true King of everything.

Juthwara caught her Madonna-like expression, and he returned it suddenly. "And what do you rejoice at, maiden? Whence comes that tranquil smile?"

Mariel started at the interruption of her thoughts. "I was only thinking that you are right, sir; there are chinks in the aspiring Witch's armor of darkness. And Abba can change much in a short time--look what He has done with me!"

Juthwara gently returned her grin. "Indeed, Mariel--that we must not forget." He looked around to include the entire congregation of the Guild as he continued. "And we must also not forget that our battle is not really with Ryoo and her minions; it is with what stands behind her: the power of Kataphage and the evil spirits."

"How shall we prepare for such a battle?" Eben asked. "Even now our smiths fashion weapons and armor in preparation for the final clash you anticipate, but what can we do to guard against spells and spirits?"

"Nothing," Juthwara said simply. He smiled at their stricken expressions. "Nothing physical, that is. But we must pray for the strength and guidance of Atheos, and take on the helm of His forgiveness and the breastplate of righteousness through His grace, and most importantly, we must take up the shield of faith." He lifted a hand to emphasize the point. "For this we must never, never forget, my friends and fellow fighters for freedom--the power of Kataphage is that of an ant next to that of a giant when compared to the might of the One who holds the universe in the palm of His hand. The battle belongs to the King, and to Him also the victory." He brought his fist into his palm with a smash. "We need fear nothing, my brethren. Atheos can bring back even the traitor we know as Inaryoo. Surely the hand that set the sun and stars in their places will not falter in bringing home one lost little one. And He will not fail to protect from evil those who call upon His name and follow His commandments. As far as the real spiritual conflict goes, we need only sit back and watch as our King defeats our enemies in the same way a giant brushes away an irritating ant."

Cheryl stood and watched Beráka, the dwarf-smith, fit yet another helmet on Lenny's head. It appeared the boy's dark curls concealed a head of unusual shape, and she knew Ralph and Arim would henceforward find many opportunities to tease him about it. Even now they hid their smiles.

"There!" Beráka exclaimed with satisfaction. "At last we have found a helm to fit thee, young Lord. I am well pleased, for my own grandfather fashioned this helmet for the use of a dwarf-Prince. It is made of thrice-tempered tibian, and able to stand the against the strongest of blows."

"Thank you, Beráka," Lenny murmured, lifting a hand to touch the silver-steel that encased his head. "Sorry to cause you so much trouble."

Beráka smiled. "It is a pleasure for me, my Lords and Lady. This is such stuff as songs and legends are made of, and I am well pleased to share a small part in the tale, even if it be no more than that of a page."

Now all four children were equipped with shield, mail-shirt, breastplate, and helmet. Arim had also been presented with a small dagger of tibian, its hilt the shape of a gold leaf, inlaid with veins of silver and one small ruby that caught the light. Amongst them they carried a Prince's ransom in tibian, gold, and jewels, but the Dwarves would not let them take armor of lesser worth. They insisted it was the least they could do to outfit the small band, and all shared the attitude of Beráka.

It took several hours to become accustomed to wearing the armor, and always Ralph chafed, constantly readjusting the breastplate and mail-shirt. He complained he felt like the shepherd boy David forced to wear Saul's armor, and Caerákenoe perked up and asked for the full tale. Once again Ralph found himself explaining Terran concepts to a group of wide-eyed Madrans.

Then Málkali, Pekílim, and Beráka attempted to give the children lessons in swordsmanship. Ralph and Arim learned quickly, but it is doubtful Cheryl and Lenny picked up anything. Several times Aláric shook his head that a young maiden would be learning to sword-fight, and Lenny agreed. Though he did not want to fight, he did his best to learn that he might protect his sister.

He knew it would be needed, as would be the armor, and he shuddered at the thought. Eels that were destroyed by a touch of magnified light were one thing, and huge dragons that fell by the hand of a single courageous boy were quite another. If faced by an army of Katamobi, Lenny did not know if he would stand and fight or turn and run.

"Lord, give me strength," he prayed once in a whisper, his light gray eyes clouded. Then the peace he knew overcame his doubts, and he sighed.

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