Chapter 9: The Iron-Breaker
The warriors reached the base of Mont Ripar two hours after sunrise. The old road vended steeper, following contours of the mountain, pines so thick they blocked the sun, and it might have still been dawn or even dusk. In some places, fully grown trees grew in the road itself; and lesser pines, sometimes firs, turned the road into little more than a path. Amanirena rode uncomfortable. She preferred a chariot and driver, sometimes fighting on foot, but warring upon a horse was not her style. Yet the two men needed her and she could not refuse. Now they slowed their mounts to a walk. She caught Czaba’s attention, “You fear not the gryphons?”
“Why should I? They read a man’s thoughts. I have no need for gold. It shines for men of greed and eventually kills them. I prefer clean waters, fat deer, and the dream of a fine woman. When your days are all gone, what good is gold’s reflection? Better to recall a great love.” He looked over to her, “Is that not true?”
She remained quiet.
And so he added, “Gold separates the honest from the thief, and the beasts know it. Gryphons represent strength and vigilance, very auspicious animals,” and he tapped one of his belt plates, “ I wear their image for good luck. But it was not always so.”
“You came not from great blood, did you,” observed Galen.
“Magyars respect virtue over blood. I possessed strength and a few other qualities, made correct decisions, killed the correct enemy and brought the tribes together. Any man can do it; all he needs is the right woman. Do you not think so?”
“A month ago, I never would have pondered it,” admitted Galen.
“Ah! The one who limps,” breathed Czaba, “I saw your fare-thee-well. You think much of her. It shows in your eyes.” He raised his hand, and they reined to a halt, “Up ahead is where we part,” and he slid from the saddle in a fluid motion. Amanirena and Galen did likewise, dropping to the good earth. Now they walked the horses and the extra mount. Czaba tapped an index finger to his lips, so they paced in silence.
A half hour passed, and Czaba raised a hand, dropped to a knee, pulling his single-edged saber from its scabbard. Amanirena and Galen knelt to join him. The Magyar pointed to an opening on the left side of the road, speaking in a whisper, “That path leads down to the river. Can you hear it?”
Amanirena listened. In the distance, a roar of water sounded much like thunder, “It’s a cataract or rushing rapids, just like the Nubian Nile.”
“A little of both. Deep and fast. The path leads to it; and the opposite bank rises as a sheer cliff straight up to the Rock of Prometheus.” He eyed her while scratching a crude map with his saber-tip, “Lead the four horses down to the river. My daughter rolled a tunic and trousers for Ekhida in the saddlebag. Get ready for us. If you’re attacked by a one-eyed man, waste an arrow on his body. Draw him to you, and then shoot for the eye.”
“How are you going to get down there?” quizzed Amanirena, “And why the eye.”
He glanced over to Galen and back to her, “My nephew killed one that way. Right in the eye, the only weak point. The machine dropped, unmoving.”
Galen stood, unbuckled his sword-belt, draping it over Czaba’s knee, “Let’s trade weapons. You have forty pounds on me, and it’s all muscle.”
The chieftain slid the sword partially from its scabbard, “This is your secret weapon?”
“Not mine. Uther’s,” claimed Galen, “According to him, it’ll cut a half-inch chain. It’s called Tyrfing the Iron-Breaker.”
Czaba handed up his saber, “Uther tells many stories. I hope this one is truth.”
Galen repeated Amanirena’s query, “How do we get Ekhida down to the river from a sheer cliff?”
The Magyar stood to full height, shrugged his shoulders, and quipped, “We jump.”
* * * * *
Daemon paced around the circular amphitheater, his hands raised to those seated above him, “My fellow citizens. Welcome to the Name of the Rose Chamber!”
The crowd roared, some standing to their feet and clapping. They were all First Level miscreants, no multiple killers, just average heretics, petty thieves, habitual liars, and government officials. Oh, lest we forget rich lawyers. Good people, all of them, with standard minor flaws. Purgatorial scribes were an odd bunch, a little holier than thou, forever sending marginal cases down rather than up. In fact the streets of Heaven were nearly empty, and Peter found it difficult to find a decent conversation.
Ah, how they love it. They all know what’s going to happen. He waved his hands palm-down, and they reseated and calmed to a buzz. “Please welcome today’s contestant,” and Daemon checked the note in his hand, “And here he is, Nefarius the Goldsmith, freshly arrived from Purgatory!” As the contestant ran out from a passageway below the seats, the crowd cheered and whistled. The man stopped running to stand next to Daemon. “Now tell the truth. Is your name really Nefarius?”
“Yes it is, your grace.”
“Oh! My grace, am I? How respectful,” and Daemon led him to the amphitheater’s center, “Now I understand that you were a little dishonest.”
“Yes, sir,” nodded Nefarius, “I was King Theodoric’s artisan. He gave me three pounds of gold to fashion a breast-plate for him. And I cheated.”
“Ah, I see. And what happened?” grinned Daemon while winking to the audience.
“Well, when the breast-plate was finished, the king discovered it only weighed two-and-a-half pounds.”
“Oh, dear,” sighed Daemon with a drawn expression, “You stole a half-pound of gold from the King of Italy.” The crowd roared as the man nodded. “You were garroted for it, but you have a chance to redeem yourself. Do you know how the Name of the Rose Game works?”
“No, sir,” affirmed Nefarius.
“It’s quite simple. You sit in the Big Comfy Chair while I stand at the podium and ask three questions. If you answer a question correctly, I’ll push the green button. You’ll hear the sound of a Thousand Glorious Bells and ascend back to Purgatory for reevaluation. In fact, if you’re extremely repentant they’ll probably boot you straight to Heaven. Any questions?”
The man rubbed his chin with thumb and forefinger, “What happens if I answer all three questions incorrectly?”
Daemon shrugged, pointing to a large hole in front of the chair, “For each incorrect answer, I push the red buzzer. When I push the buzzer the third time, the chair tips forward, you fall into the hole and slide ninety-nine miles down to the Third Level.
“Is it hot down there?” asked Nefarius timidly.
“Put it this way. You won’t need that tunic.” The crowd laughed, Daemon clapped his hands, “So let’s play the Game!” Oh, how I love it. It must be their final expression of terror. He gave the First Level crowd a little entertainment at least once a month. It broke the tedium of eternal damnation. And of course, he felt particularly good. This was his big day. Or more precisely, his big night for raping an Amazon. With Nefarius seated, he began, “Question number one and an easy trip to Heaven—What is the Name of the Rose?”
Nefarius looked upward, lowered an eyebrow, and pronounced, “Afrocanesis amenia.”
Fuuurt! “Wrong. Now to the second question, actually no harder than the first—What is the Name of the Rose?”
Fuuurt! “Wrong again. Here is your third and final question. Answer it correctly and you’ll be dancing on more gold you could possibly steal—What is the Name of the Rose?”
The goldsmith pondered carefully, quite nervous, his hands shaking as his eyes flicked side to side. And he finally exclaimed, “Lily?”
Fuuuurt! WHOOSH! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!
* * * * *
By midmorning, the last patches of snow had melted below the Rock of Prometheus. The goat-path leading down to the Door Bolt glistened as the sun attempted to erase a late frost of winter. The end of the second month with not many frosts left. Ekhida believed that something was wrong, the morning different. In the past hour she noticed three flying gryphons, upset by someone beyond the foraging of one-eyed men. Two gryphons arose and circled above the forest less than a half mile away, and a third gryphon flushed from the trees below her on the other side of the river’s gorge. Yet the beasts remained quiet, not growling as they normally did when disturbed by gold seekers.
Then she heard voices and a ruckus! Warriors, at least two! Their shouting came from the Door Bolt entrance, down the winding path to her left. She strained at the chains, trying to view the disturbance, a clashing of metal to metal. They are fighting one-eyed men!
Suddenly, a warrior backed up the path toward her! He raised a bow and nocked an arrow. And with a long draw, he released it, yelling, “They are many! But the eye is the correct target.” He backed another step, turned, and stood before her—a hulking warrior, bare chested, with arms muscled no less than an average man’s legs.
A voice from down the path yelled, “I’ll hold them off. Get Ekhida!”
The warrior standing before her dropped his bow, the weapon bouncing over the precipice as he drew a sword from the scabbard at his hip. A one-eyed man came up the path, poised with his own ready weapon. He raised it high, swinging down hard, as if to cleave a man’s body down the middle. The warrior blocked it as the one-eyed man’s blade snapped in half! The machine lowered his head, his traversing eye glowing; and he rotated the broken blade, examining it. With a mighty push, the warrior slammed his sword-tip into the man’s eye. The machine crumpled instantly, clattering to the path! And the warrior kicked the body once, then harder, as the one-eyed man slid over cliff-edge.
Again the warrior swung around to face her. He was perhaps forty or a little less, yet his hair held the sheen of youth, long and loosely curled in a sandy hue. He was puffing, slightly out of breath. And as he raised his weapon again, he affirmed, “Fear not. This will free you.”
Ekhida stood numb! He actually exists—the Dream Rider.
With a full swing, he slammed the sword to the chain at her left wrist. It snapped!—yet he looked surprised, as if unsure he actually did it. “Pull your left leg tighter to your body. That’s it.” And he winced, turning sideways and drawing the weapon back with an underhanded swing. He slammed it forward and it bounced, hitting tip-first to sheer rock, the sound ringing, reverberating across the chasm as the sword-tip snapped! The warrior’s eyes widened and he spat, “Good old Uther and his stories.”
Her head rang from metal slamming rock; or was this whole sequence an illusion? Was she actually chained tight, yet believing she was partially free? The Slicker’s drugs might do that—create sensations of reality where there were none. Yes, this is a dream. And she worked her mouth, “Who are you?”
“A man in trouble,” he fired back while taking another underhanded swing. The weapon slammed hard and the chain snapped. He pivoted, stepped a pace sideways, and swung the sword again! The chain holding her right leg parted, clanking against the rock. She was almost free!—if this whole thing was reality and not the work of the demon.
“Heads up! I cannot hold them off!” the second voice shouted from down the path.
The hulking warrior turned and raised his sword as another one-eyed man rushed for him. He is right in front of me! Ekhida reached up, grasping the chain tethering her right wrist. And lifting her entire body, she kicked the machine with a full force of both legs. Toppling sideways, the one-eyed man fell to the chasm below. The warrior swung around. “Thanks.” And with a final hit, he broke the last chain holding her captive. I am free! Free! She leaned to the rock in elation, yet dizzy, drained, and her knees buckled. The warrior caught her arm as she wilted, “Not yet. We need to go swimming,” and he grinned a big one.
The second warrior—much younger—ran up the goat-path, shouting, “Let’s go. Time is fleeting and death is tougher than it ever was.”
The brawny warrior sheathed the sword, pulled her too him, and wrapped an arm around her waist as they stepped to cliff-edge. They looked down. Mad waters churned upstream, but directly below them the river glided slower and hopefully deep. “What do you think?” asked the second warrior, “A hundred thirty feet?”
“A real leap of faith,” agreed the man holding her. With a quick move he swung her legs upward, cradling Ekhida in both arms.
And then they jumped into an unknown future.