Prologue: The Ring of Four Virtues
Once upon a time, between the Fall of Troy and Rise of Empires, there lived an age of mighty gryphons. Who might recall them if not for truths of Aristeas or Aeschylus? Without the poets, no-one would have known they lived at all. Above the steppes, they claimed forests where a swift river—the Ural—carved the Magyars from the Hyperborians, a wild place, cold for seven months, a northern land of deep white drifts. So fierce were gryphons that not a man could tame them yet they purred to Ekhida the Ageless, rubbing against her timeless strength, grisly Ekhida the last Amazon. In the pines at the base of Mont Ripar, they lined their nests with sparkling gold, nuggets and carbuncles larger than their own paws, such a treasure that not a man could keep himself from attempting to steal it; and all those who tried were eaten by these flying beasts.
Years passed and men died from their own greed. Empires arose and fell to the whims of fate. Tales were copied by unknown scribes; and no-one knew if they were recording truth or humored fancy. The stories were too aged, their origins lost in times gone. Were they history run amok or bald-faced lies? Not a man alive could recall such wonders!—yet one tale seemed particularly heroic and survived to reach us. It actually begins before the beginning….
* * *
In the year when a green dragon flew above fresh lakes, in the season of unfurling ferns when white blossoms pushed through rotting leaves, a day came when a boy arrived at the mountain upon the back of a pale horse. He tethered his mount and entered the forest with a full quiver and sinewed bow, for he was a young hunter. Ekhida watched his every move from deep within the shadows, the way he walked with stealth, the carriage of his stride; and it seemed he was less a boy than a young man. Hours passed, and the boy continued deeper through the wood. He stopped now and then, studying tracks of creatures living within Mont Ripar’s secrets, and then he found the trail he searched for. The boy followed the deer until late afternoon when he finally viewed his prey—a great white stag—twenty paces from where he stood. He watched it feed upon buds of spruce, yet he never raised his bow, turning from the deer as if not fit to shoot. He searched for other tracks; and at day’s end, when the sun plunged below western skies, he struck flint to steel and built a fire to chase the night’s chill. Thus he sat with legs crossed and cradling his bow.
For a time Ekhida watched him. He appeared to neither sleep nor eat, only sitting into the night. What kind of boy is this? she could only wonder! For never had a man held such silence, not speaking to himself or crushing twigs when he walked. And to spend a night in vigil at such a young age? These were traits of elder men, of shamans and seers, not in the realm of boyhood. She smiled. And turning her gaze, she retraced her path to a glade of comfort. Not building her own fire, she wrapped herself tighter in a wolfen coat, waiting for the dawn.
Upon the second day, Ekhida found the boy gone, the embers of his fire covered with fresh soil. Again she tracked him. As the day unfolded, he continued higher along the slopes of Mont Ripar, avoiding nests of gryphons, even their footprints. She found his tracks crossing those of a doe, yet he did not veer. In the second hour, she caught up with him. To her surprise, he was gutting his quarry, not a doe or spike-horn but the greatness of a red stag. The buck had lived a decade, perhaps longer, yet fell to the arrow of one so young. She waited in the shadows, hidden and wishing to know his next move. The boy removed the innards, all except the heart; and then grasping an antler, he began pulling the stag down the mountainside. He would stop to catch a breath—for the stag weighed far more than he did!
At the sun’s height, he reclined weary next to his prize. Ekhida circled his path and approached from the south; and at ten paces, she plucked a twig to snap it. He jumped to his feet! His eyes flared wide, his mouth aslack, and then he dropped to a knee and bowed before her.
In a world as she knew it, in all the centuries recalled, she had never seen the kneel of respect. She had known men of all ages and deportments, most out for all they might take. They usually perished, either from her hand or claws of her pets, yet this youth humbled himself before her. Nearly at a loss of words, she quizzed, “Why do you kneel, boy? Stand to me.”
He arose and stood straight, “You are Ekhida the Ageless, Queen of the Eighth Kingdom and Guard of the Demon’s Doorbolt.”
She strode closer, “So you know who I am. You passed a doe and could have shot the white stag. Yet you chose this one instead. Why?”
“No one should kill what is sacred; and a doe feeds not many. This is my rite to manhood. Eleven boys left the tribe, and each will return as a man. Some will give hares to their fathers. Others will return with a doe. I traveled further. A stag is hard to find, but it fills many mouths. I have no father, so I will give it to my mother and those who need it.”
Ekhida watched his eyes studying hers, “Sit and talk. I seldom speak to men, especially ones so young.” And they sat to face each other.
The boy cradled his bow again, his face flushing, “I thought you would look like a witch and have gray hair. But you are beautiful.”
“I’m immortal, not old. There is a difference,” she laughed, quickly changing the subject to her own interest, “You feared not the gryphons. Why?”
“Gryphons kill those who wish to steal their gold. I only wanted a stag. Why would they harm me?” he shrugged in simple trust.
They continued to talk, Ekhida asking most of the questions as the sun arced overhead. His father died from a well-aimed arrow, and he became his mother’s protector while still a child. He built his own bow, waiting months while the glue cured; and when finished it had a fifty pound draw. Most youths could not have flexed it! The day was fleeting, and this boy (who called himself a man) had yet to drag his prize to the awaiting horse. He alone had to do it. And so she stood, as he did likewise. She slipped a band from her finger, wanting to place it upon his hand, to actually touch his flesh, for she believed it carried great warmth. But she could only toss it to him, “Take this bronze band. It carries a symbol of the Four Virtues—strength, courage, honor, and wisdom. Few men acquire them. Wear it as a reminder.”
He beamed, sliding it to his right hand, “It must be old. Why me?”
“The symbol represents good fortune. Something you need,” she sagely replied. He nodded and thanked her. And grasping the stag’s antlers, he began his labor down the mountain. She watched him go until he disappeared in the forest below. Her own age seemed beyond counting and she envied his innocence of youth. Old men died before acquiring what he had. The irony of it wrought a flash of sadness; for the scraps she knew of him were far less than wished. He was a Magyar from the east, a people searching for land to pasture and plant. She convinced them to remain on the steppe of the Eighth Kingdom, a buffer against the Huns, the tribe that eventually killed his father. She knew not his name or that of his present chieftain. They lived upon a great veldt far beyond her mountain world. Yet they raised a boy correctly, a youth who carried four virtues, becoming a man before his rightful age. And more remarkable, he claimed she was “beautiful” in an honest manner. A long time it was since anyone said it; and when they did, they always wanted something. But not the boy. It was just a statement he believed as truth.
Ekhida stood alone again, only the gryphons as her comfort. Beyond guarding the Demon’s Door Bolt, they were her eternal charge. Had she not offended the gods, she would be free to live a life she wished. She stood within her own prison, an ache climbing tight to chest. What a fine man the youth would become. The sounds of him dragging the deer were fading; and she feared how to recall him, whether as a boy or a future lover lost.
* * *
Seasons rolled as the earth squeaked on its peculiar axis and stars leisurely spun overhead. Time marched its consistent pace, lands were conquered, others discovered as brave men crossed the Great Wall to eat noodles with thin sticks and drink tea from hard-glazed cups.
Stalwart men sailed distant seas in search of Atlantis, only to find oddly strange lands—Ultima Thule and Fiddlestomp Zydeco. The natives were even odder! Some paddled skin boats and speared water unicorns, ugly creatures; whilst others danced mostly naked in dripping forests. Rather confounding discoveries! Wise men east to west and north to south realized the world had more varying mortals than they thought it did. Yet no-one fancied disparate peoples banding together in some great crisis. An ancient and impervious axiom held it firm—panicking mortals, even heroes, from differing cultures could not accomplish a common goal.
But you never imagine what you cannot foresee. Life took its usual turns, potters turned clay bowls, senators schemed to win elections, farmers ploughed their fields, and Ekhida the Ageless continued guarding the Demon’s Door Bolt.
Years progressed as they always did, ever expanding from the Maker’s hand, and not one soul realized the clock would break… and time itself would cease functioning.