Mala of the Long Road Part 2
Early the next day, Mala guided Dawn at a brisk walk down the sunlit path through the forest. Her armor weighed on her, but it was a short ride to the next town. Once, far to the north and west, she’d fought alongside warriors who’d worn little more than a loincloth into battle. Their offensive strength had impressed her but she preferred the weight of the plate on her chest and the reassurance of the padding that had saved her from the monster’s blade. She’d picked up a few tricks, though, and thinking about that she reached for the haft of her new axe. It hummed under her hand. She would have to be careful. Weapons like these could consume a person if used too much. She’d witnessed that first hand, and it was a bitter memory.
It was late in the afternoon by the time she reached the next town. A festival was in full swing, so she stabled her horse, left her armor with a blacksmith to repair and stowed her gear in a tavern room. It was like many festivals she’d seen before. Colorful lanterns and streamers in the wind. Her ears welcomed the music and her stomach grumbled as soon as she got a whiff of something roasting in a pit.
She sated her hunger, chatting amiably with a grizzled old man. He recounted stories of fighting pirates at sea, and his audience (mostly children) was enraptured. It was an entertaining tale, and to Mala’s ears she wasn’t entirely sure he was exaggerating as much as he could have been. She declined an invitation to test her skill in a contest, preferring instead to watch the children play. Her eye was drawn to one girl, with ruddy red hair and a dark complexion. She was smaller than the others, though no less brave and stubborn than even the biggest child.
“Come here,” she said, gesturing the girl over. She leaned down, and gently took her hand. “Hold your sword like this.” She showed her with her own hand, then helped the girl wrap her fingers around the hilt of her wooden sword. “You’ll have a better grip and you won’t lose your sword. Even better, it’ll sting the boys more when you smack them with it. If you hold your shield like so…”
Mala demonstrated, guiding the girl’s small arms into the correct positions. She even gave her a quick lesson in bashing with her shield. They shared a smile, and then the little girl ran off, back into the fray with all the energy of a dervish. She thwacked one boy right on the thigh and his yelp echoed across the grass.
“That one is goin’ to be trouble.”
Mala turned at the sound of a voice. A middle-aged woman sat down next to her, an amused smile on her weathered face. The knight nodded her head. “My sister and I started out that way. The little hellions. Her with her homemade shield and me swinging a great big stick. No one could get through her when she set her mind to it.”
“Grew up to be a defender?” The woman asked.
Sadness welled up inside of Mala, and her smile held just a hint of bitterness. “Shield bearer to the very end.”
“I’m sorry.” She put a hand on Mala’s arm, squeezing lightly. “Though that does remind me of a local legend. Lovers, not sisters, though.”
It had been two years since that day and sometimes thinking about it still made her heart heavy. She welcomed the distraction.”I’d like to hear it. I’m Mala.”
“Call me Kaya.”
Like most stories, it started long ago. The town had been founded by two families. One family’s crest was a blue dragon over a shield, and the second was a red dragon, with sword in mouth. For years, the families and the town prospered, until a drought ravaged the fields and disease brought both families low.
A boy, no more than seventeen, decided to venture out to find out why the river had stopped flowing. Wearing the red crest of his family, he left the town late one night. But he didn’t go alone. Accompanying him was a girl a few years older. She bore a shield and an axe, and together they followed the dried stream bed into the mountains.
There, where the river started, they faced a calamitous beast. Its bellows echoed off the rocks like thunder and its claws were as strong as steel. The battle lasted two days, the struggle dislodging several boulders that had blocked off the water. The girl had been mortally wounded, her shield sundered.
The boy lay dying in her arms and together they watched the river spill forth. Rather than wash them away, it split in two. One stream traveled south before curving to the east, while the other continued south-east. Those rivers became known as the Blue Dragon River and the Red Dragon River. Where they both met became a common spot for lovers to tryst.
Where the blue dragon meets the red… The words came back to Mala, and she thought about the beautiful elf who’d saved her life. “I think I’d like to see that place. Someone once promised to meet me there.”
Kaya laughed. “Do you have a lover you’re eager to see?”
“I wouldn’t say that.” Though Leilatha was beautiful and the idea an appealing one.
“Take the road North out of the city, and follow the eastern fork. It’s about two hours walk from there.” Her eyes twinkled, and she elbowed Mala knowingly. “The stories I could tell you.”
As eager as she was, it was too late to leave now. She listened to another of Kaya’s stories. This one sounded a bit more personal had the ring of truth about it. It left her ears burning by the end of it. Excusing herself, she returned to her room and tried to sleep. She dreamt of her sister, shield shattered in two and body broken. She traced her fingers over her dying face and across the old scar over her eye. Leilatha pulled her away and she wept into the elf’s arms.
She woke, confused. There’d been no one to comfort her, then, just as there was no one to comfort her now. She shook the dream off. Usually donning her armor helped her focus on the day ahead, but she still needed to retrieve it from the blacksmith. Traveling alone, she’d long ago abandoned her heaviest plate as it was too difficult to get into without help. She ran gloved fingers over the chainmail on her stomach, and fingered the damage from the creature two days ago. She stepped outside. Leilatha stood in the road. There one instant, and gone the next. She quickly rode to the blacksmith, and distracted, paid him extra. She ran her fingers over the chain once more, and immediately felt more herself.
Following the road north, Mala found the fork in the road just as Kaya had described it. She thought she saw Leilatha in the distance, but like earlier the elf was gone almost as soon as she’d seen her. Driving Dawn perhaps too hard, she rode east. She spotted the Red Dragon first, and followed it. It was a fast, thin river, mostly rapids and waterfalls. It flowed into a wide, lazy river that she assumed was the Blue Dragon. There was a large oak tree whose roots shared the banks of both rivers and it was here she found Leilatha waiting. The elf leaned on her scythe, a kind smile on her face. The blue aura was still present around her, and a breeze made her thin gown cling to her front.
Mala caught herself staring, then held her hand out. “Ride with me?”
“I’m afraid I can’t ride with you. Not yet.” Leilatha stepped closer, running her hand along the horse’s neck, before resting it on Mala’s thigh. “I promise you, it will all be clear in time. Follow the river until you find the sun set into stone. There, you’ll be able to help me.”
She was gone before Mala could take another breath. Grunting in frustration, she kicked her horse up to a gallop. Perhaps she rode to her death, but she’d taken this quest on an instinct, and she intended to see it done.
The more time passed, the more transparent her quarry became. After two days, the elf had faded to just a light dancing at the far end of Mala’s vision. On the third day, as she made camp, she began to wonder if this was all in her head. Perhaps she lay dying on the ground in that old temple, the beast lumbering over to finish the job. She muttered to herself as she started a fire and set a rabbit over the flame.
“I’ve only so much power left.” The voice whispered in her ear, and ghostly lips caressed her cheek. “Projecting myself weakens me. I used most of my strength to aide you. If you do not find me by this time tomorrow, there will be nothing left to save.”
“What holds you so, that you were strong enough to defeat that creature and yet can’t escape?” The apparition was barely there, moving around her like a wisp. She felt those lips again, soft and fleeting, against the side of her neck.
“Freeing me is the easy part.”
Mala closed her eyes. As soft and fleeting as that sensation was, it was still warm. Still alive. “There’s always a trial, isn’t there.”
Leilatha moved in front of her. She was just an outline of blue light now, hair floating around her head. But her eyes were as enrapturing as ever, and her chuckle echoed in Mala’s head. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, I haven’t even gotten there.” Leilatha was still solid enough to touch, and Mala braved a hand on her shoulder.
“Thank you for coming this far. You didn’t have to.”
Mala’s hand dropped to her side as the elf faded away. Sighing, she sat on a log and poked at her roasting meal. “Can’t have you wasting away if there’s still a chance, now can I?” She’ll come. It was as much curiosity as her word of honor that drove her. She had one day. She’d best make use of every minute she could.