Wisdom From The Ashes
Part Eight – The Autumn Halls
The figure that pursued Nhaqosa across the wastes had grown much closer. It occurred to Nhaqosa, a distant notion coming through the numbed thoughts of his aching mind, that the figure should have been easy to make out, and yet something seemed to be preventing him from distinguishing its features.
Nhaqosa limped on in perpetual agony. The sun above had grown so dark as to be almost black and yet the heat that radiated from it was beyond imagining. Each breath felt like he was sucking in fire. His lungs seared as he burnt from within and without.
The maul felt heavier still, a great lump of rock dragging him down, leaving a long gouge in the dead earth behind him as he dragged it on.
A silence filled the air. Not a breath of wind stirred and nor was there the sound of an insect singing, nothing but the crunch of hooves on the ground and his laboured, gasping breath.
Gradually he became aware of a new sound, that of footsteps coming from behind him, from his pursuer, growing louder and more distinctive with each passing moment.
He had to move faster, to get away, but the weariness was too much. The weight of the stone maul was to blame. His fingers were twisted tight around it, locked to it in a vice like grip. He had to let it go. He had to, if he was to have any chance at survival. Muscles corded along his arm and neck as he strained to break his grip around the handle. The pain increased as slowly his crippled fingers tore away from the wooden handle one by one. It felt as if the flesh was tearing from his fingers as he did so.
The sound of the footsteps began to pick up its pace, growing ever louder. In desperation he grabbed at the crippled hand locked to the handle of the maul with his good hand, wrenching at it. He bent his fingers back, tears coming to his eyes at the fiery agony it caused. Then of a sudden the handle was falling loose and the maul dropped to the ground with a heavy, sepulchre thud.
And the world around him changed.
One moment he walked across the barren wastelands in the searing heat and the next he stood beneath the cool of an autumn forest. Tall trees towered all around him, their leaves dappled golden and scarlet, while the forest floor beneath was thick with fallen leaves, though brown touched not a one of them, all retaining their vivid, crisp colours. A gentle, cooling breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and a soft golden light descended through the branches in pale beams. Butterflies lazily fluttered around and hidden birds called out merrily to one another.
Nhaqosa stopped walking and instead began to slowly turn around to inspect the forest that had so abruptly appeared. There was a feeling of peace and quiet tranquillity to the forest, and yet at the same time a deep feeling of melancholy to it. His mind began to rise up from the clouds that had enveloped it, becoming more aware of who he was. Nhaqosa had the sensation that the feeling of the place was that of things coming to an end, or of a long journey that had almost reached its conclusion, of both joy and sorrow mingled together.
The appearance of the woman took him by surprise. In the process of his slow turnings he became aware of her standing there in a beam of golden sunlight that shone bright down through the branches.
She was tall, taller than any women he had met before and yet at the same time slender, possessing a graceful poise. She was not human, nor of any race that Nhaqosa had met before, even if she looked much like a human, albeit one with an unearthly, tranquil beauty to her.
She wore a long dress of shimmering autumnal colours, shades of red and yellow and brown that seemed to ripple and shift as they were observed. Her hair hung long and dark, and yet seemed to contain within it a faint viridian hue. A simple circlet of woven green vines rested lightly upon her head, tiny crimson flowers growing from it. Eyes of pale gold, deep and unfathomable, studied him from a serene face, one long and chiselled, with high cheekbones and a curiously angular appearance.
All of that was not what struck him the most. Instead it was her presence, an aura about her that dominated everything, making all else fade into the background. He did not know if he still remained dreaming, but she was very real. Of that he was certain.
“Where am I?” he asked.
“You are in my halls.” There was a calm and soothing quality to her voice, one that stripped away his worries and cares. This was a place to rest and relax after a long journey. “You have been long in the searching for this place, Nhaqosa of the Stonemaul, even if you were unaware that you were.”
Nhaqosa raised his crippled hand to look at it. No signs of trauma from dropping the maul could be seen. “I was elsewhere, a wasteland, and then I was here.”
“You could not reach my halls until you had made a choice. Who you were was holding you back. You needed to accept who you are first.”
The minotaur’s brow furrowed in confusion at the lady’s words. “And who am I?”
“You are a leader.”
Nhaqosa looked to his hand again. “But I can not fight, crippled as I am. I can not be a leader.”
“A leader fights with his mind and heart, not just his arm,” the lady told Nhaqosa gently.
Nhaqosa shook his head. It was not the way it was done with his people. “I need to be able to fight.”
“Is it so important to you?” the woman asked. Her voice was soft and her eyes studied him calmly.
“Yes. If I can not fight then I can not protect them.”
“Do they really need protecting? They would fight for you and die for you regardless of your condition.”
“I never asked them to.”
The lady smiled gently. “That is why they respect and even love you.”
“I never asked for that either,” Nhaqosa replied awkwardly.
“Which is why it is given. It is not an easy thing to get used to, but you need to. You also need to let go of some of the burden and let others carry it. You can not bear it alone.”
A cold voice came from behind Nhaqosa, deep from beneath the trees. It had a harsh, cruel edge to it. “Why burden yourself with such trivialities? Your friends will die soon and you can not save them.”
Nhaqosa span about to see whom had spoken. A figure emerged from the shadows of the trees. The instinctive thought came to Nhaqosa that this was the person that had been following him across the wastes. Except this was no person, rather being a dark version of Nhaqosa himself, its hide black as coal, with burning red eyes and a look of utter cruelty.
Nhaqosa glanced back towards where the lady was but she had vanished, leaving him along with the dark from of himself.
Squaring his shoulders, Nhaqosa spoke firmly in reply. “I can and I will save them. All of this is but a dream. I shall wake soon and all will be well.”
Mocking laughter answered him. “Fool. There are dreams and then there is this place. What happens here is very much real.” The dark Nhaqosa stepped forward and drove a fist into Nhaqosa’s chest, the force of the blow rocking the minotaur back on his hooves and crushing the wind from his lungs. “Die here and it is for real.”
Another blow slammed into Nhaqosa, coming in hard and fast. Nhaqosa sought to block it, yet with no weapon to hand and crippled arm he was fighting at a disadvantage. The second blow struck home, forcing Nhaqosa further back.
The fight was a vicious exchange of fist and hooves and heads slamming home with brutal impact. Blood soon stained Nhaqosa’s hide, his eyes split open and swollen and his sides aching from the beating he had received. Time and again he was knocked to the ground, only to rise once more. He could not surrender, no matter what happened to him. To surrender was to die, and worse, to abandon his friends to a similar fate.
A fist crashed into the side of his head, sending him sprawling. He could taste blood in his mouth and could barely see out of his left eye anymore. As he attempted to pick himself up, a hoof hammered solidly into his side, sending him tumbling down again.
“Who will we kill first?” the dark version of him asked. The voice sounded distant and cold, a dark shadow of a true voice. “Will it be Abasan or little Niati? Kill the one and the other has to know the pain of watching another woman he loved die and not being able to stop it. Or if we kill the other then she has to see the death of the only person who had made her feel alive and whole again since that fateful day her family were condemned to the pits to die. Who would suffer the most do you think?”
Nhaqosa forced himself up from the ground, wiping blood away from his face. “Neither,” he answered defiantly. “I will not allow it.”
More mocking laughter echoed through the trees. “And how will you stop me? You are a cripple, unfit to be a warrior or a leader and of use only in the fields. You are not a minotaur. You are nothing.”
Anger flared, anger and rage. Cripple. The word swirled around him. Cripple. He felt the anger swell up inside of him, shunting aside the pain. Cripple. Worthless.
His withered hand shot out, accompanied by a tearing, searing pain that lanced through it like it was being torn apart. The pain was immense, beyond imagining, and a cry was wrenched from his throat. Knotted muscles snapped and rippled beneath his hide. Forcing past the pain, his fingers closed around the throat of the dark him, pulling it close. His good hand smashed down.
“I. WILL. NOT. ALLOW. IT!” Each word was punctuated by a fearsome blow as Nhaqosa battered at his foe. The dark form crumpled, falling apart into dissipating dark smoke that quickly faded, accompanied by the sound of distant, echoing laughter.
Nhaqosa shook his head, staring at an arm that was whole and strong again. He collapsed to his knees on the fallen leaves, placing his head in his hands, his body shaking with roiling emotions,
A gentle hand rested upon his brow. He looked up to see the tall lady standing before him where moments before the dark version of him had stood.
“My arm is restored. How is that possible?”
“You healed yourself, Nhaqosa of the Stonemaul. A hint of darkness lingered deep within you, a taint received from a place of shadows that was feeding on your fears and troubles, growing stronger the more that you doubted yourself. You had to face those fears, and fight them by acknowledging them and accepting them. Only then could you move on.”
Nhaqosa rose lumbering from the ground, exhausted from the ordeal. “Now what?”
“Now you return from whence you came. Your friends are much in need of you.”
Before he could make a reply, he had gone.
The lady stood silent as she looked at the spot where Nhaqosa had been standing before he disappeared. She was joined after a short wait by a man who came out from beneath the trees. Of average height and built, his short cut beard and hair were steel grey, while his face was leathered and creased, having the look of one who spent much time in the outdoors. A pale scar stood out across his left cheek. He walked with a slight limp, yet despite that, and his overall appearance, his grey eyes still held a youthful, alert look to them.
A small puppy, his body long and legs short, bounded through the leaves alongside the man. The puppy was mostly black but for patches of tan on his paws, muzzle and a spot above each eye. A butterfly flittered by and the puppy tried to jump on it. It danced aside and flew away. The puppy looked up at the man, his brows rising in a look both puzzled and a touch mournful. It disappeared just as fast as it had appeared and then he raced off after another distraction, the butterfly forgotten. A soft smile touched the man’s face at the puppy’s antics.
“Tough kid,” the man stated. “Fought well. Is he ready though?”
“Almost,” the lady replied. “There are still a few doubts and fears that lurk in his heart.”
The man responded with a dry half-smile. “That is what being mortal is about, the fears and doubts.”
“My fears and doubts are rather more abstract than his.
“As I said,” the man noted wryly, watching as the puppy bounded through the leaves, his tail lashing happily.
“He has a gentle soul.” There was a sad tone to the woman’s voice, a deep regret over events that had transpired, “One that is hurt by the death and blood that accompanies him. Yet for all that he does not shirk his duty. He does what needs to be done.”
“I would expect no less,” the man noted. “He is a minotaur after all.”
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