By T.K. Wilson (Rated G)
Katrina Lawson made her way down into the inner workings of the City of Evermore. Since she had been proclaimed an “elf-friend” and given a key that would let her pass any doorway into the hidden city, she had come down to them many times. Today she was in special pursuit of her friend Eardwulf. He was the captain of the defense garrison here, which was unusual considering his race; Eardwulf was in fact, a seven-foot-tall, tusked, horned, ogre. Eardwulf’s massive size and fearsome appearance belied the soul of a poet who would rather use his axe for cutting wood than through his enemies. Alas, that was not to be for him.
She wandered the hidden city, seeing many of her friends as she went about the halls, better friends than she had ever found in the City humans lived in. More and more, Katrina felt she no more belonged there than Eardwulf or Rosealba, but neither could she go to her hometown. There was nothing for her there, not anymore since Dad passed on. Katrina kicked a pebble with her toe and continued on. She found herself along the bank of the underground river that ran through Evermore. The sandy, pebbly shore led away through a long cave bored through the bedrock and down into the darkness beyond. Here, though, Katrina found evidence: Eardwulf’s tracks. His massive boots left clear impressions. Katrina followed, a flashlight in her hand to light the way.
The river twisted on like a snake and narrowed at Katrina’s feet as she followed Eardwulf’s trail. There was something different in the air now, a thrill of freshness, but also the melancholic smell of an old book store. As she went on, she saw light ahead, the cave opened out on the other side. Katrina made for the light and emerged from the cave’s mouth to see a beautiful green country. The river rolled down a small cataract into a pond, surrounded by rushes and irises. She climbed down into the green place by some rocks that formed a staircase, and looked around. Under the shade of a tree, half-hidden by the ferns and his dark green cape, sat Eardwulf. He had a strange instrument in his lap and sat playing it quite contentedly, his face hidden by the shadow of his hood. Katrina ventured closer so she could hear what he was playing. She’d never heard the tune before.
Eardwulf nodded his head to the beat, seemingly blind and deaf to everything around him. Katrina came forward slowly, unsure of what to do.
“You can come closer, Katrina,” he said, never pausing his song. “I won’t bite.”
Katrina came through the ferns and sat across from him, cupping her chin in her hands. Eardwulf’s massive hands moved up and down the keys on his odd instrument, coaxing a melody from it.
“How did you know it was me?”
“The sound of your step, the smell of your shampoo and perfume,” Eardwulf slowed the tempo of his song. “The knowledge that no one else would have followed me.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“No, it’s just that… Everyone leaves me to myself, even Cullen. They don’t ask me where I go, only that I return, they do not feel safe without me for long.” The ogre sighed. “It’s a hard and lonely job, being responsible for the safety of so many. That’s why they leave me alone when I pull out my hurdy-gurdy and walk down the river. This,” he stopped playing and gestured around. “Is my safe place. I would live here, if I could.”
“And what would you do?”
“I would build a beautiful cottage, with Rosealba’s roses growing on the side and around the kitchen window. I would raise sheep and honeybees and never go to battle again.”
Katrina scooted closer. “What a beautiful dream.”
“Yes,” he sighed. “But that’s all it is, a dream.”
“Have you ever heard of an ogre living to a ripe old age?” he asked.
“No. I don’t suppose I have.”
They sat in silence for a time. Eardwulf stroked the strings of his hurdy-gurdy idly. “You have never seen me in battle, have you, Katrina?”
“I hope you never will. I’m… not myself when I fight.”
“Are you a berserker?” she asked, gently and fearfully. “I’ve heard Cullen mention them…”
“I have come close to the berserker rage, yes, but I am not considered one by the standards of my people.”
Eardwulf looked away. Katrina would be afraid of him now, he was sure. Instead he felt her hand on his, small and white over large and brown.
“Are you afraid, Katrina?”
“No. You wouldn’t hurt me.”
“You don’t know what I’m like-”
“You would never hurt me.” Katrina repeated resolutely. “You would know me before you hurt me. Your mind is too strong to be lost to rage.”
“Your trust may be misplaced.”
“You seem more afraid of yourself than I am of you.”
“I am,” he whispered. “I am.”
Katrina guided Eardwulf’s hands to his hurdy-gurdy.
“Play us a tune, Eardwulf.”
Eardwulf guided Katrina back to Evermore, knowing that she should return to the city above. He needed no light, his senses were heightened enough that he could navigate for the both of them. Katrina stepped boldly behind him, holding his hand, trusting him to lead her rightly.
“Was that the Otherworld that we just left?”
“Yes, you could tell?”
“There was something different in the air. Something fresh and old all at once.”
“Ah, that was the magic that was buried in the ground. I believe that area was once a dryad garden, the plants remember, even if the dryad leaves or dies. It’s a few miles west of Keep Meridian, where Evermore’s Patron Family lives.”
They emerged from the cave where the river ran and out into the open caves of Evermore. Cullen approached them, seeming concerned. Eardwulf released Katrina, handed his hurdy-gurdy to her, then turned to Cullen.
“What is it, Cullen?”
Cullen looked at Katrina, then spoke in the language of the Otherworld to Eardwulf, drawing him aside. She watched the pair conversing; Cullen kept looking at her, as he spoke to Eardwulf, he hid his face in his hands. The ogre and the elf spoke a little longer, then returned to Katrina.
“I’m sorry to cut your visit short, Katrina, but something’s come up. You must go back at once.”
“Of course,” said Katrina, suspiciously.
“Cullen, see her back to the door.”
Katrina handed Eardwulf his instrument back. “I’ll see you later, okay?”
The ogre nodded his head distractedly, then made his way toward the main hall of Evermore.
When Katrina got back to her apartment, the phone attached to the wall began to ring. She grabbed it down and held it to her ear.
“Katrina, it’s Marshall Lawrence from Lawrence Realty.”
“Oh, hi, Marshall!”
“I just wanted to tell you that your Dad’s house sold.” He was silent for a beat. “Do you think you made the right choice?”
“A bit late for that now, Marshall.”
“Yes, but, I know this has been hard for you. Are you sure you don’t want to come back? Hey, I can find you a place easily.”
“No…” Katrina smiled to herself. “I’ve got something special going on here, I can feel it.”
“Okay. Don’t be a stranger, okay?”
“I’ll be in touch, Marshall, for sure. See you around.”
As Katrina made her way down to Evermore the next day, the sky turned dark and stormy. The wind blew hard against her as she walked through the door. The tunnels and caves were oddly quiet. Where was everyone?
“Eardwulf? Rosealba? Cullen?” She called. “Where are you?”
The place seemed deserted. Katrina rushed on, looking for her friends. There was a heaviness in the air, a bitterness that was never there before. She looked over her shoulder at the mass of wraiths that were crowding on her, their hideous, leering faces grinned at her, their clammy hands reaching for her. She broke into a run, heading for the river or the Elysium tree; she would be safe if she could get to one of them. The wraiths cut her off at the turning for the Elysium tree, so she made for the river.
She finally saw the river and recklessly ran into the cave that went to the dryad’s garden. She got a stitch in her side, but she ran on. Her calf cramped up and she fell into the water. The wraiths pounced on her, the suffocating dust swallowing her before she could get out a real cry for help. Katrina held her breath for as long as she could, the wraiths dragged her from the water, well away from their enemy. The cold of them bit through Katrina’s soaked clothing, their whispers snarling in her ears.
“You betrayed your father.”
“Should have never sold…”
“Why did you leave home?”
“You don’t belong here!”
There was a horrible roar. The wraiths screamed as something tore through them, Katrina got splashed as her unknown hero was stomped into the river. She looked up, and saw Eardwulf, his shadow starkly outlined in the light from the Evermore end of the tunnel. He turned his axe on the creatures, slicing through them, roaring and bellowing like something out of control. He grabbed Katrina and threw her into a different section water. Here the river wasn’t deep but the current was fast, she surfaced in time to see Eardwulf engulfed by the Wraiths.
Katrina stood up when she reached the shallow water and ran into the moonlit dryad garden. She had to go back, she had to find him; but first she needed a weapon. She looked around, searching for something, anything she could find. She saw the moonlight glitter off something, half-buried in the dirt. She reached for it, finding it was an elaborately carved crystal knife. Katrina wondered for a moment about how it came here, then ran back into the cave.
In the darkness, the blade began to glow a pale pink. Katrina smiled, now she had both light and blade! She ran toward the sound of Eardwulf’s roars, now full of pain rather than rage. She ran to him, diving without fear into the wraiths to save her friend.
“Get away! Stay away!” she shouted, slashing with the knife.
The wraiths wailed in fear, fleeing from the knife. Katrina turned to Eardwulf, who was getting to his feet.
“Eardwulf!” she cried. He raised his axe, still blinded by the wraith dust. “Eardwulf, it’s me! It’s Katrina!”
She raised her hands in an effort to defend herself. The knife blade flashed brightly, Eardwulf dropped his axe.
“Katrina?” he whispered.
“Yes, yes, I’m here.” she lowered her knife. The ogre took a few steps closer to her.
“I could have hurt you. I could have killed you.”
“I told you, you would never hurt me and I was right.”
As the adrenaline rush wore off, Katrina shivered in her sodden clothes.
“Kitty, you’re soaked to the skin, come, we need to get you dry and warm.” He hesitated to touch her. She came to him of her own accord, taking his arm. They went along slowly, exhausted, each ready to drop if the other moved in any way but forward. The sweet scent of the Elysium tree reached them, reviving their spirits. Taking strength from it, Eardwulf bent down and scooped Katrina off her feet, carrying her like a baby in his huge arms.
“I was terribly forward. I’m sorry, Katrina.”
“For what, calling me Kitty? I don’t mind! I like it.”
All the residents of Evermore mobbed Eardwulf and Katrina as they came out of the cave. Cullen swept off his cape and wrapped it around Katrina.
“Rosealba, you and the others take care of her.” He acted quickly to catch Eardwulf as he fell. “You look terrible.”
“I feel terrible. I could have…”
“But you didn’t. Caelan, help me with Eardwulf.” The elf turned to his friend. “You have earned a good rest, brother.”
Rosealba set out Katrina’s things to dry as she sat in a warm bath. The blade clattered from her jacket. The dryad picked up the blade, examining it.
“Where did you find this dagger, Katrina?”
“In the Otherworld, why?”
“It seems familiar, somehow, that’s all…”