Chance Encounter V: Fountain of Youth
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Chapter 20: A Worthy Man
The ruins were growing less and less ruined as they ventured deeper into the forest. It was as if something had preserved them, some unnamed power which seemed to permeate this place, making it a haven for all sorts of strange and ferocious creatures. It was, however, not a haven for mortal men who could easily be killed by said strange and ferocious creatures. Jack was as alert —and sober, unfortunately— as he'd ever been. There was no point in finding the Fountain of Youth, only to be killed by something with sharp teeth.
He could feel something in his bones; something powerful and ancient and completely beyond his understanding. Jack Sparrow was not known for being reverent —he couldn't remember the last time he'd shown respect— but this place was filling him with the same sort of awe with which a pilgrim regarded a holy shrine. He glanced back; it seemed he wasn't the only one who was feeling it.
"I think we're close," said Will. "There's something out here, and I don't mean those things with giant teeth and claws."
The forests gave way to more ruined courtyards, only these did not look as...dead. There were signs of life. No, the rocks were not moving or anything, but there was a simply a different feel to these triangular cobblestones and these columns. The paintings looked fresher, and the carvings sharper. They could see the peaks of mountains rising above the green carpet. There were some mounds a little distance away. At first, they looked like piles of rocks, but as they drew closer, Paris drew in a sharp intake of breath. "Look," he whispered.
They weren't rocks, but skulls. The skulls of men, to be exact. They were piled high. Somehow, although they had probably been here for a very long time. Hollow eyes stared at them. "What do you think happened here?" asked Elizabeth.
"There was a depiction of a battle with these skulls on one of the pillars," said Paris. "I think these are the men who fought—Balian, what are you doing?"
The Frenchman in question had started approaching the mounds of skulls. Slowly, with reverence, he picked one up and turned it over in his hands. "There's a hole at the back," he said.
Something was not quite right about this skull. Someone had hit this man —woman?— in the back of the head with something sharp. That was normal in battle, of course, but there was something else. The hole was too clean, as if the dead man had not tried to avoid it. That could have happened if the attack had surprised the man, of course. Something made him pick up another skull. The hole in the back was exactly the same; same position, same appearance. No struggle. All of the skulls bore the same wounds.
"Look at this," he said.
"They're bones with holes," said Achilles. "What is so odd about that?"
"Unless these people all submitted to death without fighting back, or unless they were all dead when they sustained these wounds, why would these holes all look identical?" asked the Frank.
"So you're saying someone killed them systematically," said Will. "But why?"
"Mass execution?" said Jack. "It ain't unheard of."
"I just feel that there's something more to it," said Balian, shaking his head as he set down the skull in his hand carefully. It had been someone in the past, and that someone deserved at least some respect. "I don't know why."
"We don't know anything about this place, apart from the fact they have a thing for triangles," said Elizabeth. "We don't know why these people were killed, if they were killed. We don't know why these mounds were made. It could be completely irrelevant."
"Maybe," said Balian, but he wasn't convinced. It was just a feeling that he had, that everything was connected. After all, everything they had seen so far on this island seemed to be connected with the Fountain of Youth. Didn't the carving depict a pool near these piles of skulls? Before he could dwell too long on it, there was a rustle.
Swords were drawn and arrows were put to bowstrings immediately, as they were afraid that they were being ambushed yet again. However, nothing emerged from the thinning trees. Jack's eyes darted from side to side, trying to spot whatever it had been. It could have been just a bird or lizard, but somehow, against all reason, he doubted it. This island wasn't as abandoned as it had first seemed.
There, another rustle. Jack was ready to shoot something. He just hoped that his aim would be all right, since he was sober and all. He did not function well when sober. At least, not as well as he did when he was not sober. He made a motion with his hand, indicating that they should find out what was making all those noises. It was always better to be the first one to attack rather than wait for someone to attack them.
"Are you going to make me wait much longer?" said a voice. Jack was one of those people who were not easily startled. He'd encountered all sorts of things in his life; weird things. However, the voice made him let out the most undignified squawk —even he couldn't deny that it was a squawk. He had expected someone to be out there, yes, but he hadn't actually expected that someone to actually talk to them.
"Who be ye?" demanded Barbossa. "Come out!" Damn that bastard for stealing his spotlight.
The man who emerged was not what they had been expecting. Upon first glance, he seemed old, but the more they looked, the more youthful his face became, although his hair remained white and long. His back was straight, and he was garbed in a faded robe of green. There were rings in his ears and nose. Gold rings, with jewels. The thing was, while he looked like a man, he didn't seem like one. He had the form of a man yes, with two eyes, two hands and two feet, but there was something about him. He wasn't like an elf, or any of the elves that he'd ever met, which wasn't a lot, but he felt he had the right to say that he knew just a little bit about the Eldar.
He stood their facing the man, unsure of how he ought to react. If he really was more than a man, then he ought to be respected, but Achilles was a man who did not give out respect or trust easily, and he knew well enough by now that the ability to threaten did not lie in one's physical strength. There were powers in this world that were both beyond his understanding and his control, and as much as he hated to admit it, he was frightened. Just a little.
"I know you do not trust me," said the old man, as if he could read all their thoughts. His voice was low; quiet, but strong, unlike the voice of an old man. In fact, it seemed as if he had two voices, and he was using the two at the same time.
"Then you will know why we are reluctant to follow you, as you asked," said Balian.
"But surely, you must have placed your trust in something you knew you ought not to trust, if you are here," said the man. "There is such a thing called faith, and if you didn't have it, you wouldn't have found this place." He smiled, as if he knew something that they did not, which might very well be the case, since they really didn't know that much at all. He took a step towards them. His movements were graceful, almost elven, but not quite. That was when the Greek warrior caught it. He moved like a predator, perhaps a mountain lion, or maybe one of those swift spotted cats that the Egyptians had gifted to him once, back when he had been a renowned warrior king. It was so strange, thinking of this old man as a predator, and it didn't make him feel any less suspicious of him.
If he noticed the wariness, then he paid it no heed. The man was now just a few feet away from them. He, however, did not pay much attention to most of the group. His attention was on one man; the anomaly. "I should like to think that you, of all people, would understand the importance of faith, mortal who is immortal."
How could he possibly know? Sure, it wasn't the best kept secret in Middle Earth, but only those who had been to Middle Earth knew about Balian's rather odd status as the only Man who had been granted immortality. Before anyone could ask that question out loud, the man turned his attention to Legolas. "And you," he said. "You also came because you had faith, did you not?"
"I had hope," said Legolas, somehow managing to keep his voice steady. They were all unnerved by what this stranger knew, and what they didn't know about him.
"I'm all about faith, mate," said Jack, who seemed to have gotten over his shock at seeing this man, being, whatever he was. "But I ain't got no blind faith. I don't like to get the two mixed up."
The mortal who was immortal, and the immortal who could be mortal. They had waited for those two for a very long time, he and his compatriots. In fact, they'd waited so long that they'd wondered if the seer had had a false vision. Through the years, the great cities had crumbled into dust, leaving only the barest skeletons. Paint had flaked off frescoes, and even the islands of the archipelago had been reclaimed by the sea, leaving only this small portion of the main metropolis behind. Forests and grasslands had crept back in, conquering areas from which they had been driven back by the fires and axes and scythes of men; a different breed of men from the ones who now stood before them.
They'd lost track of how many times the sun had risen and set, how many seasons had gone by. Time passed a little easier if they didn't count it. They'd watched everything that they'd ever cared for fade away, until the world had become wholly alien to them. The beasts they had once mastered ran wild again. Some of them had even ceased to exist, whilst others had slowly changed, until they became a different type of beast altogether. Throughout the millennia, they'd waited for some news that would signal the arrival of the ones who would end their vigil by the spring. No mortal man was meant to find it. No mortal man was meant to approach it. There had been some, in the past, who had bypassed their security, of course. They had paid dearly for it. To his knowledge, only one mortal man who had drunken from the spring still lived, and there was still plenty of time for him to get himself killed.
Still, men had fought over the spring and what it offered. That was how the kingdom fell. It hadn't always been like that, of course, for there had been a time when the people who had once inhabited the now non-existent archipelago had been willing to accept their lot. Their lives had been peaceful and prosperous. They didn't want anything else. They didn't know anything else. And then something had come here; something that had awakened the greed in the people and brought disaster. First there had been the floods, and then the droughts. After that, the earthquakes had come. Liquid fire had spurted out from cracks in the earth and covered the land with ash and dust, making the land an infertile landscape of grey. Smoke had veiled the sun. The crops had struggled to grow.
As the conditions had worsened, the competition for what resources were left had turned into outright war. Then the people had begun to change. The less they'd had, the more they'd wanted. Power had been the only way to ensure survival, and there was no power greater than what immortality could offer. The lords had warred with one another, each trying to obtain the waters of the spring. Their paths to immortality had been paved with the bones of their soldiers, who didn't even really know what they were fighting for. In the end, the remaining elders, men who had once been revered as priests, had hidden the spring from the world. The calamities continued, until the people of the archipelago kingdom had lost hope. Some had sailed away in hopes of finding a place where they could set root and begin to grow again.
He turned his mind back to the present. The men were still standing there. None of them had made a move, although he could tell that they were on the verge of either charging or fleeing. He knew what they had come for. There was only one thing mortals wanted from this island these days. There was no point in talking around the issue. "You seek what they call the Fountain of Youth, yes?"
Damn, he knew everything. "Do you know where it is?" asked Will, trying to keep his alarm from showing. From his experience, people who knew so much were generally dangerous people. After all, Cutler Beckett had known a lot.
"I suppose I do," said the man.
"Will you take us there?" asked Elizabeth.
"Do I have a good reason to?"
"Do you have a good reason not to?" said Elizabeth.
"Those who find it deserve it," said the man. "Those who can't, do not." He turned and walked away, back into the jungle, except now that Will thought about it, it wasn't so much a jungle as it was a forest, for it was filled with pine trees. They tried to follow him, but somehow, he had disappeared.
"Well, gentlemen," said Jack. "I guess it's still up to us. So, Paris, what did you see on that pillar again?"
Paris hoped that the depiction of the battle and the skulls and the Fountain on the pillar had been fairly accurate. Otherwise, they'd be heading off on a wild goose chase and they would be none the wiser. This little 'rock' was actually huge, or perhaps there was some spell to make it seem that way. There were many tiny little rivers running through the jungle, and they would hunt the strangest beasts for food. The most common was a bony bird with teeth and membranous wings. Truth be told, it didn't even look all that much like a bird, for it had more in common with the winged beasts of Mordor.
Conifers. They were looking for conifers. He couldn't believe that such a common tree would actually be a clue to the whereabouts of the secret of immortality. "Legolas, where do you think there would be conifers on this island?" he asked.
"You ask me?" said the elf. "Who am I supposed to ask? I no longer smell things the way I used to, and the trees do not speak to me."
"But there must be more to it. There must be something about the soul of an elf that sets it apart from that of a man," argued the Trojan. He was just going out on a limb here. He had no idea if the souls of different creatures were different. Legolas didn't think too differently from himself, or from Jack. No, actually, everyone thought differently from Jack. That was a bad example.
"Even if there is, you are asking the wrong elf," said Legolas. "This would be a question better suited for the Lady Galadriel, or perhaps Lord Elrond. I think you would be better off looking for the mountains."
"What if they're just basic background design?" demanded Paris. "Then we would never find them."
"I don't think they were put there simply for the sake of aesthetics," said Balian. "In the murals with the dragons and wyverns and the ships, there were no mountains, so my guess is that there are some mountains, or perhaps hills, here. It is much bigger than we'd originally thought, after all."
"Don't you think we'd be able to see those mountains, though?" asked Elizabeth.
"Maybe they're secret hidden mountains," said Gimli.
"Why can't things be simple for once?" lamented Will.
"When are things ever simple with us, laddie? Simply knowing each other is already an impossibility."
Jack, by then, had managed to coax Achilles to give him a leg up. The pirate deftly scrambled up a huge alien tree. Leaves rained down on the people below. "Don't fall, Jack!" called Elizabeth as she squinted up at him. "There'll be no one to catch you!"
"That's jus' reassurin' innit, Lizzie?" Jack hollered back. "It's good to know that you're still heartless."
"She be practical," said Barbossa, "which be more than I can say fer ye, Sparra."
"Thank you, Captain Barbossa," said Elizabeth.
"I'm very practical, thank you very much. Ooh, look! Pyramids! Black pyramids! Heh, they weren't mountains after all!"
It was very hard to maintain enthusiasm for long. They'd already walked for so long, and the pyramids were at least a four day walk away, judging by the extremely slow pace at which they were proceeding. It wasn't anything to do with them. Rather, it had everything to do with the increasingly difficult terrain. Will, William, Achilles, Gimli and Balian were all hacking away at the thorny underbrush with their swords, but not only were the bushes tougher than just about anything else they'd ever encountered, they also grew so thickly that it took three minutes to walk a yard; at least, it felt that way.
It was as if the island itself wanted to keep the secret of immortality hidden. Either that, or the old man they'd met was playing tricks on them. Paris wouldn't put it beyond him. He'd guarded the fountain for so long, and for what? So that no unworthy man would be able to find it. What defined a worthy man? He supposed persistence would be one of the traits. He based his understanding of worthiness on his brother. Hector had always been persistent, even though it seemed there had been no hope. What else? Hector was a leader, but he was also a man who believed in working as a team, which was exactly what they were doing right now.
"Can't we just burn the thorns?" asked Briseis.
"Luv, we're in the middle of a forest," said Jack. "If we start a fire now, there's no knowin' whether we'll burn ourselves."
"All right, so that's a bad idea," muttered the young woman. "But there has to be some way, right?"
"What else are we going to do? Part the thorns the way Moses parted the sea?"
There was a flurry of questions about who Moses was and what he did to part the sea, and whether the same thing would work on thorns. They learned that Moses was a prophet, a Chosen One of Balian's God. That ended up in them trying to make the flustered Frank part the thorns with whatever magic this Moses had used. That, of course, did not work, not that Balian actually tried. Jack told him that he lacked faith. Jack almost got his nose broken.
Therefore, the only way to go about reaching the mountains was to continue hacking. It went on for an entire day and then some, testing even the most patient and good humoured of them, and they were already short on good humour, after what had happened with James Sparrow and Jonathan Beckett. Speaking of which, Paris was really tempted to abandon the two prisoners out here in the middle of nowhere, although certain people, and he was really talking about a certain Frank who adamantly believed in giving people second chances, would object to that.
Legolas gave an excited shout. "Pine tree!" he said. "Over here! Pine tree!"
"There is one pine tree," remarked Achilles. "Didn't the mural say there was a forest?"
"It is not uncommon for forests to change over time," said Legolas. "The land changes. Over time, it becomes better suited for the growth of other trees, and those trees claim that territory. This pine is weak. It is old, and I see the remains of another pine nearby."
"You can tell that the rotting stump is a pine?"
"I have lived for almost three thousand years in a forest, my lord Achilles. I think I know what a pine tree looks like, dead or alive." The elf glanced around. "I think this is it. This is the conifer forest we're looking for."
"So we have the mountains, the pine trees, and I think those skulls back there can count as the bones, but where the hell is the Fountain?" said Jack. "Oi, Paris, where was the location of the Fountain in relation to the pyramids, the trees and the bones?"
"It was between the trees and the bones, with the pyramids in the background," said Paris. He frowned. There was something else besides that. Surrounding that image had been a long scaly beast with curved teeth, curved talons, and a spiked tail. The creature's mouth had been open, and poised above the pyramids, the Fountain, and the soldiers. It had three eyes, one on either side of its sledge-shaped skull, and one right at the front. That eye had been situated above the tip of the tallest pyramid in the middle, and it had been looking down at the Fountain. Perhaps it was a clue. Maybe such a creature watched over the Fountain. Perhaps... "We have to climb to the top of the tallest pyramid," said the Trojan prince. "I have a feeling that we will only be able to see the Fountain if we look down from there."
A/N: Back from a long hiatus!