Since posting the last chapter I have managed to find a job, which does, as you might expect,
somewhat cut into my previously extensive free time, slowing somewhat the speed at which I write.
Chapter 14: Obligations
Time continued to drag; everyone knew that even on the fastest horses, Minas Tirith was several days hard ride away. And even then, there was no telling how long it would take Gandalf and Boromir to convince the latter's father, Denethor, Steward of Gondor, to call for aid. Many spoke of his pride, which some claimed bordered on foolhardiness, while others suggested that his mind had grown weak, his judgement questionable. Théoden seemed less willing then others to speculate as to the failings of his fellow ruler, but he seemed less than sure that the beacons would be lit.
For want of anything better to do, Sparrow took it upon herself to impart into Éowyn as much of her skill with a sword as she could. The shield-maiden was an eager student and followed every instruction without question, except when seeking clarification. What she lacked in strength and skill she made up for in perseverance and enthusiasm, often pushing herself to the point of exhaustion before finally agreeing to rest. Her hard work paid off, and she started to show a marked improvement now that she was under the tutelage of a willing instructor, rather than picking up what she could from watching others practice. Some of the Rohirrim questioned whether it was proper that any woman, let alone one of a noble house, be trained in the ways of war, but they soon fell silent at a sharp look from Sparrow.
Even so, they found it best to move their sparing sessions to a small brook some distance from Edoras, and disproving eyes.
"Good, good." The Hero observed her student as she put herself through a series of choreographed patterns of movement, her sword slicing cleanly through the air, "Again. And this time, imagine that you have a real live opponent."
Éowyn restarted her routine, imagining in her minds eye a bloodthirsty Orc before her. Her almost daydream like state caused her to miss-place her foot and she stumbled.
"No!" Sparrow snapped. "Again! Faster!"
Taking a deep breath, Éowyn began again, pushing herself harder, but her body was starting to tire and she again fumbled.
"Again!" Sparrow chastised her, "Faster!"
Her sword slicing through the air like a silver bolt, Éowyn pushed herself as hard as she could, instinctively improvising and improving as she went. She let go of her conscious self and allowed her body to guide her actions. Her muscles, having been put through the same actions so many times, remembered far quicker and more clearly than her head ever could. Everything around her faded away until there was just the sword; nothing remained but the edge of the blade. Without realising it, she started to stray from the ridged patterns Sparrow had taught her, changing them until they better fit her own strengths and weaknesses.
The pricing ring of steel on steel brought her back to reality, and she looked up to see Sparrow holding another of the blunt practice blades, a huge smile on her face.
"You've started to develop your own style." The Hero nodded in approval. "Good; you're learning something after all."
"I...would have thought you'd be upset." Éowyn breathed deeply, her body a mass of tension and overly exerted muscles, "I stopped following the moves you taught me."
"I always expected that you would." Sparrow laughed, "Now, let's see how well you do when someone's fighting back." She raised her blade, "Defend yourself!"
No sooner were the words out of her mouth then she swung her sword round so fast it was little more than a silver streak in the air, forcing Éowyn to take half a step back. The sound of metal clashing against metal filled the air as the Shield Maiden was first forced onto the defensive, then counter-attacked with renewed strength and speed. Sparrow carefully gauged her opponent's level of strength and skill, and limited herself to the same, not wanting to shatter the young woman's confidence, or risk hurting her. Eventually they reached a point where Éowyn's second wind started to fail her, and Sparrow called a halt to the session. The two of them made their way over to where their horses had been tied to a low branch, content to graze on the lush, green grass.
"I can see why your people settled here." Sparrow looked around, taking in the sweeping step and the mountains beyond, "This is good land; wide enough so that you don't feel fenced in, but defensible."
"Few people come out this way." Éowyn explained as she pulled herself up into the saddle, "They fear the Old Man of the Mountain."
"Excuse me?" Sparrow looked at her friend with more than a little trepidation, fearful that she had unintentionally led them into danger.
"The Old Man of the Mountain." Éowyn pointed towards where a nearby hill ended abruptly, leaving a sheer cliff-face, "It's what they call the carving over there; some say that, back in the days of Helm Hammerhand, it would awaken and speak to those brave enough to approach it."
"That's... interesting." Sparrow looked at the distant hillside; they were too far away to make out any features, "Would you show me?"
"It's a little out of our way, but I don't see why not." Éowyn turned her horse around, and led the way across the open grassland towards the cliff-face.
There wasn't much to look at, up close; what time and the elements hadn't worn away, moss and ivy had covered with a thick layer of green. All that was left was an outline that could some what vaguely be called that of a man's face, but only in a good light. Sparrow looked up at it, somewhat disappointed, then turned to her companion.
"From what you had said, I half expected to find a Demon Door..."
The words were no sooner out of her mouth then there was a deep, booming crack, and the two horses reared up, almost throwing their riders.
"AVALANCHE!" Éowyn warned, her eyes darting about for the first rocks to come tumbling down.
But the only movement was the face itself; it seemed to bulge out from the hillside, shaking away the greenery that had covered it while regaining the soft, lifelike lines that it had lost over the years. It yawned deeply, a sound not unlike the grinding of a mill stone, then its eyes opened, and despite their lack of features, they were clearly examining the two startled riders before them.
"Many years has it been since anyone disturbed my slumber. Longer still since anyone recognised me for who and what I am." It spoke in a deep, rich baritone, like the rumble of distant thunder on a summers day, "Once, an age ago, my brothers and I kept watch over these lands, but the slow passage of time had claimed them all, save me. I am the last Demon Door of Rohan, and I will open for no one."
"It was I who awoke you, old one." the Hero straightened herself up as best she could while astride a still skittish horse, "I am Sparrow, of Albion."
"Albion, you say?" The Door loomed over her, examining her closely, "Can it be, that after all these long centuries, I can fulfil my oath?"
"Your oath?" Éowyn asked, refusing to show any fear or hesitation.
"Almost five hundred years ago, a Hero named Briar Rose travelled these lands in search of knowledge." The stone face explained, "She saved me from a Troll that sort to carve me out of this very hillside, and in return bade me to keep safe a relic she had uncovered, until such time as another member of the Heroes Guild passed this way. At first I thought it would be the work of decades, a century at most, but here I am, still waiting."
"Your wait is over." Sparrow pulled her guild seal out and held it up, "I am the last Hero of the Guild."
"A mere trinket." The mystical portal chortled in response, "No doubt stolen, I might add..."
Her eyes narrowing at the implied insult to her honour, Sparrow raised her right hand, palm up, and summoned her Will. A blot of lighting leapt skyward, and a rumble of thunder echoed out across the valley.
"I had to be sure, you see?" The Door smiled, as if a great weight had been lifted off of its metaphorical shoulders. "But now, now I can at last go to my rest."
There was a sharp cracking sound, and the face seemed to split in two as the cliff opened up, revealing a swirling vortex. Sparrow dismounted her horse, taking care to tie the reins to a nearby rock, and walked towards the portal.
"Where are you going?" Éowyn asked, somewhat confused by everything she had just seen.
"A great Hero, one I have read about in the Guild Histories, placed something here for safe keeping." Sparrow explained, "Only a fool would use a Demon Door to hide a trinket, and Briar Rose was no fool. I intend to recover it, and if possible, make use of it."
"But..." The Shield Maiden looked at the portal somewhat apprehensively.
"Trust me; I've passed through at least a dozen of these." Sparrow did her best to reassure her, "Some of them can lead to the most amazing of places."
Not wanting to show fear before her friend and mentor, Éowyn stepped forward, and the two of them passed through together. The first thing they noticed upon reaching the other side was the cold. It was a special kind of dry, bitter cold that stole the very breath from their lungs and cut into any exposed flesh it could find. They quickly pulled their riding cloaks around their shoulders as they took in their surroundings. They seemed to be at one end of a short tunnel or hallways; the floor, walls, and celling of which seemed to be made out of semi-translucent ice that sparked. The only illumination came from the softly glowing portal behind them, lending the chamber an ethereal quality. The only options were to press on or return to Rohan empty handed, condemning the Demon Door to maintain his lonely vigil for an unknown number of years to come.
Faced with such stark choices, they carefully made their way along the passage, the crunching of ice under their feet the only sound. The passageway turned sharply to the left a little way ahead, and Sparrow was worried that they would lose the light offered by the open portal, a cold, fresh light awaited them. They rounded the corner to find the passageway ended abruptly in a balcony that jutted out from the side of a sheer mountainside. Across a wide, deep valley they could make out a range of jagged, snow-capped mountains, the peaks of which had been carved into statues of such titanic proportions that they seemed impossible. While those further away were lost in cloud, they could clearly see that the nearest one depicted a bald man, dressed in only a loincloth with his arms held out wide. In the palm of one had blazed a mighty fire, while the other cupped a ball of glowing light. The statues gaze seemed to zero in on the two interlopers, with amused, if slightly mischievous, expression.
"That's...not something you see every day." Sparrow swallowed deeply, "It has to be a relic of the Old Kingdom, it's the only explanation."
"Look!" Éowyn pointed down into the valley, where the snow on the ground was far thinner, and there were still patches of green grass to be seen.
"By the Lords of Light!" Sparrow gasped; carved into the very stone of the mountainside was a massive city, a maze of turrets, battlements and buttresses, all lit from within, a clear sign of habitation. "In all my travels, I have never seen or heard of such a place."
"We shouldn't linger here." Éowyn warned, her arms and legs already starting to grow numb in the intense cold. "We can come back again, another day, better prepared."
"A good plan if ever I heard one." Looking around, Sparrow located an ornate silver and obsidian chest with a Guild lock. Pressing her seal against it, she was relived to see the expected burst of light indicating that the wards protecting it were still intact, and lifted open the lid.
Inside sat a gleaming war-hammer, a quartet of argument crystals embedded in the hilt. One head was a classic blunt hammer, intended to deal blunt force trauma, while the other was a curved axe head for slicing and hacking. The long grip was wrapped in old leather, ending in a loop that the wielder could slip their wrist through to avoid losing it should their grip fail them mid-battle. Even to someone with her increased strength, there was an unmistakable weight to the weapon as she lifted it from its resting place.
"Devastation, Divine Favour, Divine Luck and Flame." She examined the augments one by one. "A weapon for fighting evil if ever there was one." She closed her eyes, and let the hammers history flow into her mind, "This weapon is named Archon's Fury, forged to bring an end to evil and tyranny wherever they were found."
"It's beautiful." Éowyn agreed, "But shouldn't we be going now?"
To Be Continued...