You know the story now, right? Surely you know where this is going?
(You think you do, leastways. But you’re not listening, are you? I told you already: this isn’t that story. Not anymore.)
* * *
I awaken, sucking in cold air. There’s a crackling that I think might be a fire. I’m still sleep-bleary, and can’t discern if it comes from inside me or outside. I certainly don’t feel as cold as when I was back in–in–that other place.
Christ, I’m already forgetting. Who’s Christ?
But as the memories of my old life fades, shards of memory fit into place. Memories of this world.
Gormund is standing beside me. I’m sufficiently impressed, now that I’ve got a better look at him. He’s a rippling container of barely-sheathed muscle–discounting his medicine ball of a chest. He’s bald, but his beard is so thick that I can’t help but wonder if the hair on his head simply migrated to his face. “Ruined Earth, but you’re heavy,” he says.
My head is spinning. My fingers are clawing at the stone foundation beneath me. I wasn’t supposed to come back. “Who summoned me?” I ask, absently. I’m not quite sure if I care.
“Nice to meet you, too, One Eye.”
It takes me a moment to understand that he’s using an alias for me. One of my old titles from my last life here. “I’m sorry,” I tell Gormund. “I’m sorry. I just. I…” I clutch my head in my hands. I’m not supposed to be back here. “Who are you?”
Gormund barks a single laugh. “Straight down to business, then?” he says. “My daughter summoned you, One Eye. Her will is almost spent from the ordeal.” He spits, as if in show of his disdain. “You’d better be worth it. Good to see you’re more…put together than the legends have led us to believe.”
I remember the last time someone channeled Higher Powers to bring me here. He had looked fine, laying on the stone slab. Unconscious, I thought. Until they examined his corpse. His insides had been a smoking ruin. I never learned his name. Others–more powerful folk–could have survived channeling the Higher Powers (for a time). Not him.
“I wasn’t supposed to come back,” I tell him, dumbly. “This can’t be real.”
He slaps me. Leaves my cheek stinging and red. I reel back, precariously close to the mountain-ledge.
(Mount Tharum. That’s its name. Mount Tharum).
Gormund catches me as I teeter on the ledge, pulls me forward. I can feel the bristle of his beard. Feel his hot, moist breath on my face. “Did that feel real?”
“If I throw you off this mountain, will that be real?” His voice is hoarse and raspy.
“My daughter has channeled Higher Powers through her flesh and funneled them onto mortal earth. All to bring you here, King in the Mountain.” My title drips like acid from his mouth. “You don’t get to tell me what is and isn’t real. Now harken to me: we are going to climb down this mountain, walk all the way to Strathbury and you will tell my daughter that you are sorry that the legends of your last life possessed her to do something so foolhardy as to summon a boy so stupid that his first act upon arrival is nearly drowning himself. Do you understand?”
I knock his hand away and shove past him to more solid footing. I lean against the side of the cave. I don’t have vertigo yet, I tell myself. This is a precautionary measure. I focus on my breathing. Five seconds in, five seconds out.
I wonder what else has changed.
“All right,” I tell him. “I understand.”
So we travel down Mount Tharum. There are thick clefts in the rock. A stairway, steep as a leaning ladder. Along the way down Gormund tells me that they should be evacuating Strathbury.
“Most likely we’ll be dead in a few weeks,” he tells me, surprisingly casual. All while he leads me down the clefts in the stone. “Funneling the Higher Powers to this plane doesn’t go unnoticed.”
I remember the last time. Raiders had swarmed down from the north. Unchecked and virtually unchallenged. Snothringham had almost no defenses. It was a town outlying in the middle of nowhere.
It didn’t stand a chance.
This time will be different. I swear it by the God I’ve so nearly forgotten and by the Higher Powers, too. Just to be safe.
I have a second chance here. I’m going to make it right. I shouldn’t even be here. The least I can do is cycle through these motions while causing the least amount of damage possible.
I’m going to survive this. I’m going to build a life here all over again. I’m relapsing, but at least this time, I can taper through this the right way.
The wind has died down by the time my feet hit soft earth and dead leaves crunch beneath my feet.
“How far to Strathbury,” I correct myself. “How long?”
“As long as it takes,” Gormund tells me, as we crunch through the autumn waste. His axehead drags lazily through the clusters of dead leaves and grass. “We’ll need to move quickly, though. Mount Tharum is a stillzone, thankfully. It’s a three day march through the Ever-Changing Land to Strathbury. Don’t you worry, though. I know what to look out for.”
I don’t bother to keep track of time. I’m too confused by what he means when he says the Ever-Changing Land.
This land doesn’t change. I know that, even in my limited knowledge of this world. I can remember my first walk to Strathbury. There were no changes.
The world becomes walking. One step and then the next, following the command of Gormund’s back: keep moving or die. He permits no alternative.
I wonder if there will be as many raiders this time. I wonder if I can use the fire in my veins. Did the Higher Powers sew it back into me? I want to call it forth. But not in front of Gormund.
He’s angry enough as it is. Angry that his daughter summoned me. Showing him proof of my power mightn’t be the best idea. I don’t even know if I have this power, either.
So I start to wonder what changed about Strathbury. How have they rebuilt? Who lives there now?
Bored, I examine the ground that drops precipitously mere feet from me in either direction. I walk along a file, sloping down into fields of dead, yellow grass girdled by aspens and poplars.
I hardly notice when Gormund has stopped moving. I nearly plow into his back. He’s hefted his axe, holding it in both hands.
Belatedly, I realize I do not have a sword. I freeze and follow Gormund’s eyes from one side of the file to the other. “Is there something down there?” I ask.
His knuckles are white and twitching around the axe-haft. “Might be,” he said. “It’s getting dark. Might be.” Belatedly, he mutters, “I knew I should have brought Clarissant.”
I’d hardly noticed the bruise-colored clouds smothering the sky. “Is it raiders?” I ask. I wish again for my sword. Almost as much as I wish I could remember its name.
I think I can pull the fire out of my veins, if it comes to it. I can remember my training from last time around. It took me months to learn how to control the Higher Powers’ magic. But eventually I wrestled it into my grasp. I’m not quite certain how the fire works. Not yet, at least.
I think I can do it again if I have to. Probably. Maybe. Time will tell, I suppose.