Time tramples greatness to rubble and dust, but glory is never forgotten. Elder winds sing of the past to those calm enough to listen.
-- Meer proverb
Dasha lounged on a tree limb and smiled as the black army marched toward her. A small crossbow rested nearby, but she had not bothered to load it. She knew the forest would shield her from harm. So it had done for a hundred years, and so it would continue to do.
Sunrise crowned the ridge of the valley and the black army poured down the slopes as if a dam had burst. Helmets and speartips glinted in the dawn. The air shook with the stomp of countless armored boots. Yet the tall, tangled forest on the valley floor halted their advance like a cliff holding back the sea. So thickly woven was the barrier of trees that military formations dissolved into single-file columns. Streams of men and weapons vanished in the dark lace of the forest's interior.
Hidden near the edge of the treeline, Dasha sat up and crossed her legs under the stout branch that supported her. A veil of sunshine draped across her cheek. She smiled at the warmth. Coppery light glistened on her fine coat of fur, dappled with delicate spots in contrast to her long, athletic physique. For a young Meer woman, Dasha looked uniquely dangerous. She wore neither a dress nor a headscarf but rather an eclectic ensemble of metal and leather, identifying her as a warrior. Rosy hair spilled like blood over her shoulders. Her high, pointed ears twitched in the morning breeze.
She swallowed a chuckle and thought, So it starts again. The Juka shall attack, we shall repel them and the eternal balance shall assert itself anew. You'd think they might learn from centuries of failure, and yet the Juka will never quit. Battle is their proper nature. So the ancestors recorded long ago.
Somewhere in the distance she heard a screeching commotion. With ease she sprang up from her high-flung perch through the loftier branches overhead. When she breached the forest canopy, she peered across an ocean of treetops and spotted the source of the noise. A fountain of crimson shapes erupted from the leaves to the north. Great, red wings unfurled like banners in the sky. It was a tribe of gargoyles fleeing from the woods. The invaders were driving them away. For a moment Dasha watched the brutish creatures glide toward the low, morning clouds. They possessed a wild beauty that she reluctantly enjoyed.
Then something else rose from the leaves. It was a pillar of smoke that quickly spread. Soon curtains of black and grey wafted up from the distant greenery. The scent of ash drifted past her. Dasha perked her ears. They're clearing a space to camp, she thought. The Juka must be planning a long battle this time. And why not? The forest is pleasant in autumn. A brisk siege will add spice to the season. I shall enjoy this. I must remember to thank Warlord Kabur before I send him limping back home.
The elders at the stronghold would be interested in this development. With hardly a sound she ducked back into the trees and navigated toward the deeps of the forest. Like a murky sea was the vast tangle of branches through which Dasha moved unfettered. She became a spotted streak, too quick to follow. Such was the character of the nimble Meer, who were ancient allies to nature's society. Wherever they settled they befriended the land and traveled as freely as the wind.
The magnificent stronghold of the Meer stood as an island in the center of the forest. Its towers and parapets were a wonder of sorcerous architecture. Every stone of the edifice was marked with a rune, coursing with magical strength. On rare campaigns, in ages past, the Jukan army had managed to reach the mystic fortress, yet never could their battering rams puncture its enchanted walls. The castle was the dauntless heart of Meer civilization, the center of their ancient culture.
Within its opulent chambers dwelled the grey-furred elders, the guardians of ancient lore, draped in robes of fine, flashing silk and mantles embroidered in gold. Greatest among them stood the sorcerer Adranath. Tall and proud in his silvery coat, he strode like a spirit through his people's long history, cloaked in the legend of his centuried career. Adranath was the oldest of all Lore Masters, older by half than the stronghold itself. His great age lent him an air of mystery. His moods and manners echoed a time when the world was a crueler place.
Sometimes, when he was not looking at her, Dasha imagined the years might have wearied the old man's senses. The thought made her uncomfortable. Presently she delivered her report in his audience chamber, an austere place of shadows and incense. The undecorated walls seemed to listen as she spoke.
When Adranath heard the news, gloom deepened his sigh. His ancient eyes grew dark. "You carry the portent of doom, my child. The magic of our fortress depends upon the vitality of the forest. Without it, our walls will crumble. The more trees the Juka burn, the weaker we become."
Dasha bowed her head. "With respect, Venerable Master, they would have to burn down the entire forest before our walls might fail us. They have never attempted such an atrocity before."
"And you are confident they will not do so now?"
"They are militant and aggressive, but they keep strong traditions of honor. I know they would not betray their values. I have fought the Juka for many of their generations." She lifted her chin as if proud of the accomplishment.
Adranath leaned back in his tall chair and grunted, "You underestimate their reclusive lord. He has brought great changes to the Juka in the last decade."
"You mean the one they call Exodus? He fears to show his face to us. He is hardly a threat."
"He has taught them sorcery."
She frowned. "Healing and petty enchantments. Even I am more of a sorcerer than the Juka shall ever be. Venerable Master, I don't understand your apprehension. The ancient balance between Juka and Meer has never faltered before. What makes this attack dangerous?"
"Because Exodus is dangerous," grumbled the sorcerer. "He is an impurity in our world. I fear he will upset the old balance. A harsh winter looms ahead of us, my child, and if the Juka overcome us we shall face a catastrophe. I fear we may not survive."
At that moment Dasha knew that Adranath's age had enfeebled him. Even a legend must fade in time. With conjured grace she excused herself from the old wizard's chamber and returned to the forest, where her fellow officers had begun to organize the defense of their magical home. She tried to forget Adranath's presage of ruin, the brooding of his senile mind.
Yet long ago the ancestors had warned against dismissing the counsel of elders. For Dasha and her fellow soldiers, the lesson proved devastating.
Terror is a wall of embers rushing toward one's home. In the ensuing days the Meer battled two enemies at once: the relentless onslaught of Jukan warriors and the roaring fury of the blazes they had set. The Jukan troops drove back all efforts by the Meer to extinguish the inferno. The sun vanished behind a storm of black smoke. With horror Dasha realized that the castle was not under attack. The leader of the Juka, Warlord Kabur, intended to level the ancient forest itself. The crime was an affront to Jukan honor as Dasha had always known it.
Defeat came as a red blast of heat and a blizzard of ash and cinders. As the Meer abandoned their crumbling stronghold, the Jukan warriors charged out from the smoke and felled them like brittle timber. Dasha fled with the survivors while the holocaust devoured the lush woodland. The forest had been her home for a hundred years. It was vanishing in less than a week.
She and her fellow soldiers had succeeded in evacuating the elders. Even now some were plotting their sorcerous revenge. But Dasha nurtured a different rage. Her obsidian eyes sharpened as she ran through the fiery gloom. She knew what must be done.
Adranath, of course, had been correct. The lord called Exodus had corrupted the Juka by some unthinkable sorcery. To craft a strategy against the enemy, Dasha had to learn what had happened to the Juka. It was a question she would put to their leader, Warlord Kabur himself. Dasha would meet him face-to-face and demand an explanation. If his answer did not satisfy her, she would meet him blade-to-blade.
In that case, she knew, satisfaction would be hers. Then the elders would return the holocaust to the Juka and the eternal balance would assert itself anew. Such was the proper course of history, which could not be diverted. So the ancestors had promised, countless generations ago. Of that, if nothing else, Dasha had no doubt at all.
From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, November 19th, 2001.