Tothelea: Chapter 15

The days soon passed into an easy rhythm as spring ceded to summer.  They
passed through fields of wild flowers, which delighted Harmony to no end.  A
few days after their brief rest at the scarp, they encountered a small,
isolated village.  The villagers were kindly enough folk, but they did not
worship the Aravolir or the other Aran.  Instead, they held that there was
only Arshoeoa, who manifested in many forms.

They replenished their supplies in the village, but only stayed one night.
The village elders insisted they attend a worship service, where their Pious
delivered a sermon he said had come to him directly from Arshoeoa.  The sermon
seemed to have as its goal convincing Trevor and Harmony to join the village,
and believe as they did.  Belief or not was no question to Trevor--had he not
personally felt the power of Arborebea protecting them at Pious Garron's
request--they had elsewhere to go.  But the sermon made Harmony very
uncomfortable, and so early the next morning Trevor thanked the villagers for
their hospitality and they went on their way.

Twice, they encountered lone farms, hidden away in the hills.  Having no great
need of supplies, they avoided these.  And not long after the second farm,
they began to see the mountains.  Very far away, but definitely there, sharp
peaks poking here and there above the horizon.

When three weeks had passed, they encountered a broad, shallow valley with a
great slow river at its bottom.  Trevor consulted the map--now a familiar
friend to him--it had to be the River at Church.  They were so close now to the
mountains!  Perhaps only a week's journey more.  Only, where on the river were
they?  On the map, the river looked to run almost directly south where it met
the sea, but farther upriver it flowed more southeast.  If they were at the
upper part of the river, they would be meeting it almost square to their path.
The lower section would meet at more of an angle.  Trevor studied the river,
the path behind them.  It was hard to tell.  But probably, this was the lower
section of the river.  Closer to Church.

Aramathokoa was probably waiting for them there.

They couldn't see far enough down river to see the city of Church itself, and
so had no idea how close to it they might be.  Their packs were getting light,
but even so Trevor didn't want to risk going anywhere near Church.  He
consulted the map again.  There were two small dots marked along the river
itself.  One near where the river changed direction, and another up higher,
where a smaller river joined it.  Three days, maybe, to the first dot.  He
hated to add three days to their journey, but hated even more to go near where
he suspected Aramathokoa waited.

Also, there was the matter of crossing the river.  Swimming across was not the
problem--they had grown up with the sea--Trevor's staff was the problem.  There
was no way he could swim across and carry the heavy iron staff too.  They
would have to cross by boat, which meant at a village.  He showed Harmony the
map and explained his thinking.

"What do you think, Harmony?  Do we go up and try to cross at this little
village?  Or do we go down to Church and cross there?"

"Church is big?  Like Merlon?"

"Yes.  I believe it is even larger than Merlon."

"No big city.  We go up.  Please, Trev."

Trevor remembered how Merlon had affected her.  Stupid of him not to have
thought of that himself.  He nodded his agreement wit her, gave her a smile.

"Okay then!  Let's get moving."

The river was pleasant to travel up.  If nothing else, it was nice not to
worry about finding water for once.  And the change of scenery didn't hurt
either.  Several times a day they passed flatboats, heading up or down the
river, loaded with sacks of grain and boxes filled with who knew what.  They
would wave and call out hello to the boatmen.  Harmony seemed to thrive on a
life in the isolation of the wilderness, but Trevor had to admit that he
missed the sight of other human faces.

The dot on the map was a very small village indeed.  Only a few buildings, and
those looked to be in poor repair.  They reached the village near mid-day, but
couldn't see anyone about.  The river had grown slightly narrower as they'd
travelled along it, but here it ran swiftly.  They called across the river,
hoping to catch someone's attention.

No one appeared.  Odd.  They waited an hour, had lunch, and still no one.

"Harmony, I think this village is deserted."


Trevor pondered a bit.  "Do you think you could swim across it?"

"Sure," she answered, confidently.

"All right.  What do you think about this?  We leave our things here.  There's
no one around, they should be safe.  We swim across--"

"Both of us?"

"Yes.  I might need your help.  Besides, I promised not to leave you alone,
remember?"  She smiled.  Trevor continued, "we search around for a rowboat or
something we can use to come back and get our things.  If we find nothing, we
swim back and keep going upstream until we find a place to cross."

"Okay.  Good plan," she agreed.

They stashed their packs and Trevor's staff under a bush, just in case.
Trevor shucked off his shirt and shoes.  He was struck by the color of his
arms.  Or rather, the color of his hands, which were much darker than his
arms.  He chuckled, "I look like a farmer!"  Harmony nodded, having taken her
own shoes off.  They walked to the muddy edge, of the river.  

"Wait," Harmony said as Trevor was about to dive into the river.  She returned
quickly to their packs, rummaged through them for a moment, and returned with
their coil of rope.  "Might need it," she added.

"Good idea," Trevor said.  He motioned for her to give him the rope, which he
looped around himself, his head and one arm through the coil.  They dove in.

The water was cold, and made Trevor wince.  Trevor's head broke back above the
river's surface.  Harmony was already a length or two ahead of him, and
swimming well.  He hurried to catch up with her.  They swam fast to get out of
the cold water, but were still carried some ways downstream before they
reached the other side.

They clambered out, dripping and shivering.  Trevor's skin tingled with the
cold, and he had to fight tightness in the muscles of his face and neck to say
"C-come on.  We'll w-warm up as w-we walk."  It was only a hundred yards or so
to reach the dilapidated old buildings, but they had to pick their way along
through sticks and brush that were thicker than they had been on the other
side.  They were still quite wet, but much warmer, when they reached the

Trevor counted six buildings, looking mainly like houses.  They looked very
old, and as though no one had lived here or cared for them in a long, very
long, time.  What would make the people leave their homes?  It was a mystery
with no answer.  They hunted around, knocking at the doors just in case there
was someone.  They did not find anything even vaguely like a boat.  No
rowboat, no canoe, nothing.  Not even a skiff.  "Aran!" Trevor said, out loud.
He was already regretting, just a bit, the decision to come up-river.  He
didn't want to be forced to go further up-river, when there was no way of
knowing that the next village would actually have people in it.  He knew they
could just leave his staff behind and cross, but no.  He couldn't bear it.
Besides their now-worn clothes--and of course, Harmony--the staff was really all
he had left of his home.  There had to be something.

They approached the last of the six buildings.  This one, in worse repair than
the others, was beginning to fall down.  

"Stand back a bit, Harmony," Trevor said as he approached the door.  Trevor
didn't bother to knock, but took the door's handle carefully in hand.  The
door stuck a bit.  Trevor pushed harder and the door popped open, throwing
Trevor off balance.  The door stopped again almost immediately, hitting
something inside, and there was a loud creak.  Trevor felt the door shift as
the building itself moved.  Oh, Aran!  It was going to come down!

He pushed himself off of the door with all his might, leaping away from it,
turning as he went.  Harmony was just a few feet behind him.  What if the
building fell this way?  He threw himself onto her, arms wrapping around her,
instinctively holding the back of her head with one hand.  Harmony gave a
small shriek as Trevor collided with her, shielding her with his body, before
they tumbled to the ground.

Trevor held her, terrified, waiting for the crushing blow of the rickety old
building to land upon him.

"Ow, Trev!"

Nothing happened.  The building stood.

"Sorry," he said, sheepishly, rolling off of her.  "I, I felt the building
move when the door opened.  I thought it was going to fall on us."  He helped
her up.  She dusted herself off, scowling at him.  "Are you all right?"

"Yes," she answered, "my bottom will be sore tomorrow, but yes."  Despite her
scowl, her tone told Trevor that she wasn't mad.  Not really.  They waited a
while for their hearts to stop pounding.  Trevor inspected his elbow, which
had taken the brunt of their fall, and was painfully scraped.  Should have
left my shirt on, he thought.  He winced as he picked dirt and rocks out from
the wound.

"Big hero," Harmony quipped.  Trevor looked at her.  She burst into laughter,
and he couldn't help but follow.  As much because Harmony had actually made a
joke--he couldn't remember her ever doing that before--as because the situation
was, he had to admit, rather comical.

When they calmed down, Trevor returned the conversation to the problem at
hand.  "So what do we do now?  Any more good ideas?"

"Um, a raft?  Make one?"

"Yeah, maybe," Trevor said.  It wasn't a bad idea.  There was plenty of loose
boards in these old buildings.  But it would take a long time, and they'd have
to find some sort of beams to tie the boards to.  Ah, that was it!

"Doors," he said.  "We take two doors, drag them across the river.  They won't
hold us, but they will hold our stuff."  Harmony nodded, and they went in
search of doors.  But, back at the more stable buildings.

By evening, they had done it.  It took three trips in all, but they did it.
They took two doors back to the river's edge, but after some further thought,
only took one of them back across the river.  They each held a corner of it,
and swam with their free arm.  When the doors were laden, it would take two of
them to help keep the doors steady during the crossing, so what was the point
in bringing both?  They brought their packs across on the second swim to the
village, and Trevor's staff, carefully lashed to the door, on the third.

Tired and hungry, they commandeered the nicest of the old houses to stay in
for the night--one that had two real beds, and looked fairly unlikely to fall
on them in the night.  They built a fire in the old fireplace, changed into
their spare clothes.  Again, Trevor gave a thought of thanks to Garron and
Nera, as they hung the wet ones by the fire to dry.  Harmony made more of her
stew for supper.  It was different every time.  But then, every time, she
found different local plants to add to it.  But it was always good.

It was strange, being indoors after so long in the open.  The mattresses on
the old beds were covered with dust, but when flipped over and cleared of
cobwebs, would serve for one night.  And when, Trevor wondered, did I last
sleep in a real bed?  Must have been... at home.  At that strange village, at
the temple in Merlon, and at the inns in Merlon and Derey, he had slept on the
floor.  No, not since his last night at home had he slept in a real bed.  A
lump grew in his throat at the thought.  He choked it back, but it did keep
him from falling asleep for a while.

Trevor woke before dawn.  He rose, quietly, trying not to disturb Harmony.  He
slipped out of the dilapidated old house to relieve himself.  The morning was
still dark and mostly gray.  In the pre-dawn silence, nothing stirred.
Trevor's footsteps in the dust sounded oddly loud.  A thin fog hung over the
river, as it had the previous mornings.  Trevor shivered in the chill air as
he buttoned his trousers.

There was a noise, faint and muted by the fog.  Trevor strained to make it
out.  Was it... hoofbeats?  He walked out into the open space between the
buildings, what must once have been the little town's main square.  Yes,
hoofbeats.  From by the river.  Trevor crept carefully towards the bank,
something inside telling him to be wary.  The hoofbeats grew louder.

He reached the river, and found a bush to watch from behind.  He peered
through the fog, much thicker here on the river itself.  It flowed in wafts
and drifts, downstream with the water.  Trevor had to strain to make out the
opposite bank.  He made out a dark shape, a man on a horse, clopping slowly
along the far bank.  They came into sharper view as they reached the point
opposite Trevor's hiding spot.  The man brought the horse to a stop.  He
dismounted, and crouched down to inspect the ground.

Our footprints, Trevor realized.  He's tracking us.  It must be... The man
stood, and looked across the river.  The fog parted for an instant.  Yes.  It
was Aramathokoa.  And he had seen Trevor.

Adrenaline dumped into Trevor's blood as he bolted from behind the bush,
running flat-out for the old house.  Behind him, he could hear the man give a
"Hya!" to his horse, and the sound of the horse splashing into the water.
Trevor reached the house and rushed inside.

"It's him!  He's here!" he blurted out to Harmony, who was awake now.  She
crouched by the fireplace, having stoked up a small fire to warm herself by.
Oh, Aran!  What to do?

"You mean?"

"Yes, Harmony!  Quick, help me pack everything up!"  He rushed to pull the
blanket from his bed and stuff it into his pack.  Then he remembered his
promise to himself:  Don't rush.  Think it through.  Aramathokoa had a horse.
They couldn't out-run him.  They needed a different plan.

He thought a moment.  His mind flashed back to when he was a kid, to when
Roney and his gang had stolen the groceries and beaten him up.  One
sucker-punch had done it for Roney.  Maybe it would work for them, too.

Trevor quickly closed the house's front, and thankfully only, door.  "Harmony,
quick, sit there," he pointed, "across from the door.  He'll look here
eventually, and I want him to see you the second he opens the door."  Trevor
grabbed an old wooden chair, and placed himself just inside the door, holding
the chair up to bring it down on Aramathokoa's head.

Trevor rehearshed the motion in his mind.  He would bring the chair down, and
from the front.  Catch him right across the face.  Hopefully, knock him out
cold in one blow, and if not, then at least stun him and force his eyes closed
long enough for Trevor to finish him off.  He took a couple of slow, practice
swings with the chair.

Then, he remembered the funeral.  How he had missed punching Aramathokoa in
the face.  He remembered the odd sensation of his fist veering, unbidden, away
from its target.  Would he even be able to hit him with a chair?  What if not?
Pious Garron's words came back to him.  Something about his staff being the
only thing unaffected when Aramathokoa had killed Hinton and befouled their
earlier set of belongings.  He put down the chair, careful not to make noise,
and fetched his staff as quickly as he could.

Of course, Yun had only showed him some defensive moves.  And, despite his
intentions to find someone to teach him more when they reached Merlon, there
had simply not been time.  Well.  He would just have to do his best.  He held
the staff up.  It felt light in his hands, natural.  It should by now, he
mused, after carrying it half way across Larad.

Sitll, he would be swinging from left to right, an un-natural motion for him.
He wished the door opened the other way.  They waited, Trevor's heart pounded
so hard he had trouble hearing the horse as it clopped its way into the town.

A voice called out.  "Where are you, stupid boy?  I know you are here."

Trevor tensed, his hands clenching the staff.  Clip clop.  The hoofbeats grew

"You are mine now, girl.  I will find you.  Your brother cannot help you."

Just come in and get it over with, Trevor thought.

"Why do you hide?  I will find you.  I always find you."

Trevor glanced at Harmony.  She sat on the edge of her bed, her hands clenched
into the mattress.  Terrified.

"Just come out.  Make it easy for both of us.  I will get you, and we can
start all over again"

Not if I can help it, Trevor swore.

"Where is your brother, girl?  Did he run away?"

Trevor was tempted to to call out, to give away their location.  But no.
Surprise--what little was left--was the only tiny advantage they had.

"Ah, there you are," the voice called out, "I see the smoke from your chimney.
Not smart, girl, not smart."

Trevor gulped.  The moment was almost here.  He had a moment of panic at the
notion that he was about to hit Aramathokoa, who was once of the Aran, with an
iron staff.  Madness, surely!  He pushed the panic away.  He would do what he
had to do.

He turned once more to Harmony.  "I love you," he whispered, hoping it was
soft enough not to be heard outside.  But he had to say it.  In case this
didn't work, he had to say it.

The horse clopped to a stop.  Spurs and bridle jangled softly as the rider
dismounted.  The wooden steps leading up to the old house creaked with
Aramathokoa's steps.  The handle turned, and the door opened.

"Ah, there you are," Aramathokoa crooned, his voice raspy and low.  He stepped
through the door.

Trevor brought the staff down with all his might, striving to do it quietly,
not to tip his enemy off.  It was an awkward swing, and came nowhere near
Aramathokoa's head.  "My sweet girl, my sweet Ara--"  The swing went low, and
caught him across one thigh as he took a step forward.

There was a sickening, wet thudding sound and a crack.  Aramathokoa screamed.
He fell face down to the ground, pitching forward over Trevor's staff,
wrenching it from his hands.  It clanged to the wooden floor, the ringing iron
quickly drowned out by the screaming.

Rage welled up in Trevor, pent up rage, unleashed by his swing.  His teeth
clenched, Trevor reared back and kicked Aramathokoa in the head.  Pain flashed
in Trevor's foot at the blow, but the head snapped to the side and the
screaming stopped.

His foot throbbing Trevor limped over to Harmony.  Tears streamed down her
face.  "It's all right, it's all right," he said.  "You're all right."  She
clung to him, and hugged him fiercely.

Trevor's heart slowed a bit.  But no.  It had been too easy.  Trevor didn't
trust it.  He was--had been--a god, after all.  What if he woke up?

Trevor went over to the body.  In the light coming through the open door, he
could see that Aramathokoa was still breathing.  His hand moved to his knife.
Steel versus iron.  It should get the job done.  Then he stopped, the knife at
Aramathokoa's neck.  This wasn't the same, was it?  Hitting him with the staff
was one thing, but this would be cold blooded murder.

"No.  I'm not a murderer," Trevor said.

Aramathokoa's head moved, his neck straightening a bit.  "Stupid boy..." he
muttered, groggily.  Trevor hit him in the jaw.  This time he didn't miss, and
Aramathokoa was out again.

Trevor pulled his staff clear, and pulled Aramathokoa's arms behind him.  He
held them there, saying "Harmony, bring me the rope."

She did, and he bound Aramathokoa's arms.  "Wouldn't work anyway," she said.

"What wouldn't?" Trevor asked.

"Killing him.  He would come back anyway."

"What?  How do you know that?"

She shrugged.  "Don't know.  Just know, that's all."

Trevor severed the rope and moved to the man's feet--was it really correct, he
wondered, to think of him as a man?--pulling the legs straight.  The one leg
was bent in too many places, and Trevor was glad Aramathokoa was already
unconscious, for surely the pain would be too much to bear.  Even
straightened, the broken leg seemed a bit shorter than the other.  Trevor
wondered if the bone were sticking through the skin, but he wasn't about to
undo Aramathokoa's trousers to find out.  He tied Aramathokoa's feet with the
remainder of the rope, sorry to have to leave it behind.  Harmony stared at
Aramathokoa while he worked, wiping tears from her eyes.

"Come on," he said when he was finished.  Aramathokoa looked well bound, and
was still out.  "Let's get out of here."

They gathered the rest of their things quickly, and left the house.  The horse
was outside, waiting patiently for its master.  That was no good.  Harmony's
warning weighed on him.  Whatever he was, Aramathokoa was no normal man.
Trevor didn't put it past him to use his magic to escape his bonds, maybe even
heal his leg, and be after them again.  Best to take the horse with them.

Trevor grabbed the horses reins, but the horse would not budge.  It refused to
be led.  Well trained, Trevor thought.  Waiting for its master.  He thought
for a moment, then decided what to do.  He unfastened the saddle's buckle, and
slid it, saddle bags and all, off the horse.  He detatched the bags from the
saddle, and gave them to Harmony.  They were heavy, but she wouldn't need to
carry them for long.  She cocked her head, and looked at him questioningly.

"Take these, go hide behind that last house. The one that almost fell on us.
I'll be along in a minute."

She shook her head no, reaching out one hand towards his, indicating that she
wanted them to stay together.  Trevor's stomach sickened at the thought of
what he had to do.

"Harmony, this horse won't come with us.  It is too well trained.  We can't
leave it here for him to ride.  I'm sorry, I am.  But I need you to wait,
behind that house."

She understood, and tears welled up in her eyes again.  She nodded sadly, and
went off to wait for him.  Trevor took the extra shirt from his pack while she
walked, and draped it over the horse's eyes.  The horse shook its head a bit,
but Trevor stroked its jaw and held the cloth there until the horse accepted

"I only hope I have the strength," he said when Harmony was out of sight.
"I'm sorry, Horse."

He stood on the horse's left flank, behind its head a bit.  He raised his
staff, and brought it down at the base of the animal's skull.  Its body
spasmed, flinging Trevor's shirt into the air, as it fell to the ground with a
heavy thud.  The shirt fluttered down beside it.  Trevor swallowed hard, tears
welling up in his own eyes.  Damn it.  Damn all of this.  Aramathokoa should
be the one to die, not this innocent animal.  Condemned for being too loyal to
its wicked master.

Trevor picked up his shirt and went to find Harmony.  He rifled quickly
through the saddle bags, looking for things that might be of use to them.
Rope--good--to replace what they had left behind.  Dried meat--no good--Harmony
would never touch it, and somehow, Trevor didn't trust that Aramathokoa's food
would be wholesome to eat.  A knife--they had plenty of those, but if not
having it slowed Aramathokoa down, all the better.

From behind them came a bellow of rage and pain.

"We should go," he said.  They took the rope and the knife, leaving the rest
behind.  Trevor pushed them northeast as fast as he dared.  He had allowed
them to travel too slowly the past few days, and it had almost caused

They traveled in silence throughout the morning.  Even when they stopped for a
quick bite to eat, Harmony wouldn't talk to him.  Trevor knew she was upset
about the horse.  He was, too, for that matter.  But he steeled himself.  He
did what he'd had to do.  He knew she understood that, and she would come to
terms with the necessity of it.  Eventually.

Trevor relived the mornings events many times that day.  Was there anything
else he could have done?  Was there a different way out of the trap?  If there
was, Trevor couldn't see it.  He wished he knew more about what, exactly,
Aramathokoa could and couldn't do.  Perhaps, he thought, when we find Belden,
he'll be able to tell us.

Another thought pressed itself into his mind.  It hid there, in the
background, until Trevor noticed it and sought it out.  Without that staff
they would almost certainly not have escaped.  And yet, he only had the staff
because they had been so rushed to leave White Sands.  The seeds for their
escape here had been planted then, so long ago and so far away.  Trevor felt
that it must mean something.  He wasn't sure what, but the thought somehow
gave him hope.

Trevor pushed them to continue as far through the darkness of night as they
dared.  They made camp in silence, ate in silence, and lay down to sleep.

"Big hero," she murmured softly, as they nodded off.  But this time, there was
no humor in her voice.