Peering into the Abyss

“Can one person change the world?”  Cadwalader recognized Malach’s instructive tone as his steward looked up from the sword he was cleaning.

“No, of course not.”

The keening of women now replaced the howl of warriors as gloom settled over the meadow.  Their lamentations clutched his soul.

Earlier today a battle raged here.  Cadwalader kicked a small stone unfortunate enough to be near his foot.  It tumbled haphazardly over the matted grass until it clunked against a bronze torque.

He snatched the neck collar and slipped it into the leather bag hanging from his shoulder.  Clearing the meadow of implements overlooked while removing the bodies offered no distraction from his grief.  They reminded him of the fallen, and especially of a lad his age slain nearer the village.  He turned back to his companion.

Malach, seated upon a boulder, had pushed the hood of the cape he wore off his head.  That was unusual, considering a few villagers still milled about.  With hood up and gloves on, the pooka passed as human.  Perhaps the growing darkness and thickening mist convinced him nobody would notice his slit pupils encompassed by swirling irises.

“Why do you even ask?”  Cadwalader suspected an ulterior motive.  This being, who had taken him in as a toddler a decade ago, did not engage in small talk.

Nor was he forthcoming with condolence….

“Your friend.”  Malach focused on the stained rag he used to scrub the blade near the hilt.  “He was young enough to take shelter, but chose to stand and fight.”

Cadwalader’s stomach churned.  “That was my fault.”

“Did you place a sword in his hand?  Did you push him into the fray?”

“He might have taken shelter if … if we had not filled his head with vanity.”

Malach glanced up.  “We?”

Heat surged through his veins, dislodging some of the bleakness.  Cadwalader clenched his fists and frowned.

“Yes, we.”  Sharing the blame might offer some respite.  “Llyr was intrigued by the techniques you taught me.  He believed his skill was sufficient to secure his safety.”

Malach stopped scrubbing, and this time his gaze settled on Cadwalader’s face.  “He was an excellent sparring partner for you.”

“He was my friend!”  Numbness fled the advance of rage.  “I have so few, with the way you haul me back and forth across different regions.  Is that what you want?  Do you try to keep me from developing bonds with my own kind?”

His attention shifted to Malach’s chin, thickly bearded but trimmed short.  Gazing at those otherworldly eyes for too long proved disorienting.

“You know why we cannot settle too long in one place.”  As usual his demeanor remained detached.

“Because of the other one like you?”  Cadwalader swung one hand toward the desolate meadow.  “The Other had nothing to do with this attack.  This is the work of a rival tribe instead of the Romans.”

That was why the pooka bothered to participate in this conflict.  Local raiders didn’t threaten the same predicament deployed soldiers did.  His propensity to refrain from the affairs of men was, so he claimed, rooted in his unsavory past.

Malach’s attention returned to wiping the sword.  “And that is why I allowed you to fight.”

Those words struck Cadwalader with the force of a club in the gut.  Llyr had seen him grasp the sword and charge into battle to defend the village, which encouraged him to follow. His friend’s death was still mostly his fault.

But Malach wasn’t going to get off that easily….

“You could have done more.”  Heat rose with his words.  “Those raiders were no match for you.  You could have slain most all of them.”

Malach stopped wiping, but didn’t look up.  “There is already enough blood on my hands to fill a lake.  Getting involved in men’s aspirations is the curse of my kind.  The Other embraces it.  I … seek a different path.”

“Then why me?”  Cadwalader’s fists tightened.  “You strike only when I am in danger.  You never defend anybody else.  I am no different from any of them, so why me?”

Malach’s gaze rose to his face.  “Why did your friend join the battle?”

“Can you ever give a straight answer?”

“Why give you that which you already hold?”

He called the pooka something far less savory, dropped the leather satchel, and spun away.  Yet even as he stomped along the line of boulders interspersed with trees, regret over using those words settled over him like the shade in the valley.  Malach was a challenge to interact with, but he was also the only … father … he could truly remember….

Cadwalader halted after a few paces and grasped a low hanging branch of an oak.  Its bark dug into his fingers from the force of his grip, and he gazed the huddle of huts across the meadow.  He drew in a long, slow breath as a couple of inhabitants shuffled among the structures.

His memories of the family he used to have were so distant and murky, more like recalling snatches of a fleeting dream.  Malach encouraged him to cherish all the images and sensations of them he could recall.  That wasn’t always easy when those reflections ended with screams and fire and death.

That encouragement was one example of charity exhibited by an otherwise aloof being.  There were others, such as how Cadwalader’s impudence was never corrected with blows and berating such as those he’d witnessed from some fathers.

Nor did Malach ever use the language Cadwalader just hurled at him.  He knew those words only because he’d learned them from the men.

His steward admitted to being a creature of darkness, but there was no doubt about Malach’s struggle to comprehend the light.  If the pooka had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t to blame Llyr or anybody else for the young man’s death.  He always tried to guide Cadwalader … even though those efforts were often infuriating.

With another deep breath, Cadwalader released the branch and strode back to the boulder where the pooka continued stroking the blade with the tattered cloth.  There probably wasn’t a speck of dirt or blood left on that sword.

“I … apologize.”  He clasped his hands together as he stood before Malach.  “I should not have called you that.”

“That is not the worst name I have been called.”

“I was angry because … you know Llyr thought he could help.”

“Indeed.”  Malach’s attention remained on the weapon.  “But why would he want to help when the village’s men were already there to defend?”

There was no use repeating himself, so he dug deeper for an explanation beyond the obvious.  “He … believed one more person added to our strength.”

“Was he correct?”

Was he?  Cadwalader’s gaze cast out again toward the trampled and bloodied meadow.  The women’s choral mourning trembled through a breeze light enough to mimic the dying’s final breath.  The shadow in the east eagerly followed on the heels of the retreating sun.

“We won the battle.”  The words fell flat as they tumbled from his lips.  “But we could have won … without his loss.”

“And yet you also joined the battle.”

His attention locked on Malach again.  “You taught me to fight.”

“I also taught you to hide.  But when the attack began, you took up the sword.”  His companion sat up as he returned Cadwalader’s gaze.  “Why?”

He stared at Malach’s beard.  “I will never stand back when the welfare of others is at stake.”

“That is what your friend believed.”  He glanced away to set the rag down and picked up the scabbard balanced beside him.  “That is why you were friends.  There was much you shared.  And that is why I share in your grief.”

Cadwalader’s blood pounded in his ears.  “Did you ever consider rendering your aid to him instead of me?”

Malach sheathed the sword.  “You are the one the Other hunts.”

The Other?  That statement rattled in his mind before dropping into his stomach where it lay like a stone.  “What?”

His companion looked up again.  “He does not trail you like a wolf pursuing a hare, but he knows that I, too, roam these lands.  And he has learned I harbor a youth.  You do not threaten him in the present, but if he ever found you, he would destroy you to protect his future.”

This sudden turn in the conversation sent prickles from his chest and through his arms to the tips of his fingers.  Malach always avoided the Other, but Cadwalader thought it was because the two pookas would clash over a major disagreement.

“Why do you tell me this now?”

“Because one day you will have to face the Other, and if you hope to survive, you will need allies.  Honor the memory of your friend, for he was a worthy ally.  But never allow his loss to haunt you, because his will not be the last.”

So this was his ulterior motive.  Did he believe the impact of this revelation would be softened by the despair that already resided within Cadwalader?  He swallowed hard.

“Was this your scheme all along?”

“Scheme?”  Malach regarded the scabbard as though contemplating if he should oil it.  “When I plucked you from that razed village, I was unsure why I even rescued you.  My kind believes we exist to goad humanity into destroying itself.  It should be easy.  The desires your hearts conceive are evil all the time.  But you survive because of a promise.”

He placed the scabbard on his lap and looked at Cadwalader.  “The Other is influencing the Roman outposts to indulge in their worst vices.  When he has gathered enough soldiers to sweep through the land, he will release them upon your people.  This I have learned over the last few years.”

“And … you expect me to stop them?”  He gaped at his companion.  “Wait, are you not meddling in the affairs of men?”

“This time I attempt to defend.  I have come to believe it was not by accident I discovered you.  You have always … stood your ground.  Perhaps for the selfish purpose of seeking my own redemption, I can facilitate that quality within you.”

If this was what it meant for his usually reserved companion to become talkative, Cadwalader liked him better the other way.

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“Because deception is natural to me, and I am attempting to be … unnatural.  Instead of concealing my speculations, I shall attempt to be honest.  And that is why I must also tell you that the hardest thing you will ever have to do is stand back when others are at risk.”

Cadwalader stared at him, and even gazed at those unsettling eyes for a few seconds.  The pooka did possess capabilities regarded as magic, but used them sparingly.  Was he indulging in one that Cadwalader hadn’t known about before tonight?

“Can you also see the future?”

“I have lived enough centuries to determine what is truth for men.”  Malach rose to his feet and began fastening the scabbard back to its belt.  “It will soon be too dark to see.  We should return to the village and turn over the artifacts we found.”

Cadwalader picked up the leather satchel near his feet, and fell into step with his companion as they skirted around the meadow.

There was no doubt this qualified as one of the worst days of his life, and yet this was the occasion Malach chose to inform him it was only going to get worse.  He still wasn’t sure he appreciated his steward’s new openness.  But if the pooka was going to be more candid now, maybe he would answer a question that had perplexed Cadwalader for years.

“Why did you turn from your previous path?”

Malach glanced toward him, and his lips curled down in that suppressed and familiar smirk.

“Can one person change the world?”

###

So here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Gloom.  You’ve got to expect all kinds of great stories from that one, so don’t miss out!

27 thoughts on “Peering into the Abyss

  1. Redolent with the gloom of the time of day, the aftermath of battle which despite the dying only counts as raid and anger of a death of a comrade Cadwalader sees as avoidable.
    Including a pooka, a traditionally ambivalent being out of Celtic folk lore adds another layer of gloom, the uncertainty the hero finds himself in.
    Deftly all woven into the style of the legends of Britons and Irish.
    And I also liked the inclusion of the opening question at the end, suddenly turning the direction of the conversation around.
    Good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A new turn of writing away from Sci-Fi Abe or is this a trend I’ve missed in absentia? Either way it’s good dialogue. Somber and gives that internal post battle angst once the dust has settled. Something I used a few times with Yish and Naz. I find it challenging my own thoughts of warriors after the bloodshed is over.

    Another interesting character in the shapeshifter….if that’s the pooka variant you’ve adopted. Always good to see folklore blending into fantasy epics….for this could indeed be one of those yes?

    Really enjoyed this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and as usual these are background characters to an idea I’ll novelize eventually. They’ve turned up before in the previous months, and may again. 🙂 Malach isn’t really a pooka, but that’s the being people in this place and time would identify him as. Yes, more of a fantasy feel in this perspective, but sci-fi is lurking in the shadows….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ahh tech issue caused by updates on the iPad. Defaults to block pop ups which is how WP functions to link my blog to here so I can comment as me. Learn things every day haha. Novelise eventually… I think we are on the same page with that one! Is your use of Pooka more a title of position then. A sort of Master of Arts or something akin to that? Or a species maybe. Nothing stopping him shape shift though 😂

    Seems to me you can write in both zones Abe. How about a hybrid one next time? And what happened to IMP. Did it get novelised or remain a novella?

    Liked by 1 person

    • This isn’t the first time I’ve admitted my distrustful attitude toward modern technology was one of the influences in why I chose to write some books that take it down. 🙂 Hope you get it worked out! As for Pooka, his real identity must remain in the shadows for now. One challenge with using BB to develop backstory is keeping certain details that could be crucial to that eventual book under cover. As far as our friend the IMP, the novella, with its bonus chapter, is available. He will receive some acknowledgment when I write the planned novel … and … (don’t tell anybody) he will get a minor mention in next month’s story….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Seems to be ok now Abe. Just wish updates would leave settings alone. Half the time I’ve forgotten what I did to sort it out when the next update hits and it’s back to head scratching. Does it with blue tooth on my iPad. If I wanted it on I’d turn it on so why Apple think it should be on after updating is anybodies guess #conspiracytheory.

        I hear you on not giving everything away. My back story stories are pretty much just that. The actual writing draws off them. I think I’ve said before they help me get to know the world build and characters better.

        I’ll have to root out that novella. It’s been so long away I’m very out of touch on old new stuff! Does IMP fit next months prompt then….I assume you already know what it is yes 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • Technology types seem unaware of the saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Hopefully it will continue to behave for you, although it seems to me each time I add a new post WP has tweaked something.

        If it helps, the novella is available for free at just about every ebook retailer. Yes, I’ve taken advantage of my prior knowledge…. 🙂 Don’t get too excited about an IMP reappearance – it’s really just a reference. Will the elf and dwarf be making a reappearance soon?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have the novella upon my kindle now. Will probably have loads of reading time while in hernia operation recovery soon. That could be true for writing come to think of it! As for tech…how hard can it be for an update to save current settings. They even max out the screen brightness to make the battery life drop. What’s that all about I often ask.

        I am currently pondering an angle for next month. I think both might end up in it. Not touched base with them for…how long was it? That said I also need to test some words from an actual start on this epic tale too. I was working on it before the missing year 🤔

        Liked by 1 person

      • Here’s wishing you a safe and speedy recovery after the operation! Writers are probably about the only people, who, when they’re sidelined, think ‘This is an opportunity to get more work done.’ 🙂 Hoping and looking forward to seeing what you come up with next month!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Abe. Hopefully it’s straight forward although lifting anything for two weeks suddenly seems tricky! Loving the optimistic words about writers haha. Can’t say I’d thought of that in that way before…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This was awesome! Recently, with another blogger, I was debating the importance of plot/action vs. character. Action is my personal preference. I like it when things are happening. But this piece showcases how SO much can happen while nothing is really happening. Two characters are just talking and yet… it’s magic. The conflict between ‘father’ and ‘son’ was great. A great – coming of age – milestone in that relationship. Then, we had wisdom from Malach and an ending that makes us want more. Perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Action is definitely fun to read … and quite difficult to write. 🙂 Is there a ‘versus’ between plot/action and character? It seems like a (vicious) cycle: Caring about the character contributes to making an action scene intense; endangering a character in an action scene helps make you care for him. Glad to hear you enjoyed the dialogue!

      Liked by 1 person

      • On the one hand, you could give yourself more credit. 😉 Yet on the other hand, that eternal striving to write better is a big motivator for us. I suspect that even Shakespeare went to his grave thinking, ‘They’re going to find out I’m an imposter….’

        Liked by 1 person

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