Its been entirely too cute and fuzzy around here today. Time for something a little more dramatic.
He raised his eyes and squinted. The leaves fluttering in the wind allowed only glimpses of the rocky outcropping that was his goal. ‘It must be just ahead,’ he thought as he shifted the weight of his pack and continued his ascent.
He had seen the cave from afar, standing silent on the high rocky hilltop. The climb would be steep and treacherous, but necessary. He needed some solitude and space to deal with the challenge he carried on his back.
As he picked his way over an old rockslide something in his pack moved, nearly unsettling his balance.
‘Cursed thing would like to see me dead wouldn’t it?’ he grimaced as he corrected himself with his lance and cinched his baggage tighter. The thing inside gave a muffled squawk. Wrapped in rags and restrained with leather straps within the satchel, the creature eventually settled from its outburst.
The prophet had given him this ‘gift’. But ever since then things had not been what they seemed. The thing had escaped from him, and with dire consequences. Left to itself it became a murderous wraith that haunted him for reasons he didn’t understand. The creature had been recaptured shortly after he had left Beril behind. Even now, its hate manifested itself at every opportunity as it fought for vengeance and freedom.
Beril had been his ‘Tol-ha’, or warrior pet, for almost as long as he could remember, but now he was alone, without any such guardian. He knew the journey back home beyond the mountain would be perilous. Without a respectable Tol-ha to aid him he was forced to tame this ragged, hateful creature that had caused him so much trouble.
He broke from the tree line further east of the cave than he had intended. It would be a steeper climb to reach the cave now. He doubted himself for a moment, wondering whether it was worth the struggle to reach what he only hoped was a suitable place. He would need a good sized cave to keep the flying wretch contained if he was ever going to subdue it. He was an excellent tamer and trainer; it was something that had come naturally to him, perhaps from his early days spent foraging alone in the wilderness. He had helped many to control and unlock the powers of their Tol-ha. Thanks to the might of his own Tol-ha, Beril the mighty bear, he had become well known as both a Tol-ha trainer and a warrior.
His own Tol-ha… His foot slipped on a jagged rock as he recalled what had happened with Beril. He had risked his life on this journey to bring Beril to the Hoi for help. Beril had been growing progressively more weak despite his best care and effort. The prophet had sent them to find the Hoi, mythical creatures said to be the keepers and breeders of all Tol-ha. He had found them, despite all the rumors that they did not exist. But they had not given him the answers that he had hoped.
The strange Hoi determined that Beril somehow did not belong to him, that he was the Tol-ha of some other. He had not been aware that a Tol-ha could not have more than one master in its lifetime. The idea didn’t seem possible to him as Beril had always been with him. Despite his protests and no small struggle, they had taken Beril. With no further explanation they left him to make the journey back with only the pestilent thing that he now carried in his pack.
The air above the tree line was hot and dusty under the glaring sun, but a breeze blew over the mountain top, carrying a refreshing coolness from the last remnants of the passing spring. The breeze offered a taste of comfort from the dry heat and the heavy weight on his mind. Every member of his race had a Tol-ha, the news that Beril was not his left him alone and an outcast from everything he had known. He knew the mystery was somehow related to that prophet and the ‘gift’ that he would now have to tame and make his own. But he hated the creature.
He was a noble man, as strong and courageous as the bear Beril that had been his guardian. He couldn’t accept that the pathetic, mangy bird was his true Tol-ha. What did that say about him? To be tied to a filthy carrion eating beast would surely repulse any of his own countrymen. He couldn’t stand the thought, but he also couldn’t deny the signs.
Reaching the mouth of the cave he felt the cool dampness flowing out of it, and smelled the scent of the moss and lichen that grew within its seclusion. He paused at the mouth of the cave and rested with his lance against his shoulder. He would need his strength. Though others had tried, he was the only one who had been able to restrain the magic of the creature. His arms were tense and his muscles refused to relax despite the long climb.
‘Let’s get this over with.’ He needed to tame the beast only well enough to assist and help him on the treacherous journey home. After that he would find some way to rid himself of it. Perhaps he could give it back to the prophet, or trade it for a respectable creature he could train.
He clenched his fists as he stood and entered the cavern. He found the inside to be much larger than anticipated. Its ceiling was high above, concealed in shadows. The floor sloped smoothly down towards anterior passageways opening in the cleaved rock that lead to down into the heart of the mountain.
He pulled his pack from his back and tossed it into the corner, grunting with disdain as the creature within complained at the abuse. He stooped and carefully untied the leather straps that bound the squirming bundle of rags. At last, only one cord remained and dark ragged feathers could be seen under the unraveling fabric.
Standing back a safe distance he extended his spear and deftly cut the last strap. The creature sensed its release and paused its squirming as if in disbelief at its freedom. With a shake the rags fell and revealed the tattered form of the misshapen black raven.
The dark bird glared at the man with one of its sunken amber eyes. With a croak it leapt into the air straight toward its captor, straight toward the window of blue sky behind him. It stooped low, intending to rake its talons at its former captor as it passed. But the man was swift. A quick swing of his spear and the tattered bird was thrown back to the floor of the cave.
The creature shook itself as it regained its heavy feet. It was an awkward looking a bird with beak and talons that seemed too large for its body. Again it glared at the man, and crouched low as its truer nature began to show.
From beneath its feathers a mist spread, filling the cave. The beast grew in size and savageness. This new form was nearly as large as the man. He watched it with wary eyes. He had seen such magical change in the creature before, and much worse. It was a powerful Tol-ha despite its disgraceful nature. The man had never seen nor heard of a raven Tol-ha, it was a hideous thing with its tattered wings and rasping breath.
‘Foul wraith,’ he said under his breath as he readied for the attack. He didn’t have to wait long. The creature lunged at him with serrated beak opened wide. He braced himself and forced his thoughts to remain steady. He knew the trick behind this beasts attack.
He stood motionless as it approached, their eyes locked. The mist around the bird intensified, surrounding it, becoming one with its now ghostly form. The beak closed sharply on the man with an antithetical silence as the entire creature passed through him like a phantom. Its strike had no effect.
That was the secret to defeating the wraith. So long as he faced the thing head on without defense or without counter its attacks were rendered ineffective, passing through him like a shadow. But to react or even flinch would allow the beast to strike.
It was indeed a powerful Tol-ha. It could become a wraith and vanish into a shadowy mist reappearing nearly anywhere. He’d seen it do so when it had stalked him in the wilderness. The creature recoiled and darted to the back of the cave. He watched as it renewed its former tricks and vanished into its own mist in the shadows only to reappear on the opposite side of the cavern. Vanishing again it appeared above him as it surged toward the mouth of the cave.
But again the trainer was too swift. He leapt this time and thrust firmly with his spear. He struck the creature on its nose, diverting it, and causing it to lash out and tear his shoulder with a scaly taloned foot.
Both fell to the ground in the dimly lit cavern.
“Cursed thing,” he grunted, picking up his weapon. The furious raptor began to circle him now, crawling in its awkward way on its feet and the wrists of its wings. It hissed and croaked its hatred toward him, forgetting or diverting from its initial intentions of escape. The glare of the man’s eyes reflected the creature’s sentiments.
He lunged at the beast striking with his spear, but it quickly vanished. His heart beat in his ears and the sting of the tear in his shoulder filled his eyes with vengence. It was not like him to be so hateful. He was not given to a loss of temper, especially when working with animals, which was what he did best. But the loss of Beril, the injury to is shoulder and the disdain for creature before him, boiled over in a heated passion.
“CURSE YOU!!” he screamed at the beast. His voice echoed off of the immense cavern walls. The beast recoiled and returned with a bellow that merged with his own and resonated throughout the mountain walls.
He swung at the ethereal raptor again.
“WHY MUST YOU HAUNT ME?” he cried into the darkness. The thing snapped at him as he struck, but he dodged. The sounds of fierce cries from both man and beast filled the cave in a chaotic tumult of noise.
“If you were supposed to be my guardian, WHERE WERE YOU?” the sorrowful days of abandonment from his life before Beril had found him flashed through his mind like fire. Could it all have been a lie? How could this wretch, absent for so long have been his Tol-ha? Why had he been abandoned?
“I HATE YOU!” He stabbed with his spear no longer caring if he injured the beast. But the creature leapt aside and with one bite snapped his spear in pieces. The Tol-ha rammed him with its body, throwing him across the cave, and let out a fearsome call that shook dust from the cavern ceiling.
“… HATE YOU! …WHERE WERE YOU!,” the voice sounded like his own but it came out of the echoes of the ghostly bird.
“You abandoned me!”
Again the creature called as it rushed at him with a thrust of its great wings.
“…ABANDONED ME!” the echo called out again in his own voice.
“LIES,” he shouted as the creature collided with him. He gripped its matted feathers in his strong fists, refusing to let go. He felt it try to fade into the shadows to escape. But deep inside he knew that it was his Tol-ha and with all of his focus he restrained the magic, binding the creature in the physical.
He wrapped his arms around, trying to restrain its wings as it snapped and clawed at him.
“WHERE WERE YOU!” the echo came again.
“I am the one who was left alone!”
“…ALONE!” again his own words returned to him with vengeance.
The bird rolled, clawing at the man, forcing him to let go. Before he could stand it pounced on him and pinned him down in return.
“You ABANDONED ME wretch!”
“… ABANDONED ME!…” This time the man’s word and the creature’s echo in the cave overlapped so closely that they merged into a single cry of rage. He brought his legs up under the raptor and pushed the thing off with all of his might. Again he tackled the raven preventing it from shifting into the mist.
With his arms wrapped around it he felt the thin skin and ribs beneath its emaciated flesh. ‘The thing has been starved,’ he realized, and for a fleeting moment a twinge of pity rose in his heart.
The creature pressed into his wounded shoulder forcing him to shift his grip. He punched at its head and grappled with it again. Neither would surrender in the struggle. As the evening waned into twilight, and twilight into the dark night, the sounds of the battle continued to resonate throughout the mountain’s interior.
The man blinked hard as his head collided with the stone floor of the cave. A cool gleam of light distracted his attention. The gentle glow of dawn slipped through the mouth of the cave as rose stiffly again to face his foe.
It was dawn already. Had they really fought through the night. His body was fatigued beyond what he had known was possible, and yet the raven would not surrender.
He stood to his feet swaying and unsteady and prepared again to fight. The raven was feebly crawling away. He reached to grab it, but his own limbs were weak and sore.
The creature continued to drag itself away towards the corner of the cave. On the side opposite lay the satchel he had carried the day before. The man half limped, half crawled himself over to the bag and began to rummage through its contents. Producing a few morsels of dried fruit and a loaf of bread he leaned his back against the cave wall and began to eat.
“Arrwk,” the creature squawked angrily at the sight of the food.
“Hmph,” he looked at the now even more tattered and filthy creature with a grimace, and began to shove more food into his mouth. As he did he caught sight of his own hand in the ray of morning light that pierced to the back of the cave. It was dirty, scratched and bruised almost unrecognizable as his own. He felt his face, it was smeared with filth and blood, his eye was swollen and likely bruised. Looking again at the tattered creature, he recalled the isolated wanderings of his youth and the painful loneliness he had known as he had searched for his parents.
With a sigh the man broke off a piece of bread and held it out to the languid animal. The bird hissed and crouched, but inched ever so slightly closer. He gestured with the morsel. It squawked again and took one cautious step forward. But that was as far as the bird would come.
Finally, he threw the piece half way between them. The bread barely hit the ground before the black beak scooped it up and swallowed the food whole. The man chuckled under his breath and held out another piece. This time the raptor approached, cautiously crawling on its wings and feet. It snatched the offering and hopped back two paces to devour, but quickly returned when it had finished.
When both had had their fill, the dirty black raven returned to its opposite corner. Both rested their weary bodies there in the cave, and the raven’s appearance magically diminished as it slept.
A rustling sound awoke the man abruptly from his slumber. The morning rays that pierced the cave had been replaced by the brilliant glow of afternoon sun outside.
Looking for the sound he saw the bird’s silhouette at the cavern’s mouth. The creature looked over its shoulder at the man as he rose and slowly approached.
The raven was smaller now, though still three times larger than a normal bird. It looked up at him sideways with a glimmering eye as he joined it at the mouth of the cave overlooking the expanse of mountainous forests below.
They both took in the beauty of the landscape and together breathed in the fragrant air that wafted from below. The man looked again at the creature giving a knowing nod as it returned his gaze.
The bird clucked softly in reply and spread its great ebony wings. Hopping from the ledge the raven swooped low over the tree tops before thrusting itself upwards with powerful strokes from its mighty limbs. Higher and higher into the sky it soared as the man watched before finally disappearing into a cloud.
Returning to the cave he gathered his satchel, and the remains of his spear. It would take a several days to find a proper tree, and carve a replacement. Returning to the ledge he looked to the sky, and saw nothing but blue expanse. He made his way down the western slope alone, but with greater ease than when he had ascended. The Tol-ha was not to be tamed, but a truce, however tenuous, had been made. The Tol-ha would return to him in time. Until then he would journey and search for the truth about the past they undoubtedly shared.