Shattered Nightmares.

by Meredith Monaghan ©

"O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." --Hamlet

* * * * * * *

The young monk gazed steadily into the flickering heart of the campfire. Slowly he extended a hand and, still staring at the flame, curled his outstretched fingers into the palm of his hand. He reached out his other arm, opened both his hands, and repeated the motion, soundlessly calling into his mind the images in the center of the blaze, practicing the nightly meditations that bound him further to the Spirits of Fire.

Willingly the flame responded to its disciple, allowing him to perceive first his immediate surroundings, then, gradually, the areas farther out. He first watched the campsite, noting his sleeping companions Leah and Cyrus quietly entwined in each other's arms. Slowly he extended his consciousness beyond the tranquil encampment into the forest beyond the clearing they had chosen. Swaying, creaking pine trees...towering oaks heavy with leaves ready to fall...somewhere a doe resting with her twin young...

Then, suddenly, an onslaught of bitter cold, ripping at his bones, tearing him away from the supporting embrace of the fire, battering away at his consciousness, ravaging his soul. There was a hiss and then a dull crack as the flames of the campfire froze solid and shattered on the ground. Reeling from the shock of being torn from his flame-projection so abruptly, Thaeth tried to stagger to his feet.

Snatching arms were there to grasp him and yank him away, their vicious movements silenced by a bone-shattering iciness that dared even atoms to try to shudder. Still flailing in his mind to shake off the stupor brought on by the cold, he tried to channel his own life-energy into the heat that would keep him alive...but with no result. Exhausted from trying to resist the frost that slashed at him, Thaeth finally slipped into hellish unconsciousness, clawing to bring a last breath of warm air into his lungs...

One of the two priestesses carrying him signalled to her companion to lower the spell that had incapacitated the cleric. "Enough," she cautioned. "We don't want to kill him, and we can't awaken those two," she continued, gesturing to the monk's slumbering companions. "The sleep-dweomer can't last forever. We need to bring this one back to the High Lady." She let go of Thaeth's sagging body with one hand, took hold of a bright blue jewel which hung from her neck, and muttered a few words. A glowing white-blue spot of light appeared and grew into a portal hanging in empty space. "Quickly, now," the woman snapped. "There's not much time."

"But why not just take the others, too?" asked the second woman.

"Orders," retorted the first. "Let's go." She and her companion dragged their quarry through the glowing gateway and into the void beyond it. Slowly, the passage closed behind them, growing smaller and smaller until it again became a blue-white dot and finally disappeared.

Still locked in their enchanted sleep, Leah and Cyrus slept on.

* * * * * * *

A gentle sort of shaking sensation...soft hands caressing her hair and shoulders...a whisper in her ear, "Wake up, darling..."

By this time, she was almost awake, but as usual, she waited for his kiss as her cue to yawn, stretch, and finally wake up. It came, a gentle brush across her lips, and she slowly let her ice-blue eyes open, adjusting to the bright light of morning. She smiled, stretched out her arms, and threw them around him. "Good morning, Cyrus," she murmured sleepily.

He returned the hug and carefully lifted her to a sitting position. "Good morning, love," he replied. "Better start getting ready. We've got a ways to go before breakfast."

She made a face. "Breakfast where?"

"The Crimson Dragon Inn, if I remember right."

Leah sighed. "Well...I suppose I can wait." She dug around in the pocket of her swordsman's blouse and pulled out a short strip of leather, then used it to tie back her waist-length auburn hair. She stood up, stretched again, and looked around. When she turned back to him, her face wore a quizzical look. "Where's Thaeth?"

Cyrus stood up and glanced into the trees. "I'm not sure. Maybe he went hunting for something to restock the food pack."

Leah narrowed her eyebrows and held her chin in one hand, trying to think. "No...that wouldn't make sense. He's a monk. I doubt he even knows how to use a bow in the first place. If anyone were hunting, anyway, it'd be you with your crossbow."

"True," Cyrus admitted. "All right, any other ideas?"

She thought for a moment. "Well, Think we should try to call for him?"

"No, not really. I don't know what it would attract. I don't know if I want to know."

She paced around the campsite, scuffing dust from the ground. "Damn. All we can do is wait, then. Even more time to wait till breakfast," she muttered. Just then, her boot kicked up a small hard crystal-like object which hit the ground and splintered again. She instantly knelt down and picked up a shard to examine it.

It was a sharp, mostly-clear piece of material, like glass, only colder. As she held it up to the light, she saw glints of ice-blue and orange-red flashing off its surface and buried within its depths. Inspecting even closer, she saw tiny traces of vapor rising from its surface -- the stone was evaporating away. As it began to disintegrate, it became colder and colder, burning her fingers with its iciness. It hissed menacingly, freezing her hands, and she tossed it away, half-frightened.

"What is it?" asked Cyrus, looming over her shoulder.

"I don't know," she told him. "Whatever it is, though, I don't like it."

He stepped back for a moment and looked around. "Leah?" he said. "Look over here."

She followed his gaze and saw similar chunks lying in a trail across the grass, toward the campfire. Together they scrambled to the fire and stared at it in disbelief. The half-burned logs were rimed with frost; some were shattered from within. Shards of the same blue-iridescent stones surrounded the dead fire like shrapnel from an explosion.

"Whatever happened here, it got incredibly cold incredibly fast," Cyrus observed. "I don't know what it would be, though."

Leah clenched his hand tightly, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. "I think I know," she said, slowly and quietly. "And I don't think I want to find out."

"What?" he asked, looking around. "Who could turn a campfire into solid ice that quickly?"

"Someone I once knew," she replied softly. "Someone I thought I had left forever."

* * * * * * *

They left the campsite as fast as they could, scattering the remains of the frozen fire and dividing Thaeth's belongings among them. "Forget breakfast at the Crimson Dragon," said Leah. "We'll forage along the way, but we have to head north. It's the only place he could be."

"I still don't understand who could have done it," Cyrus said, arranging his backpack and crossbow comfortably and picking up his staff. "Why all the secrecy?"

"I'm not sure if I'm ready to explain it yet," she told him. "And I still don't know why it's still doesn't make much sense. I promise, though, I'll explain once I've figured out the best plan of action."

"All right," he answered. "If you need time, that's fine with me. North, you said?"

She nodded, and he took the lead, instinctively plotting a course that led as close to due north as was possible amid the trees and bracken of the Torenash Forest.

Time, she said to herself, is one thing I'm afraid we don't have much of.

There's only one person it could be, she thought as they walked. It has to be Rhonwen. Nobody else has that kind of power. But why Thaeth? I was right there sleeping. What could they possibly want with him?

And it's my fault that they took him, too...if he'd never come with me, she'd never have had any cause to hurt him.

No. Stop thinking like that, Leah. She took him, yes, that's true, but there was nothing you could have done about it, and he chose to come along. It was his own rational decision. Would it have been better never to have left?

Of course not.

I'll go back to free him, but I'll be damned if I'm going back to stay.

They made their way through the foliage as the sun crept across the sky, turning morning into late morning and finally noon. "Can we stop?" he asked as they entered another clearing. "I know we've got to conserve rations, but I haven't seen anything remotely edible yet, and the way we're going, there's no inn till we reach Glacian Hold, and no one in their right mind would stop there, even for a bite to eat."

She sighed. "You're right...I'd like to keep going, but we need food if we want to keep a good pace. All right, break out the rations, then."

They sat down at the edge of the ring of trees, and Cyrus took from his pack two small leather-wrapped parcels. He handed one to Leah, and they opened the packages and started in on them. "Could you at least tell me where we're going?" he asked, swallowing a bite of hardtack.

"Glacian Hold," she answered, and he almost coughed up the bread.

"Why in all hells are we going there?" he demanded. "What would the witches there want with Thaeth?"

"I don't think it's him they want," she answered miserably. "It's --"

There was a vicious crack-sound as a branch from a tree above them snapped and fell to earth, shattering into a million icy pieces.

"Quick! Get up!" Leah shrieked, scrambling to her feet. Her swords were out in a heartbeat, and she took up a fighting stance as six women robed in glittering white advanced into the clearing. A crossbow bolt whizzed past her from behind and struck one of them in the shoulder, and the woman fell back screaming. She looked back and saw Cyrus frantically trying to reload. "There's no time!" she yelled. "Get in close so they don't have room to get any spells off!" With that, she set her blades forward and locked her elbows at her sides, then charged the nearest sorceress.

The woman grinned evilly and withdrew from her sheath a crystalline, blue-tinged sword of her own.

Oh, hells, Leah said to herself, pulling up short. Divisators...

As the white-robed woman advanced, Leah drew her into a complicated defensive pattern. Each blow she struck weakened her opponent's position, and as the woman began to falter, Leah launched a right cross with her sword hilt straight into the Divisator's jaw. The woman fell backward, unconscious, and Leah ducked down to shatter the crystal blade. A split second later, a gout of ice speared directly into a tree ahead of her, and a voice from behind uttered a nasty curse. She spun around on all fours and saw a second sorceress preparing another spell to fire at her. Immediately, she sprinted a few steps forward and caught the woman with a crushing elbow to the ribs. As the witch doubled over, Leah pounded her in the chest and heard a muffled crunch.

"My aumin!" the woman cried, staggering backward as if she'd been hit with an arrow. "You shattered my Source!" Weaponless and defenseless, she fled into the forest, leaving Leah with four more enemies to face.

The four remaining witches had all beset Cyrus, who was rapidly losing ground as he tried to fend them off with his quarterstaff. One of them already had the immense scout in a headlock, hanging from his neck a good foot and a half off the ground and slowly choking him. Two Divisators dodged the blows from his staff as they tried to come close enough to use their swords, and the fourth was standing a few feet away, performing some sort of ritual. Leah skirted around the Divisators and kicked the first woman in the small of the back. She gasped and toppled to the ground, and Cyrus staggered backward and away from the Divisators. Leah rushed to his side, and they each took on one Divisator.

Leah rapidly lost awareness of the area outside the melee, absorbing herself in the dance of the blades. Every thrust met with a wicked parry and riposte; she found herself having to change her footing every few seconds, trying to keep up with the woman's vicious slices.

"Leah! To the right!"

The voice was Cyrus's, and she reacted instinctively, spinning right and ducking a swing she hadn't known was coming from the woman whom she thought had a broken back. The blade came in again, and this time she parried it with her shortsword and skewered the woman with the broadsword in her other hand.

Before she had a chance to recover from overbalancing herself in the lunge, though, the pommel of a sword came down hard on the back of her head, and she fell sprawling, barely conscious. Head swimming, she couldn't even find the coordination to stand as the sorceress opened a shining blue portal and the Divisators dragged Cyrus through it. The ethereal disc shrank back to nothingness, leaving her alone in the eerily silent glen.

It was only then that she finally fell unconscious, tears streaming from her eyes.

* * * * * * *

Leah crouched in the shadows behind the walls of Glacian Hold, clutching her aumin and watching the Divisators who guarded the crystalline gates. She pulled her robes around her for warmth, checked to make sure her satchel was on securely, then whispered a few words over the aumin and pointed at the far wall. A few stones cracked from the intense cold, causing little damage but a loud noise that attracted the guards' attention, and for just a few seconds, they left the gate unguarded.

It wasn't much time, but it was enough for Leah to slip out the gate and into the woods beyond.

She traveled quietly, listening all around for any sign of soldiers following her, but she heard nothing but the unfamiliar sounds of the Torenash at night. As soon as she was a good six or seven miles away, she stopped and took off her aumin. A quick search turned up a fist-sized rock which would do the job nicely. She held the stone in one hand and the chain of the aumin in the other, then swung the amulet at the rock. A slight pain shot through her head as the gemstone split into countless tiny shards, but it fled as quickly as it had arrived. She swept the pieces into a little pile, then dug a hole and buried the remains of the amulet.

Picking up her backpack, she continued into the night...

* * * * * * *

Leah awoke with a start. How long had she been out? She tentatively reached a hand up to the back of her head and felt the lump that had risen there, then winced. That was a bump that would be there for a long time.

She had dreamed while she was unconscious, dreamed of her escape from Glacian Hold four years ago. Breaking an aumin destroys the power of whoever belongs to it, she thought. It breaks the link. I thought breaking my link would sever me from Rhonwen. Maybe I was wrong; maybe I have to break both halves.

All right. I can do that.

She stood up, shook her head groggily, and picked up her swords. She cleaned them off on the grass, re-sheathed them, then recovered what she could from the packs she and Cyrus had carried.

Then she was off northward again, north to Cyrus, Thaeth, and Glacian Hold.

* * * * * * *

Just like I remembered it, thought Leah, gazing at the fortress from within the cover of the trees. Same towers, same walls...same hatred.

She set her pack down, adjusted her swordbelt, and walked calmly to the front gate. She stopped a few meters away from the castle itself, then looked up at the twin turrets and the top of the wall. I am here. But I will not stay here. Not for long. I am my own person. Not hers. Mine.

She took a deep breath. "I am here to see Rhonwen ab Mathau!" Leah shouted to whoever was there to hear. Seconds later, the front gate was open, and she was flanked by Divisators with pikes pointing dangerously close. She held her hands out in front of her as even more women poured out of the gates, ready to fend off the intruder. "I demand parley with Rhonwen ab Mathau!"

"Who are you?" snarled one of the guards, jabbing her with the blunt end of a pike. "What do you want with the High Lady?"

"I must speak with her," Leah growled back. "She's stolen... something of value to me."

"The High Lady answers to no one!" shouted another guard. "Tell the truth, now! Why do you come here armed?"

"To defend myself from the likes of you," Leah snapped, shoving the woman away. "Let me talk to Rhonwen ab Mathau, damn your eyes!"

"Why, you little brat!" snarled the guard. "One more word from you, and I'll --"

"That's enough, Dalia," came a voice from atop the castle wall. All eyes turned in the direction of the new speaker -- a tall, pale woman with hair halfway between blonde and grey. Like the rest of her compatriots, she too wore the soft, white, faintly glittering robes of a sorceress of Glacian Hold. "This is between myself and our new guest." She looked down at the prisoner and smiled. "Hello, Leah."

Leah crossed her arms over her chest and met the woman's stare. "Hello, Mother."

"It has been quite a while since last you visited us, daughter."

"Since I ran away, you mean. Don't mince words."

Rhonwen chuckled. "At least you have come back to us. Should we kill the fatted calf now?"

"Don't set your hopes too high. I'm here to reclaim what you stole, and then I'll be leaving again."

"Stole? Why, whatever do you mean?" asked Rhonwen mockingly.

"Thaeth and Cyrus, Mother. Your Divisators took Thaeth while we slept, then kidnapped Cyrus -- after almost killing me. They're not yours, Mother. Let them go."

"Well, if they're not mine, then they're certainly not yours either. That's a bit hypocritical of you, don't you think?"

"You're putting words in my mouth. As usual. Of course they're not mine. They are their own people, and I demand you let them go."

"But of course, my dear! For a price, anyway. Always for a price."

"They're not items to be bought and sold--they're human beings, and I demand you let them go."

"Ah, but who has them now? Oh yes -- I do. How silly of me to forget." She chuckled. "The price is quite small. Call it an exchange, if you will. You stay here -- and they're free to go."

Realization dawned on Leah's face. "You kidnapped them as bait to bring me here, didn't you? You've wanted me back ever since I ran away four years ago. I'm your child, Mother -- not your property! You have no claim on me any more!"

"You are by birth a sorceress of Glacian Hold," replied Rhonwen calmly. "That in itself is claim enough."

"Not if I reject my birthright!" Leah snapped back. "I destroyed my Source as soon as I possibly could. I'm a swordmistress now, no mage. Not by any stretch of the imagination."

"A birthright is a birthright. It is your duty."

"The only duties I have are the ones I give myself! No other living being has the right to lay such a burden on me!"

Rhonwen only smiled. "However, my dear, you are in a very poor position for bargaining." She made a quick motion with her left hand. Two guards ran to the gates and pulled them the rest of the way open, and Leah stifled a gasp at what she saw.

Two blocks of ice stood just inside the gate, each one about seven feet tall. Suspended in each was a person, caught out of time in a ghastly rictus: Thaeth frozen in one, and Cyrus prisoned in the other. Leah closed her hands about her sword-hilts and rushed at the blocks, but guards caught her on each side before she could reach them and held her, struggling.

"My offer stands," Rhonwen continued. "You stay here and they go free. Or, you continue along your way and leave your friend and lover as captives with me."

"I'm no use to you any more!" cried Leah. "Without an aumin I'm no good as a sorceress. You're only doing this out of spite!"

"Perhaps I am," the woman grinned. "That, however, is of no consequence. You have heard my offer, and there will be no other. Choose wisely, now. Would you really want to leave your companions to such a fate?"

"There is another way," said Leah.

"I don't have to listen to it," replied Rhonwen.

"Yes, you do. The hlethfeir. The duel of honor."

For a moment the self-satisfied smile left Rhonwen's face, but just as quickly it crept back onto her features. "You, challenge me? An untrained brat duel the High Lady of Glacian Hold?"

"The challenge stands. And, as challenger, I claim my right to name my prize. Should I win, Thaeth and Cyrus and I all go free."

"And I, as the challenged, name my prize. Should I win, you will remain here until the end of your days. You will also cease the study of the sword -- but only after you have slain both Thaeth and Cyrus with your own weapons."

Leah swallowed. If she rejected Rhonwen's winner-demand, the woman had every right to refuse the challenge. It was a risky decision...but her only other option was Rhonwen's original "bargain." She tried not to look at the immense ice blocks, and formed her face into an expressionless mask. "Agreed."

"Done, then!" shouted Rhonwen. "Guards, escort my daughter into the courtyard. We shall fight the duel there." She disappeared back into one of the turrets as the crowd of sentries shoved Leah before them past the enormous ice-cubes and inside the walls of Glacian Hold.

A small square outlined by wooden posts stood in the center of the courtyard. Leah forced her hands to stop trembling as she stood alone in the enclosure, a fierce breeze ruffling her hair. No, not alone exactly: dozens of onlookers thronged the patch of grass where she awaited Rhonwen. She had plenty of company physically; but every spectator stood ready to cheer her opponent, wanted to see her blood spilled on the grass, expected her to lose.

That, however, was not an option.

A high, cackling shout went up from the crowd as Rhonwen emerged from the corner tower. Leah clutched her swordhilts, then released them; clutched, then released; working out the nervousness which sought to betray her movements and sacrifice the fight to her mother. Almost casually, Rhonwen made her way through the morass of women to stand in the opposite end of the makeshift arena. "My daughter," she announced, "are you certain you wish to continue this charade? It would be much less painful if you simply conceded defeat now."

Leah shook her head. "No. You know what I came for. I'll leave with Cyrus and Thaeth, or you'll bury me here. Once again: You have no right to my life. Only I do. And there's nothing you can do to stop that, either."

The woman simply grinned. "We shall see." With that, she pointed and hurled a glassy bolt of ice straight at Leah.

Only instinct could have screamed "Duck!" at her, but whatever the cause, Leah hit the ground stomach-first an instant before the icy shaft lanced over her head. A moment later, she was up and running, ducking and weaving randomly to confuse Rhonwen and keep her from establishing a firm firing pattern. One shot flew straight at her, but this time she saw it and leaped up, executing a perfect back flip into the wind to keep her balance when she landed. Her feet came down lightly, and she suddenly found herself scrabbling for a foothold on an arena floor that was now covered in a sheet of ice. The stiff leather soles of her boots had little traction with the slick surface, and her legs splayed out awkwardly, dumping her on her face. Expecting a barrage of freezing darts to skewer into her at any second, she struggled to push herself to one of the side-posts of the arena.

Rhonwen's rapid castings had tired her, though, and Leah saw her panting at the other end of the square, trying to regain enough energy for a final incapacitating blow. She gripped her swords tightly, then plunged them into the sheet of ice, using them like ski poles to drag herself to the side. It worked much more quickly than trying to crawl had, and she lay on her stomach on the ice with her legs tucked firmly against a post. She held her blades out in front of her for streamlining, faced Rhonwen, and shoved off from the post.

The wind whipped at her face as she careened across the ice. The sword in her right hand kicked up from the turbulence, and a poorly aimed ice bolt snapped it off halfway. That could have been my head was all Leah had time to think before she crashed into Rhonwen at full force. She grabbed the woman's shoulders to pull herself up, then snapped the aumin off her neck before Rhonwen had a chance to reorient herself. She swung the amulet at the nearest post, and it bounced off unharmed.

"Little fool," sneered Rhonwen. "Did you not expect that the aumin of the High Lady would be infinitely more powerful--more durable--than that of a seventeen-year-old apprentice?" She snatched for the necklace, caught the chain, and tried to jerk it away from Leah. They sawed back and forth, each trying to gain possession of the little amulet -- and finally the chain snapped under the stress. The pendant sailed into the air, and both mother and daughter leapt to their feet. Rhonwen's long, thin arms stretched far above Leah's reach...

...but Leah still had one sword left.

The aumin glinted, catching the dying light of the setting sun as it spiraled earthward. Rhonwen gave a cry of triumph as it fell toward her hands -- but it turned into an anguished scream as Leah's other blade intercepted the tumbling amulet, cleaving it in two perfect halves. Rhonwen tottered wildly and fell to the ice, clutching her head and screaming. The destroyed aumin landed a few yards away, unneeded, and Rhonwen's agonized howling subsided into a low moan and then silence.

The entire crowd leaned closer, stymied at the defeat of its leader, and a disturbing tremor began to rumble through the audience.

"Kill me," whispered Rhonwen.


"They call for my death. A leader with no power is useless to them. Kill me."

"No. Your life is your own. I can't stop you from ending it yourself, but I won't kill you."

"You murdered one of my Divisators in the forest. You can kill me."

"She was a direct threat to me. You can hurt me no longer. There is no reason to. Not any more."

"My minions will hunt you down. Power or no power, I will find a way to own you again."

"Until they choose a new High Lady. Then you will have no one to command."

"And then I'll learn the art of the sword, or of the assassin, and I'll hunt you again."

"And I'll defeat you again. But I refuse to kill you."

"If you don't, I'll find you and destroy you. And I will laugh as I do it," hissed Rhonwen.

"I could, you know. It would be easy -- just slide the blade between your ribs and watch you die. I must admit, it would be just revenge for all you've put me through, both now and when I was a child." A grim smile crept across Rhonwen's face, but Leah's remained completely impassive. "But I won't. It would be so easy. But if I'd be just what you wanted me to do." The emotionless mask finally slipped from her face, and a look of near-regret clouded her features.

"It's too late, Mother. Goodbye." She re-sheathed her remaining sword, then turned and walked away. The crowd of sorceresses converged upon the prostrate Rhonwen, but Leah held her head rigidly forward, refusing to look. There was a wail, a ripping noise, a hiss like that of hot water splashing onto ice, and then silence.

When Leah destroyed the aumin, the blocks of ice had begun to melt -- their magic preservation denied them -- and Thaeth and Cyrus now stood ankle-deep in puddles of water that were quickly flowing away into the frozen ground. Leah broke into a run when she saw them, and Cyrus swept her into a crushing yet tender hug. A few minutes later, they finally let go and looked around. The entire citadel appeared deserted, except for a small bloodsmear toward one side of the arena. Leah turned away, shuddering, and Cyrus put a comforting arm around her shoulder. Thaeth moved ahead of them and pushed the gate back open, and the three of them made their way back into the Torenash Forest to resume their journey.


About the author, Meredith Monaghan:

Meredith Monaghan is a creative writing major at the University of Houston, where she enjoys defying her professors' mandates against writing speculative fiction. She edits the fanzine "Wintersmith Dreams", and has too many projects on deck to count, from short stories to screenplays to novels to comic books. She lives in Houston, with her husband, a roommate and not surprisingly, a plethora of cats.

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