– – –
P A R T T H R E E
The warband returned from Haides in a flash of light. As quickly as the piercing radiance swept them away from danger, it likewise dissipated, dissolving into the dark and delivering them under an open, twilight sky. Luik had never thought the stars looked so beautiful…
…neither had his heart’s love looked so beautiful. Though he could not see her face, Luik was sure Anorra slept soundly in his arms, breathing steadily, slumped against his chest. He turned quickly and realized the entire warband was with him, all in the King’s Garden, the portico and secret passage just to one side. They were back in Mt. Dakka, standing in the shadow of the palace.
“We’re—we’re home,” Jrio said. They all looked around in wonder.
“Aye,” Gorn replied, gazing at his hands and arms, turning them over and over. “That we are.” But those who knew him could hear the concern in his voice.
“Gorn, what is it?” Luik asked.
The warrior turned and held his arms up. He took a few steps forward and Luik noticed wet trails glistening on his cheeks in the starlight.
But the man simply continued to examine his forearms. “My scars,” he said. But there was more. “My—my pain is gone.”
At first no one understood.
Luik stepped forward to meet him. But the movement seized him. He met Gorn’s intense stare. “My leg,” Luik said softly. “It’s—”
No one spoke. Everyone among them began to check their bodies, moving limbs and rubbing wounds.
Luik’s heart leapt. Could it be? His first thought was…
Hot tears fighting to cloud his vision, he knelt and laid Anorra on the soft dew-covered grass. She stirred.
“Luik. Luik, is that you?”
Luik’s heart clutched in that moment as he searched her face for…
Her eyes opened beautiful and bright in the starlight. Very stars themselves.
“O Great God!” Luik yelled and pressed his forehead against hers. “You’re healed!” He sobbed heavily, and she wrapped her arms around his neck.
“We’re all healed,” Li-Saide added. Patting himself with little hands he said, “His presence has made us whole. Even my beard!”
All the wounds and bruises, all the ailments and breaks—everything had been touched by the Master’s Hand. Luik tried his best to regain his composure, but it was impossible. The flood of emotions was too great. For Anorra as well. Others gathered around them and shared in their overwhelming gratitude to the Most High. Surely He had done this.
Their cheers and cries made such a commotion that lamps flickered to life in the palace windows. Soon those abiding within joined them in the garden.
It was Benigan who spied him first. “Anondo!”
Everyone turned to see Ligeon’s King striding through the garden with his two other sisters on each side. A dazzling smile danced across his face as he surveyed everyone, their armor bloodied but their countenances bright.
Someone began clapping, and soon the throng was cheering for the wounded king, now whole. The healing power of the Most High had swept into the land of the living. Luik wondered how many had been touched by his Swift Sure Hand.
Anondo moved through the crowd, embracing each of his countrymen, kissed on the neck by the Dibor and beat on the back by the rest of the Lion Vrie. He looked to Luik and saw a blonde beauty standing beside him. Though her hair was unkempt and she wore a thick blanket to cover her tattered clothes, he knew her glowing features all too well.
“An—Anorra,” he stammered, overcome with joy. “You live!” He stumbled toward her with tears streaming down his face. He hoisted his sister aloft and spun her around. “Anorra, we have not lost you after all!” He kissed her face and nearly squeezed the life out of her. But she returned the embrace, happy to see her brother and sisters once more. Happy to see anyone.
Analysia and Lana immediately started stroking her head and attending to her like busy maids, asking her dozens of questions and comforting her in any way they could. Their empathy poured out of them like cool, calming waves over a sandy beach, for they too had once known captivity by the enemy, all too well. Now it was their time to minister heart-healing.
Even good Sheffy bustled into the garden, not one to miss out on the revelry. He brandished his new hand in front of the crowd, tears pouring down his cheeks like all the rest. He waved his arm in front of Luik and embraced the High King. “C’symia, my King. You have done it!”
“Nay, He has done it all,” Luik corrected.
Many hours were spent reveling in the Redeeming Hand, stories shared and their miraculous end, until finally those wishing to be reunited with their kin said farewell and disappeared down into the city. Around the same time, fatigue drew each of the warband to their beds, and the gathering disbanded.
They would speak again at breakfast. For the first time in a long time…too long a time…there was a new day to look forward to.
• • •
Luik and the others slept deeply that night, unlike any sleep they could remember in a long time. Such peace enveloped them that no one stirred until well after the sun rose twice its height above the western horizon. No nightmares, no restlessness. Just pure rest. And no one bothered to wake them, either. No knocks at the door and no noise in the hallways. The entire palace atop Mt. Dakka, from Great Hall to outer gardens, was like a becalmed sea after a storm had passed.
When the Dibor finally woke, they shuffled down the hallways in robes and sandals, led by the smells from the kitchen. Coming one at a time, they gathered around one of the massive preparation boards between the hearths. Luik arrived at last, joined shortly after by Gorn, Li-Saide, and Fane. A number of the Lion Vrie entered as well, mostly those without wife or children, who had preferred to sleep in the palace rather than return to an empty dwelling.
“Good morning everyone,” Anorra greeted the group in the kitchen, but her eyes were fixed on Luik. She smiled sweetly.
Gorn stood, his action bringing the rest of the men to their feet. Luik stepped forward and looked her in the eyes. He had never cried so easily, taking a deep breath and then wrapping his arms around her slender body. She returned the passion in kind, and the room filled with clapping and laughter. They all had a second chance at life.
“Sleep well my love?” Anorra spoke in Luik’s ear.
He nodded, his chin hugging her shoulder, and then withdrew, staring in her eyes. “I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this happy.”
“Nor I,” she beamed and went up on her tiptoes to kiss him.
Luik blushed, and then Anorra turned him around and they addressed the group, who cheered all the louder.
The accolade was followed by the clap of the master cook, who forced bowls of steaming soup into everyone’s hands, and then laid trenchers of hot bread on the board. They all broke their fast together and bunched up on the benches, Luik never once leaving Anorra’s side.
Neither of them had much of an appetite, too full from staring into one another’s eyes. Those around didn’t mind the couple’s distraction in the least; they had fought for this moment as much as they had fought for the people of Dionia. Luik and Anorra, of all people, deserved such a warm reunion. And truth be told, it rekindled love in all of their hearts. Seeing the two of them together brought longing into their souls and put them in mind of what they knew Luik had wanted if he were to ever see Anorra again. Her hand.
Li-Saide called for hot mead to be served and then stood on the bench. “Here’s to Luik and Anorra,” he said, mug raised, “King and future Queen of Dionia!”
“Here, here!” everyone shouted and then tipped back their draughts.
Luik drew her close and couldn’t help but kiss her, to the shouts of those gathered. How he had longed for this day! To be with her again!
“So, how about it?” Anorra finally asked him. Everyone went silent.
“How about what?” Luik replied.
Jrio pegged Luik in the ribs from the other side. “I proclaim, man! You are as thick as a waterlogged hound.” The others chuckled.
Anorra took his face in her hands. “You said that once we were back together…” her voice trailed off, and Luik gazed at her in spellbound amazement.
The Most High had done this. He had done all of this. One moment Luik had been at the end of himself, running headlong into the face of death with his men—the next he was sitting beside his beloved, both healed of their wounds and ready to face the future.
“Anorra, my love, I have never had eyes for anyone but you. It seems that all along I knew you were my rib, even as a youth. And now, unsure of what tomorrow will bring, I want nothing more than to meet it, and whatever days that follow, with you beside me. It is my soul’s desire.”
She gazed into his face longingly, tears filling her eyes.
“Anorra, I’ve asked this before, but not in the clearest of ways. I—I…” He hesitated. “Will you be my wife? Will you marry me?”
“Oh, aye,” she giggled and pressed her forehead against his, hot tears streaming down both of their faces. “It is my soul’s desire as well. I am yours!”
Luik laughed and the two embraced, accompanied once again by shouts and toasting. It was a long time before the congratulations subsided, each man taking his turn at kissing Anorra on the cheek and pounding Luik on the back, making their way around the board.
When everyone had eaten and drunk their full, Li-Saide raised a hand and called for silence. A sobriety fell on everyone, the echo of their revelry dying away down the halls.
“While I couldn’t be happier for the new couple, I need not remind us of the task ahead. Time is of the essence, so let us not tarry needlessly. Luik and Anorra,” he faced them, “words cannot describe the overwhelming joy we all share at your proposed union; truth be told, I don’t know a man or woman among us who did not see it coming.” The men grunted in acknowledgment, pounding their fists on the board. “But, as you can imagine, it must wait yet a little longer.
“The White Lion has rescued us. The Great King has stepped off His throne as was prophesied in the days of old, and has come to set His Creation free. But more, He has come to confront our enemy and defeat him. He has come for the Keys of Life and Death.”
The group looked at him and then to each other. No one had ever heard of the items—these keys.
“What do you speak of?” Fyfler inquired.
Li-Saide turned to Fane.
“The Keys of Life and Death,” Fane spoke up, “hold unspeakable power. They command the destiny of all created souls, enabling the Keeper of the Keys ultimate authority to judge the living and the dead. Until now, Morgui has held them, given over to him when Adam fell on Earth. But the White Lion has come for them. They are rightfully His. But He had no right to acquire them until the debt was first paid in full.”
“What debt?” Jrio asked.
“The peshe debt,” Gorn put in. The group looked at him. “Did I not teach you enough?” Gorn looked surprised. “Luik, what happened to you when you rescued Rab on the strand outside Kirstell? And Rab, how many times did you rescue Luik in kind? All our doubting, the places we made for fear and disobedience against the Most High, forged an everlasting debt, evidenced by pain and the absence of His Spirit, a debt only paid by blood.”
“Blood?” asked Rab.
“Life is in the blood,” Li-Saide said. Seeing no one understood, he continued. “When we grieve the Great God, we effectively kill the very thing that He breathed life into. Relationship. Because of our disobedience, even in the smallest way, we deserve to die—to shed our imperfect blood. Then it must be atoned for by perfect blood. The only way we even have a chance at living is if one life is exchanged for ours.”
“Thus His sacrifice,” Luik muttered.
“What was that?” Jrio asked.
“His sacrifice,” Luik said. “He gave up His perfect life on Earth to meet the requirements of those who peshed. He gave His life in exchange for theirs.”
“Not just for those on Earth,” Li-Saide said. “For us, too.”
“But we never fell,” Jrio said, trying to grasp everything.
“Nay. We did,” said Li-Saide. “For it was written that the Great God would die to reconcile unto Himself both things below and things above, both in Athera and on Earth, all of Creation.”
“Ad did not fall away,” Fane put in. “He chose life for us all. However, each of us still had the choice for ourselves. And it was only a matter of time before one of us entertained the thought. As Morgui’s presence increased, so too did our propensity to withdraw from the presence of the Most High. It was not because of Morgui, but he was certainly an influence. Just another hand on the hammer.”
A pregnant pause filled the room. No one stirred as eyes looked down, searching the table and the floor between their feet. It was Luik who spoke next.
“So even we, Dionia’s pride, are in need of a Savior. Even without Morgui, we would have eventually chosen a path leading away from the Most High. Is that what you’re saying?” He looked to Fane, and then to Li-Saide.
“That is what I am saying, for that is the truth of it,” Li-Saide replied. “He is Good. We, my friends, are not.”
“Which leads us to the battle yet to come,” Gorn spoke up. All eyes turned to him. “The White Lion rescued us from Haides. Yet do not forget his command to Morgui.”
“Morgui is to bring these Keys to the plains of Jerovah then?” Jrio surmised. “Is that what He spoke of?”
“I believe it is so,” Li-Saide said.
“But if the White Lion has commanded it, then why a battle?” Anorra asked.
“Aye,” said a few of the other men.
“Because Morgui will not bow quietly,” said Li-Saide. “He is too proud. He thinks he has won, but he knows his end as well as any who have read the Ancient Texts. The White Lion will crush him beneath his feet, and the serpent will bruise his heel.”
“Then we can’t lose,” Jrio piped up.
The dwarf didn’t reply.
“The White Lion will not lose,” Fane spoke up; “however, that does not mean we will be invulnerable.” Fane seemed to want to say something else, but closed his mouth.
“The White Lion will claim what he has come for,” said the dwarf. “And He will champion us at His side. But—” He paused, searching for the right words, looking to Fane, and wondering if this was the proper time.
“Go on,” said Luik.
Still the dwarf hesitated. Finally: “I do not think He will stay.”
There was a look of confusion shared among all those present.
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Anorra, unconsciously clutching Luik’s arm.
Panic suddenly sprang to life and spread with ruthless speed. The Dibor gazed at Li-Saide, trying to put it together in silence, knowing better than to question their teacher.
“Aye, what is that you say, Chief?” asked one of the men in the back.
“What do you mean He won’t remain? Where’s He going?” asked another.
“Going to abandon us?”
“Why wouldn’t He? He never came to our rescue before when we needed Him the most. Look at everything He allowed to happen!”
“Say, where is the Lion now?”
The observation sent a murmur throughout the rest of them, small conversations sparking everywhere. As Li-Saide watched, wishing he had remained silent after all, an onslaught of questions erupted to the point that Li-Saide could not silence them.
Something was happening. Something they could not foresee, but could feel. Fear was tearing into their hearts like the head of an arrow. Where just moments before there had been hope for the future and joy in feeling renewed life, it had been overrun like a storm front, giving way to a rain of doubt. So fickle is man.
Luik looked to Gorn with a nod.
In one swift movement Gorn withdrew a long dagger from beneath his robe and buried the point deep into the board in front of them. “Enough!” he roared.
Every man closed his mouth.
Luik waited for the group to compose themselves before speaking. “I will not tolerate such behavior among you.” He eyed the lot of them. “You are the Lion Vrie. Together, we are the last hope of Dionia. Further, I will not let you defame the Name of the Most High by entertaining arguments and gossip. The day of the White Lion has come, and He will not leave us without giving us what is needed to succeed. He is faithful. Anyone who wishes to disagree with that statement may retire to his home now. I have no use for the weak-minded.”
No one dared move. The King had spoken, and they suddenly felt ashamed.
In truth, the power Morgui wielded was more far-reaching than they had dared admit. His strength was not just seen in his vast army of Dairne-Reih, but took wings in the unseen realm, plaguing the minds of any man or woman not attentive to his ventures.
“The White Lion is loose in Dionia,” Luik said at last. “And when He roams, the enemy quakes. If we have ever felt the sting of our adversary before, it will be a fond feeling compared to what will be unleashed. He fears the White Lion. And his fear will drive him to be more heinous than we could ever imagine. For fear without regard for self-preservation is hate…more dangerous than any other evil.
“The Most High will not leave until He is sure the battle is won. Do not be dismayed. And do not be bought by the tactics of the enemy. His days are numbered, and the King has come at last.”
He searched the room for doubters, his eyes staring deep into their souls. He glared at each man, willing contention to rise up. But none surfaced, and all remained calm. He knew that if they were to succeed, if they were to follow the White Lion into battle, he must keep a tight rein on his men and their thoughts. With victory surely within their grasp, the battle would now be in the mind. And Luik was sure Morgui was well ahead of him. Despite the warband’s miraculous healing, their gratefulness would be lost in an instant when the faithfulness of the Mighty Father was questioned.
Morgui had won this skirmish. And Luik was fed up. “We will reconvene tonight in the Great Hall. You are dismissed.”
– – –