Writing Challenge: Week 17
Dominion Under Earth
by H. M. Snow
Swordbearer and death hound eyed one another, both panting, both worn out by the chase. From up in the tree, the swordbearer addressed the hound: “Good evening to you. I’m Des– not that you’re interested, I guess.”
The hound threw its lean weight against the base of the tree’s trunk. Even the thickest tree branches trembled at the impact. Des the swordbearer clutched for a more secure handhold. “Right. Enough with pleasantries, then. So this is what they call a stalemate. I won’t come down from here, and you won’t leave from there. Now that I look at you, you’re the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. The sound of your breath when you’re chasing me is pretty scary too.” Des peered among the branches. With another glance down at the panting hound, the swordbearer inched along the sturdy branch to an intersecting branch of a neighboring tree. The ancient branches had grown against one another so as to form a bridge. Extending first a foot to test the stability of the path, then scooting forward to reach another length of branch, Des completed the journey to the next tree.
Below, the death hound was puzzled but watchful. It was far from stupid, as it proved when Des attempted the next crossing. At the most tenuous point of the crossing, the death hound threw itself at the tree toward which the swordbearer headed, nearly jarring Des out of the heights. Only Des’ hastily renewed grip pulled the moment back from catastrophe.
Two trees later, Des reached an impasse: the ground dropped into mist-veiled depths at the very roots of the tree, so that a downward glance made the swordbearer giddy for a moment. Des clung to the supporting branch until the dizziness passed. Then the tree quaked. The death hound had not only rammed its weight against the tree trunk, but had raised itself up onto its hind legs to claw higher and higher up the trunk, like some gaunt and deformed grizzly. The scraping claws gouged deep into the bark.
“Hold on,” blurted Des. “Don’t!” But the futile exclamation came too late. Between the weight of the swordbearer aloft in its branches and of the hound leaning hard against its trunk, the poorly-anchored tree gave a heart-pounding lurch toward the canyon edge– more than enough to jar Des into tumbling freefall.
“No!” Des had no time for more than that one terrified syllable before the ground appeared. The hard landing forced another cry from the swordbearer, who rolled and bounced across sand before losing momentum.
A dark shadow loomed against the mist. A callused, powerful hand grasped Des and tore away the sword, scabbard and all, from the bearer’s back as if the leather harness that bound it there meant nothing. A mere glimmer in the mist, the sword flew end-over-end through the air until the death hound dropped out of nowhere to catch it in slavering jaws. For several moments the hound worried the sword like a pup with a stick. When it tired of this, the hound carried the sword back to the solid shadow that still gripped the back of Des’ coat. “Cast away the sword,” a deep voice growled, “and escape the hound.” The hand released Des abruptly.
Facing the shadow fully for the first time, Des sucked in a long breath. A pattern like rising smoke coiled black around the man’s bare arms and chest, up his neck and into his hairline. His long black hair, tied back with a strip of rawhide, matched his flat black eyes. Des fell face-down on the ground.
“You know me, then?” That deep voice grated against the ear. “How do they tell the story these days? Speak.”
Breathless, Des spoke without stirring from that same prostrate position. “There was once only one king– that’s how the old ones begin it– whose domain encompassed air, earth, and under-earth. When he came to the end of his strength, he called his three sons to him. He held up three sticks with a different symbol carved on the broad end of each. To his first son he offered first choice, and this eldest took from him the stick bearing the symbol of air. ‘I will govern the domain of air,’ said the high-minded eldest, ‘and will not let it fall into ruin.’ To his middle son the old king held out the remaining two sticks, but the impulsive youngest grabbed first. ‘Earth for me!’ was his cry as he ran away with his spoils. The middle gazed at the remaining stick, the symbol for under-earth. ‘Always I have been beneath my brothers,’ he said, ‘so little will change.’ But the old king shook his head. ‘Between them you have been, and between them you remain.’ He would not explain his meaning, but when the middle son reached out to take the stick, the stick dissolved into black smoke that embraced him and marked him with its pattern, the symbol of under-earth. He and the old king both disappeared. No one has seen either since. To this day, only the king of under-earth knows where the old king lies buried, but his domain is not easily escaped, so none who seek him return to bear report of him.”
“Someone taught you well. But why do you lie?”
“Lord, I did not lie; that is how the story was told me!”
“Not the story.” The brawny king of under-earth waved away the words. “Your clothes, your manner, your words– you lie with each breath. Why? You are female.”
Des knelt open-mouthed with astonishment. “How did you know?”
“Death reveals many secrets. Since death has been my study, I see everything with different eyes. You are swordbearer to the domain of air, yet you would not slay the hound.”
“I couldn’t do it.” Des gazed desperately at the sheathed sword gripped in the strange king’s fist.
“You never tried– that’s what you mean, so say it clearly.”
“No, Lord, I couldn’t. The sword… I broke it.”
The under-earth king pulled the hilt free. Two inches of jagged metal remained of the blade. With an interrogative noise, the king carried the sword to an impossibly large anvil and poured all the pieces onto its flat surface. “I have never seen it in such a condition,” he said at length. “Your conflict was acute, then. How could you become swordbearer with your spirit in such a state? Ciro was never such a fool before, to choose someone so unsuited to the role.”
Des blinked in shock. “You call the king– of course,” she said, arresting her own blurted remark. “Brothers.”
“At least you didn’t complete your first statement.” The king of under-earth arranged the fragments of the sword with a fingertip. “I must begin anew. Not all the pieces are here. It will take time. Do as you please while you wait, but beware of venturing any deeper under the earth.”
This strange injunction made Des come fully upright on her knees like a sleeper awakened. She leaned forward to brace her hands against the sand and bowed more formally. “Forgive my impudence so far, Lord.” When her apology was ignored, she turned to look at her surroundings more closely. At her back, a rugged canyon wall vanished upward into the mists. The facade of a city was graven on the lower reaches of that wall, false windows carved intaglio into the stone and broad concourses standing inaccessible from within or without. Only one gate, low and wide, opened the side of the mountain. Shallow steps descended into utter darkness through that gate. Such a gaping unknown at her back made Des uneasy. She shifted her position so that she could see the gate out of the corner of her eye without turning her back on that domain’s king.
The death hound sprawled on the sand, tongue lolling. It paid Des no attention, a fact she found so unnerving that she ventured to ask the under-earth king, “Why?”
“Balance,” said the blackened monarch. He had wakened a fire behind the anvil and was preparing to begin a smith’s work. “The domain of air has the sword, which needs a bearer to be useful. Ciro can never use it, so he is made reliant on a champion. The domain of earth has the death hound, which will submit to Caius only once before it flees and must be recaptured. What neither realizes is that both belong to me. I forged the sword; I raise the hounds. Once a hound is set against the swordbearer, it will not rest until it has brought the sword back to me. Once it has done so, it is… mostly… harmless.” His was a ferocious grin, fully as alarming as the death hound’s bared teeth. “Both are naturally instruments of death, subjects of my domain.”
He ignored Des once he began working. Like something mechanical he swung his hammer, filling the air with the din of metal on metal. The mist had a strange, deadening quality that made the hammering dull, and the rhythm was as regular as a clock’s second hand. Weary already, Des fell into an almost hypnotic daze until her feet started to tingle from being knelt on for such a long time. She tipped onto her side, grimacing from the pain, only noticing after a while that the hammering had stopped. The forge’s fire had burned low. Its master, the king of under earth, reclined with his back to the anvil. He appeared to sleep soundly, with the death hound’s huge gaunt head resting on his leg.
From the mist, another death hound dropped noiselessly to the sand. This one was larger than the one sleeping alongside the king. It dragged with it the carcass of an elk. For all the attention it paid her, Des might not have existed at all. The death hound dragged the elk carcass down the shallow steps and through the gate into the darkness under the earth.
Now that the hound had drawn her attention in that direction, Des could barely look away from the gate. She wondered aloud, “Who needs a warning not to enter there?” But she walked almost on tiptoe to the gate to look within. From the depths, a curious chorus of squeaks and yips echoed back for a few moments. More distantly, a man’s voice called. It sounded miles away. Des leaned into the gateway to hear better. “Key… something,” she said. “I wonder what it means.” She glanced backward, but the king of under earth still slept. She took a step over the gate’s threshold. The rending of flesh closer at hand nearly turned her back, but as her eyesight adjusted to the darkness, she realized that the gate opened into a cavernous antechamber. Cracked and gnawed animal bones littered the stone floor. The shadowy movements beyond suggested several death hounds gathered around the carcass brought by the most recent arrival. Des trod carefully, but her passage did not distract the hounds from their meal. Tumbling and squeaking around the carcass, a handful of pups snapped at the scraps dropped by their elders.
Contrary to expectations, the tunnel under the earth grew brighter as Des proceeded deeper into it. She entered a domed chamber that felt spacious after the dark tunnel. A fountain and pool dominated the space. Thirsty all at once, Des sat on the raised lip of the pool and drank until satisfied. The fountain sparkled, although the bright chamber had no apparent light source to reflect off its cascades.
The voice Des had heard earlier called again, this time startlingly near at hand. “Key-aar!” From another arched gateway Des had not yet noticed, a man emerged into the chamber carrying a platter of food. He stopped short when he noticed Des.
Des leaped to her feet. Something in his face stopped her from blurting out whatever came first to her mind.
“Welcome,” the man said. He was older, but his exact age was difficult to ascertain: clean-shaven, tall, strongly-built and kind-eyed. “You’ve just arrived. No need to linger in here. Come deeper in.”
Des shook her head. “He warned me not to venture too deep… I shouldn’t be here.”
“He spoke to you? That’s unusual. There’s usually no reason to stop a passing spirit and converse.”
Again Des shook her head. “I’m not a spirit. I don’t think I’m a spirit,” she added, “but it has been a strange day. Maybe I am and I never noticed.”
The man studied her more closely. “No,” he said after a while, “there’s something different about you. How did you come?”
So Des recounted the chase of the death hound, her fall from the dominion of earth, and her meeting with the king of under earth. As she spoke, the man began to smile. “I forget sometimes,” he said. “Ciar has a sly streak to him. Told you not to venture too deep under earth, did he, and then fell sound asleep? Young Des, Ciar is king under earth. His dominion is death; he doesn’t need to sleep. He was offering you the choice, to see what you would do. You’re obviously not suited to be swordbearer for Ciro, but you could have chosen to attempt the climb back up. Had you chosen even to take the sword into your hands again, Ciar would have sent you back. He must have seen something in you.”
“He is king under earth,” Des said, “yet you speak of him so familiarly.”
“He’s my son.”
“Ah!” Des dropped to her knees.
The man stopped her. “Not necessary, I assure you. I have relinquished all dominion and taken my place here. King Ciceran no longer exists. Here I am only Ciceran. So, young Des, what will you do now? You came as far as this. You can come farther and see the wonders this dominion holds. It is nothing you have ever imagined,” he added. “Yet here you wait. He won’t follow you here, either to welcome or to scold you. Ciar is bound at the entrance. If he comes this far, it is only to refresh himself for a minute at the fountain and then return to his duties.”
Des said suddenly, “Is the story true? Was this all that was left for him?”
The old king nodded, a little sadly. “It was all that his brothers left him, but in all honesty only Ciar could have taken up the dominion under earth. Ciro is too self-important; Caius is too self-indulgent. Ciar alone had the character necessary to surrender every hope for himself and bind himself between the realms as he did. I had feared this, when I chose to divide the dominions between them. When I held all three, I was able to cross from one dominion to another without trouble, but for one man to hold all three at once is a terrible burden. We aren’t strong enough creatures to endure it. So while his brothers live as kings in their respective cities, Ciar stands as solitary gatekeeper to wonders he cannot share.”
“I understand that, I think.” Des bowed her head. “You called for him.”
“Yes, I was perplexed why he didn’t answer me, but you’ve answered that mystery for me. I sometimes bring him dinner. He doesn’t really need it, but it makes a change for him. I can’t venture out through the gate, being bound as a subject to this dominion now, but he can hear me calling and come as far as this to take it from me.”
The swordbearer’s features changed subtly. “I can take it to him. I haven’t gone too deep, have I? I can still go back to the gate?”
“You can,” said the old king, “but you’ve drunk from the fountain now. I doubt you can go back easily to air or earth.”
Des reached for the platter. She met the old king’s wry smile with one of her own. “Death reveals secrets, right? I expect it still does, even after you lay down the dominion of it.”
Ciceran laid a large hand on her head in blessing. “We’ll meet again.”
Carrying the platter high in front of her, Des ran along the tunnel back toward the outermost gate. She jumped over the death hound pups that tumbled across her path in a tussle over a stripped bone. When she emerged into the dull light outside, she nearly ran into the king of under earth. With a squeak not unlike the pups’, she veered to save the dinner.
“What are you…?”
Des recovered her poise. She held out the platter. “Lord,” she said.
He accepted the meal from her. After a few more seconds of staring at Des, the king under earth took his dinner to the anvil. “I sent the sword back.”
“Thank you. It’s for the best.”
He continued to glance at her from time to time while he ate, but he never spoke his thoughts until he had emptied the platter, washed it under a small cascade in an alcove beyond the forge, and set it on a shelf with another. Then he turned his full attention to tidying the forge.
Patiently Des waited and watched him.
“What do you seek of me?” the king under earth asked at last.
“Then why did you come back from the depths?”
They stood facing one another over the anvil. Des lifted her shoulders in a slight shrug. “I was born under the domain of earth, but my brothers angered our lord there. He set the death hound against us, and only I of my whole family survived. When I was recovered, I climbed the spire path to the domain of air, looking for a home and a reason. I thought protecting others from the hounds would be enough reason for me, but becoming swordbearer wasn’t at all what I expected. What was left to me? I had no place in earth or air, being too dull to amuse Lord Caius on the one hand and too queasy to serve as Lord Ciro’s glorified executioner on the other. I struggled so fiercely within myself that, the first time I drew the sword, it shattered.” She met the intensity of his stare with a wry smile like the one she had offered his father. “I have nowhere to belong to, nowhere to return to. Is there a lord better suited for such a one as I to serve?” Once again she dropped to her knees and, hands braced on the sand, bowed deeply before him.
“I don’t need a servant.”
“I will wait until you have a use for me, lord.”
“Living on a doorstep is uncomfortable.”
“If my lord can endure it, I can.”
“There is only the forge and the hounds.”
“I’m sturdy enough for the work, lord.”
“Lift your head. Stop calling me ‘lord.’ I’m Ciar.”
Des sat upright. Her gaze was bright with anticipation. “Yes, Lord Ciar.”
Ciar raised an eyebrow at her. “I said…” Then he sighed. “Never mind for now. You’re quite welcome into the dominion under earth. It should be less dull now, with someone to talk to. Why are you smiling like that?”
“I’m already useful to my lord. Why shouldn’t that make me smile?”
He sighed again. “You’re strange.” When Des laughed at that, the king under earth could not help but smile a little in response. “Very strange.”