Mastery

This is a fantasy story I'm working on. It's a bit hard to explain so just give it a go and see what you make of it.

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2. Chapter One

Chapter One

Our tale begins in the throne room, a gloomy chamber, up high where the air is thin, the water far and the earth deep below. The three enemies. In this part of the world, they were unruly; growing more and more restless. Basic elements, the fibre of everything had been turned into a weapon. But on the mountain of Gaeldum the fires were still aglow. Fuelled by the anger and hatred of their Lord for he had mastered them by giving them his own feelings, binding himself to them emotionally. That is why fire was the most destructive, not only controlled by Gaeldum, it resembled him.

“Come in. I do believe we have business to discuss?” Gaeldum had an extraordinary ability of making the most innocent phrases take on a tone of menace. Although a collection of the strongest, fiercest fire breathers, the entire war council trembled sensing all the threats that tone of voice implied. Until the war was won, Gaeldum considered them failures, traitors even. At present the war was going badly. Very badly.

“I've heard rumours. They're advancing North. We must lure them onto our lands in order to have an advantage. They do not know the elements so well. And with no dominion, they've become agitated. Earth, water and air will not again take mastery.”

“Sire, I would hate to dispute with you but do you not consider it a risk to bring the enemies in close, we will be left with no retreat... what if they reach the strong hold. What then?” At this, Gaeldum was seriously displeased.

“If you hate disputing with me, I would suggest you make more of an effort to avoid it Sneeg. But as for your objections,” he spat the word more than said it, “they matter not. We will meet our foe on our terms and with no option of retreat. We are masters of fire. We do not retreat, we are not like the half-glowing embers that fizzle soon to be extinguished of all life. We burn. We burn up with a passion and with a rage and with a fury. We burn. We burn so bright the flash will leave our enemies disoriented, they will turn back in fear while we will keep on combusting”

And into this fearful assembly entered a girl. Small and fragile. Stood alone in the great hall she looked out of place but by no means intimidated. She should have been. Obviously she was not a fire-breather; she was therefore an enemy.

Sneeg was the first to notice her arrival, naturally for he was always the warrior. Always alert. Always ready. For once, curiosity overpowered him. Lord Gaeldum's displeasure was a fear inspiring thing to behold yet Sneeg could not bring himself to do his duty: he had to see what she was going to do. Being, in his own opinion, the greatest tactical mind on Caleddrielos, a decision he couldn't understand and a plan he couldn't predict was irresistible. So he gave her the chance. And then it began.

“My Lords. I address you, the war council of fire-breathers, with no great speeches nor convincing you of what we all know. You too. Whatever our element, we have eyes, we have ears and most of us have sense enough to use them. You see what I see. You hear what I hear. Some part of you believes what I believe. This can not continue.” Two staunch, stout men launched themselves towards her. Four hands seized her. Twelve fire breathers watched on aghast.

Yet she did not flinch. She looked straight at Gaeldum, without a word, commanding his attention. Surprisingly he responded to that peculiar authority she seemed to posses although it was clear that she did not. Could not. A small girl ruling in the palace of a great warrior, master of fire.

“No. I want to hear this,” the mocking in his voice only half-hearted, his sarcasm thin, “What lures you here, into the land of Gaeldum? I could kill you now. What do you hope to achieve?”

“Indeed you could kill me now. You shall not. I know you, I have made a study of your ways. Brought up to do my duty, my life has had but one goal. I must end this war. You do not know your greatest defence however. They made me learn everything that could be learnt about you, in order that I may defeat you. Yet I know now I never will. Since the more one knows of you Gaeldum, the more impossible becomes your defeat. But my life's work has not been in vain. This war can be ended without a drop of blood spilt.”

“Without a drop of blood spilt! That is no war. War is for warriors and warriors kill. We are not the same. We long for the blood. Guts and glory.”

“You are no warrior. Not at heart. Warriors delight in war yet you find no pleasure. You did it all out of necessity. For her. And when you failed you were left with nothing. A void you had to fill. Stopping fighting means accepting you have nothing left to fight for, you know that so you go on, but your war was lost long ago. This war is unnecessary. What will you sacrifice for ones man's rage? It is grief, normal grief but you have too much power. Your grief has force and it's shattering the world. Can't you see.”

“For her,” his lip curled around the world, “I never loved her. Power. My first, my last, my undying love.” Her paused. There was a still, there was nowhere left for the conversation to go but nobody was sure how to act. They were all to busy trying to figure out what had happened. And what the girl meant. For her...

“Well, I think that concludes our business. Now jail for you, until you are useful or dead.”

“Actually, I'm not quite finished yet. You see a defenceless little girlie walking in here all alone would be a stupid idea. But naturally I'm not a defenceless little girlie.” She'd done so well keeping a straight face but now her whole face broke into a wicked smile. One all at once terrifying though still enticing.

Her hands worked delicately as if she was sewing a complicated pattern. Weaving in and out with grace and precision. In response to her movements the table around which the council was stationed began to grow and shift. Branches shooting up as she raised her arms, a conductor beginning her great symphony, only to twist around the mighty men, still frozen in shock. Greenery shot out the wood, encasing them further. Finally roots slid out the legs of the table, slowly slithering towards Gaeldum. She swiftly balled her hands into fists, tightening the grip and locking the men in place.

“You play with fuel. I play with fire. Dangerous combination don't you think?”

“Not when all your best men are on the bonfire,” she retorted. “Oh and I'd be careful if I was you, without any water around, the nearest fluid at my disposal is all that magma beneath us. So I suggest you take care not to get me too... explosive, shall we say?”

“I'm actually beginning to like you.”

“Enough to re-open negotiations?”

“Enough to delay killing you.” She squeezed her fist even tighter. “Fine, we shall have a discussion. Not that you can achieve anything but we'll have a discussion. Wars aren't won with words.”

Satisfied for now, she blew gently and the tree melted away and regathered as a table once more. There was some coughing as it's prisoners regained breath and an attempt at composure.

“Oh, one last thing,” Gaeldum caught her attention as she left, “How did you know I wouldn't kill you?”

“Two reasons. One, I knew I'd remind you of her. That's why he knew it would work. My father, I mean. Your not as bad as you seem. In fact, you weren't all that bad at all. Ruined by pride, as the best of men often are, eaten up. To arrogant for your own good. Or that of anyone else for that matter.”

“Yes, yes. And the second reason?”

“I wouldn't let you.” There was a long pause as they both considered one another. Gaeldum gave the signal to dismiss the council and they filed out, nervous glances avoiding the girl whose strange appearance had disrupted everything. Still shaken from the whole tree incident, they pondered the security issue highlighted by her presence. Enemies from the other divisions shouldn't be able to march straight into the realm of fire. A war council was even worse. Gaeldum himself put in danger, if she had so wished she could have killed him, along with the rest of them, there and then. Fortunate she seemed to favour peaceful methods. Such weaknesses would not be found amongst the fire-breathing class.

On being left alone, a peculiar tension formed between Gaeldum and the girl. They were too slow to react and left starring, both occupied figuring out the others mysteries. Although she'd indeed spent her life studying this man, she couldn't help but be struck by the real thing. You can read a thing over so many times without truly believing it. Reading as an academic exercise, imagination disengaged, is no great preparation for facing in the flesh that which is being studied. Yes, she could recite his biography, tell his life story with accuracy, but she never considered it long nor hard enough to know him. Until now she'd taken totally for granted this beguiling fire master.

He should have killed her when he had the chance. It was the only thing to do. The only safe way of eradicating the threat. The threat that had walked straight into his kingdom undetected. The threat that casually taunted him- lord and master of fire itself. That girl. No fear, no reservations, no sanity it seemed. And he just let her live, “Go on, make yourself at home, that's right, cosy up for a while before you go and destroy everything with those strange and inexplicable powers of yours. Don't let me get in the way.” He'd practically invited her in. Why?

Looking at her left him even more unsatisfied. She looked so normal. What was it making him behave so uncharacteristically? There was definitely something. A little bit more. More.... More or different? How could it be described. He didn't have a clue. She seemed to have driven all sense from him. At last he could bear edgy silence no longer, the suspense was growing ever more uncomfortable. Or for him at least. She was still regarding him with that same casual indifference as before.

“What are you?,” he whispered breathlessly.

“What am I?”, she retorted, “don't you mean who am I? Not that I expected you to care.” She left her remark in a way that suggested she had more to say, yet she did not. She was playing games. Succeeding as well, for it took him a few seconds to realise she'd evaded the question and had tried putting him off asking his next. So she was concealing something. Fine. He had ample patience; she'd soon see.

“Very well. Who are you?”

“Well, well, I do have you hooked. Why do you care so much who I am? I find a way through your defence, waltz carelessly into the war chamber and nearly kill all your finest and you want to exchange pleasantries and enjoy a formal introduction?”

“I want to know what I'm dealing with. Who are you?”

“Liar. For the first time in millennia, you are alone with a pretty woman and trying to make the most of the opportunity. Admit it. You like me. Otherwise I'd be dead by now.”

“Who are you?”

“Not so good at the small talk. Can't really blame you under the circumstances.”

“Who are you?” Somebody had to budge and she realised that not answering would only make Gaeldum more suspicious. A name wouldn't hurt, she'd give her name only and hopefully it would be enough to silence him.

“Morella.”

“I asked who you are.” Tipping is head and raising an eye-brow, the look in his eye was dangerous.

“And I answered.” Remarkably she remained steady. Then again the time when men could intimidate her with a threatening look or direct words was over. Gaeldum may be powerful, but he did not seem cruel. She could play with him a little and be in no danger. So long as she didn't overstep the line.

“No. A name is not who you are. It is simply how others define you. To one who knows you well it would conjure up plenty but to a stranger it is meaningless. I might call something a fire. You would then understand what I was talking about and the label has served its purpose. However, what if you'd never seen fire nor heard of such a thing. Telling you that it is fire is pointless. From that single word you would not know what fire is, how it acts, how it can be used. What would be the point in knowing it is called fire and nothing else. I have neither seen nor heard of Morella. I do not seek to insult your intelligence, you can apply the same principle to yourself and then oblige me with a proper explanation.”

“You gave quite a speech there. I had heard you to be less... chatty.”

“Trying to evade the question. Even with the good tactic you employed you gave too much away. You come from my enemies.”

“I did not give that away. My not being a fire-breather is a fact hardly concealed from you and you have no friends outside your division.”

“Assumptions are not always right.”

“I do not assume. I know.”

“If you knew you'd be right.”

“So I'm wrong?”

“I didn't say that either. Because that would have been stupid. I don't let the enemies know the allies at my disposal. Your type like to flaunt their power but I would rather win a war in silence than be destroyed with fanfare.”

“You regard me as an enemy then?”

“I regard you as from the enemy.” What was happening? Morella usually found it so easy to keep control. All the skills she'd learned and practised were totally failing her. This man was impossible. Something about him made her feel he was mocking her. For all her acclaim back home, for all that naïve certainty she once had, the total belief that she was the best, he reduced her to a child. When she'd been a child, she was so well flattered and so often conceded to, that she'd never considered it a possibility for her to be out of her depth. This situation was purely the result of her own youthful arrogance. Besides a life-time of getting used to her own way. When a persons decisions go always unquestioned, they will naturally develop a deep-rooted conviction they are unquestioned because they are right. Unsurprisingly, the idea she was simply more than anyone could deal with never entered her conceited little head.

“Congratulations, our little debate was briefly diverting. Still I am rather afraid you are not nearly distracting enough, so again I will enquire as to your identity.”

“Before I go ahead and pour out my life-story, are you entirely sure that there is absolutely no way in which to dissuade you from the topic.” He smiled a little at this.

“Less of a clever tactic. In some situations a direct approach may prove effective. That petition only heightened my curiosity and now I am resolved to be still more unyielding in my inquisition.”

“Well, I suppose I'd better satisfy you, I have heard that an inquisition here involves torture and I'd rather not go down that route after your warm welcome.”

“No doubt you have found us more hospitable than those who seek to keep on the moral high-ground of this war would have you believe.”

“There is never a moral high-ground to war. Nothing excuses endless suffering and death. That is why I am here. ” She paused. By this point she'd realised there was no way to be excused. Maybe she was expecting some remark. He only starred at her until she was forced into going on.

“When I came in, you did not take me seriously. I am small and weak looking. You told me that assumptions are not always true, a point we can agree on. I know fighting. I know bloodshed. I was born into war. My mother was a warrior.” She noted the surprise he was attempting to hide.”Unconventional I know, but she was an unconventional woman. More importantly, she was the best and so they had no choice but to let her go out there and fight. She would've made a great name for herself, could've won the war there and then. Instead she was betrayed by her own side. Artoth made her give in to weakness. Son of the original Lord of air, Cathox, yet rejected as his weakness was already revealed, he stole her strength too. That is why I must end this war, I have lived my whole life with the guilt of it. If only she'd never had me, then the war would be done by now.” Despite the emotions pushing their way back into her, she hardened herself to it. She had to appear strong.

“It's not your fault. You had no control in being born. Your mother could not help falling in love and Artoth broke only to the frailty all men share. Great men still have hearts. Furthermore, it is nonsensical to believe one great woman can alone win a war. You are their legacy. Now there are two great women, she has shared her powers, she has you to leave behind to take her place when the time comes. “

“She died in childbirth. See now, it is my fault, it's all my fault.” In that moment she despised herself. Breaking down into an emotional outburst on that scale was unacceptable for any in her position. Quickly, she had to recompose herself. “I never would have suspected such a romantic in you.”

“Liar. You know my story. Lying must be delivered consistently but you have already made mention of Natalia.”

His tone of voice made her more than a little guilty. Knowing Gaeldums past made it hard for her to fight him with words as cutting and ruthless as were required.

“I think we've said quite enough for today. Please arrange some place for me to retire for the night and we'll finish this discussion tomorrow.” Gaeldum smiled at her, bemused to be ordered about in his own fortress by a very tiny girl. Secretly he was starting to like her. Like an enemy? Only now was he beginning to perceive fully the danger her presence put him in.

“Well, well, I never realised I had such a weakness for little, feisty women,” he muttered to himself as he left the chamber at last.

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