The Road Less Traveled
by the lady of shalott
* * *
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference
* * *
"Get behind the wall!" Hank's shout barely carried over the thunder of Venger's attack. Eric staggered backwards, careful to keep his shield between himself and the action, his eyes still dazzled by the glare from the lightning bolts forking from the archmage's hand. The nightmare's shrill whinny cut across his nerves as much as the thud of firebolts. Not that I haven't had plenty of opportunity to get used to those, he thought dismally, backing away a little faster. The shield had never failed to keep him safe yet, but there was a first time for everything, especially in this nutty world.
"Fools! You will not escape me this time!" Venger didn't seem to have any trouble making himself heard, Eric noticed, relieved when a glance over his shoulder showed him that he was almost to the shelter of the wall. Not that it's much shelter, given that what's left of it is about the height of my knees!
"You always say that, and we always do anyway!" Bobby yelled back, thumping his club on the ground.
The resulting aftershock sent Eric falling backwards over the ruined wall. "Ow! Hey, twerp, watch where you bang that thing! Venger's in the air, not on the ground!" He picked himself up, shaking moss and dirt off his cape. "And what's with the stupid comments? Like he's not mad enough already?"
"Watch who you're calling a twerp!" Bobby glared, waving his club.
Eric was never quite sure whether the kid would really take a swing at him, and given the power of the club, he wasn't inclined to find out, either. So he shrugged and let it lie, crouching down behind the remnants of the wall and bracing his shield against them. "Man, I knew this was a bad idea. Why did we ever let DM talk us into coming to this crappy place, anyway? It's falling apart!"
Diana came vaulting over the wall and dropped flat next to him, the javelin shrinking to a small rod in her hand. "Because the priests of this temple have the power to send us home, Eric. I didn't hear you complaining about it when he first sent us here."
"Yeah, well, he didn't mention that old horn-head would be visiting at the same time!"
"Save the arguing for after we stop him!" Hank dived over the wall into a neat somersault, followed by a blast that nearly knocked Eric flat as his shield's energy wall automatically spread to catch it. "We're sitting ducks out here, and so is the temple. We've got to think of something before he blasts the whole place apart."
"If he were down here, I'd whack him good!" Bobby swung the club threateningly.
"Well, it's just too bad that he's up there, then," Eric said. "Don't let a little thing like reality get in the way of your planning, though."
Presto, who was huddled up against the wall, pulled off his hat. "Maybe I can get something to zap him down with," he said, waving a hand over the glowing opening.
"Okay, now I'm really scared," Eric muttered.
"Maaaah!" They all turned to see Uni scampering out from behind the bushes where she'd been hiding, just before the flames spreading around the clearing caught in the branches.
"Uni!" Bobby yelled.
"Oh brother, is she trying to get barbequed?" Eric groaned as Venger lifted a hand.
"Bobby, no!" Sheila, appearing out of nowhere, reached out a hand to try and grab her brother, but the kid had jumped over the wall and was racing towards the desperately galloping unicorn, heedless of Venger's gloating laughter.
"Great. Barbequed unicorn AND barbarian," Presto said.
"Do something!" Sheila looked at the rest of them, eyes panic-wide.
"What, so MORE of us can get fried because your brother's so dumb he'll throw himself in front of Venger?" Eric hated it when this kind of thing happened. Of course he was the natural choice to go out there -- he was the one with the shield. But he didn't even like the stupid animal! And now he was going to be forced to go out there and risk his life for it, just because--
Eric's train of thought was cut off as Hank jumped over the wall and headed towards Bobby and Uni, drawing his bow as he did. "Leave them alone, Venger!" the Ranger shouted, firing arrows steadily at the nightmare, which shied and danced in mid-air to avoid the blasts. Having distracted Venger, Hank ran forward and grabbed Bobby by the arm, pushing him and Uni back towards the shelter of the wall, then turned around and kept shooting fire-arrows up as he backed towards the wall.
But Venger had gotten the nightmare under control, casting a shield beneath the animal that protected it from the fire-arrows. "Prepare to meet your doom, Ranger!" The echoes of his shout hadn't yet faded from the clearing when his firebolt crashed down, smashing through the arrow Hank fired back.
Eric felt as though the world had suddenly gone into slow motion. For an instant, Hank's body was silhouetted dark against the circle of light as the bolt exploded, then it was flying through the air to hit the ground with a horrifying thud. Sheila's scream and Venger's laughter rang strangely in his ears as he finally, finally managed to make his legs move. He threw himself over the wall, catching himself in the dirt with one hand, and broke into a stumbling run, sliding into the ground beside Hank with shield raised just as the world sped up again and Venger's next blast slammed into him.
The shield held. The bolt of magical power shot back along its path, piercing Venger's magical shield and smashing against the nightmare's belly. The creature shrieked and convulsed, toppling Venger from his seat. Finding itself riderless, the nightmare threw back its head and galloped off through the sky, paying no attention to Venger's shouted curses.
Eric looked up to see Bobby screaming at the top of his lungs, tears streaking his face like warpaint as he charged across the field towards the fallen archmage. Venger had barely gotten to his feet when the club smashed the ground right in front of him, opening up a gaping crack. Venger raised his hand to retaliate, but Diana was leaping down from the trees, the javelin propelling her into Venger's back with enough force to knock the archmage into the hole in the ground.
"Cover him, quick!" Diana yelled. Bobby struck the ground again, sending more rock and dirt into the hole, and Presto ran up and pointed the glowing opening of his hat at the loose pile of dirt. A sudden gush of thick grey liquid exploded out, rapidly filling the pit.
"All right! Cement!" Presto panted. "Let's see him get out of that!" As if in response to his words, a thread of smoke erupted out of a small hole in the settling cement, forming briefly into the shape of their enemy before blowing away.
Eric watched long enough to see that Venger wasn't going to be attacking again any time soon, then carefully turned Hank onto his back.
"Oh, my god, Hank!" Sheila dropped to her knees, her hand hovering by Hank's cheek, not daring to touch. "You're going to be okay..."
Eric wasn't so sure. Hank's face was blistered and red, his eyebrows and lashes singed off along with most of his hair. What was left was charred and blackened. Only grey ashes remained of the thick leather armor, mingling with the blood that streaked the charred skin of Hank's chest. Eric had to fight hard not to be sick. They'd faced Venger many times since they'd ended up stuck in this realm, but they'd escaped so often it was easy to forget just how dangerous he was.
Sheila was so white Eric was sure she was going to faint. "Don't let Bobby see!" he said sharply. She jerked her eyes to his face for a moment, then nodded and ran to intercept her brother.
Presto and Diana came hurrying over, both of them freezing at the sight. "Come on, Presto, don't just stand there -- try the hat!" Eric said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice.
"I--I don't even know what to try for!" Presto said.
"We'd better get him inside," Diana said, her voice trembling. "Can you pull a stretcher out of that thing?"
"Let me see..." Presto mumbled over the hat and pulled out a heavy bolt of canvas.
They managed to put together a makeshift stretcher with the fabric and two of the fallen branches. Hank moaned weakly as they transferred him onto it, but he didn't awaken, even when a coughing fit shook through him. Eric's gut twisted again when he saw the glisten of fresh blood. With Bobby sent ahead to the temple to ask the priests for help, the four of them carefully lifted the stretcher and carried their fallen leader into the building.
* * *
The stone of the chapel wall was cool under his cheek. Eric kept his eyes closed and tried to concentrate on that cold, tried to let it block out everything else. He wasn't succeeding. Behind him, he could hear the murmur of the priests' low voices at Hank's bedside, and they didn't sound very encouraging.
Finally, Father Delmor's halting footsteps came towards them. Opening his eyes, Eric straightened up and turned to face the elderly priest. His friends were all staring at the old man in stubborn hope, ignoring the grim reality they'd seen, spelled out in the blood on Hank's lips, on the scorched ruin of his chest. "Is he going to make it?" he demanded, part of him desperate not to be given false hope, wanting the worst right away.
"Well, children, your friend certainly has been badly wounded," the old priest said in a quavery voice. "I have rarely seen such dreadful burns. Of course, here in the forest we don't often see victims of magecraft, and I believe that mage-fire burns hotter than natural fires as we sometimes see happen by accident, or from lightning..."
"Is he going to make it?" Eric ignored the shocked looks from the others, feeling as though his voice was being forced out of him by steadily tightening bands around his chest.
Delmor straightened age-stooped shoulders and fixed Eric with watery blue eyes. "Only the High Lord knows what will come, young knight," he said in rebuke. "But if His grace be on your friend, perhaps he may yet recover from his injuries."
"Oh God!" Sheila covered her mouth after the sudden outburst and turned to Diana, who hugged her tight. "He's going to be okay!" she sobbed.
"My child, please, listen to me," the priest said in obvious worry, slowly shuffling over to the two girls and stroking Sheila's hair comfortingly. "I cannot promise you that he will be well. I can only offer you some small portion of hope."
Eric gulped for breath and stepped forward again. "How small?" When Father Delmor looked at him with a frown, he pushed down the anger and frustration that made him want to yell and said more quietly, "Look, just--just spell it out for us, okay? Don't try to make it sound better than it is because you think we can't handle it or something."
The priest's gaze softened, but he raised his hands in a helpless gesture. "My son, I cannot tell you for certain. The High Lord alone holds the power of life and death, and your friend lies on the boundary between them. If the High Lord chooses to call him home, no healing arts will keep him here. But if not, the power of the shrine which you came here to seek may be used to heal him." He hesitated a moment, then said, "I am sorry, children, but if we use the power for that end, we cannot also use it to send you home."
"Like that matters!" Diana said, her voice high with relief.
"Please, you've gotta save him," Bobby said.
"What can be done, will be done," the priest said gently. "Now children, go to the guest chambers and rest. You can do nothing more for your friend now, and we will need to hold vigil here before we can use the shrine's power for your friend."
Reluctantly, they all filed out of the chapel and walked down the dark, narrow corridors of the cloister to the sparsely furnished cells that they'd been given to stay in when they'd arrived the previous night. By unspoken agreement, they crowded into Sheila's cell, most of them slumping against the walls while Bobby curled up on the bed with his head pillowed in Sheila's lap.
Eric leaned against the doorframe and watched as they started little tasks -- Diana relacing her leggings, Presto cleaning his glasses, Sheila combing Bobby's tangled hair with her fingers. Even Uni settled on the floor to polish her horn against her hide. He looked down at his own greaves, still muddy from crawling around before, then shook his head almost violently. "How can we be worrying about crap like this when Hank's dying?" he asked bitterly.
"He's not dying!" Bobby jerked up and glared at him, his hands balling into fists. "He's gonna be fine. Father Delmor said they can heal him!"
"Hush, Bobby," Sheila said, catching her brother's shoulders and shooting Eric a reproachful look. "Just relax. It's not going to do Hank any good for us to argue."
"Hank's just gotta be okay, Sis," Bobby said.
"He'll be fine, Bobby," she said, although her voice trembled with uncertainty. "Hank's strong -- he'll pull through."
"I hate Venger," Bobby said venomously. "I hate him! I wish Hank had killed him back in the Dragon's Graveyard!" He slammed his fist into the mattress.
"Don't say that -- Hank did the right thing." Sheila caught his hand and held it.
Bobby drooped against her and said almost inaudibly, "I'm sorry."
"For what?" she asked.
"I shouldn't've run out after Uni like that," he whispered, turning his face against her shoulder, his voice cracking with quiet sobs.
Damn straight you shouldn't have, Eric thought tightly, but he didn't say anything. Couldn't say anything, because to place blame anywhere would mean to place it squarely on himself-- he shut down that train of thought and turned away.
"I just couldn't let Venger hurt her," Bobby said.
"Of course you couldn't," Sheila said, stroking his back, pulling him closer. She sent a quick, meaningful glance around to the rest of them.
"Maybe we all oughta get some sleep, like Father Delmor said," Presto suggested tactfully, getting up and offering Diana a hand.
Diana nodded and also got up. "We'll be in our rooms."
Without a word, Eric turned and went back to his own cell and slammed the door behind him. Crossing the tiny room, he dropped his shield on the cot and stared down at the griffin's head. The charred mark of Venger's blast still streaked the surface, flakes of crisped leaves and baked-on dirt brushing away under his hand. He swallowed hard, his mind circling over the moments in the clearing, round and round in a grim replay until his stomach rebelled and sent him lunging for the chamberpot.
When he'd finished heaving up everything in his stomach, he rinsed his mouth with the stale, warm water in the basin and slumped against the wall, breathing hard. A thick knot of blame sat in his throat. If only I... He slammed his fist into the hard stone of the floor, cutting off the thought with the pain. Putting the feeling into words was unthinkable -- it would make it true, make Hank's injury his fault. Leaving the shield behind, he pushed himself up from the floor and left the room, desperate to escape from his own thoughts.
The hallway was silent now except for the faint echo of Sheila's voice singing a lullabye. He paused outside the door to her cell to listen for a moment, the familiar song waking the familiar pain of homesickness. But that pain was muted next to the fresh agony of Hank's danger, and that reminded him that he had no right to be standing there, receiving comfort. He hurried past the other doors quickly, trying not to clatter, and lost himself in the shadowy halls of the monastery.
* * *
He came into the main prayer hall just as the descending suns painted the room in red and orange flames through the cracked stained-glass windows. The hellish scene seemed bitterly appropriate, so he stayed, slumping into one of the back pews. He ignored the wheezing clang of the bell announcing dinner. For a while, he lost himself by tracing the whorls and knots of the wooden pew in front of him, letting the mindless task pull him out of his thoughts.
Darkness gradually crept over the room, soothing and cool after the sunset's fury. An old monk entered to light a couple of candles at the altar, shuffling out without even noticing that Eric was there. No one else came in. He sat alone and watched the candles flicker in the draft from the broken windows, and he didn't even realize that he was crying until the tears leaked through his gauntlets and dripped on his hands.
A hand fell on his shoulder, rousing him gradually out of the half-hypnotized daze he'd fallen into. Father Delmor was sitting next to him, squinting at his face in the candlelight. "It's very late, Cavalier. Why are you not abed?" he asked. Eric just shook his head, unable to form words. The priest sighed and settled himself back against the pew. "Speaking of burdens rarely makes them greater," he suggested.
"It was my fault." The words seemed to come out against his will, dropping like stones into the silence of the room.
"Tell me what happened."
Eric was didn't say anything for a minute, then the whole story spilled out of him -- the battle, Bobby and Uni in danger, his own resentful thoughts. It took very little time to tell. "Hank wouldn't have a scratch now if I hadn't been such a goddamn coward," he finished.
"You cannot know what would have been. Perhaps your friend would have been hurt, perhaps not."
"Yeah, but I know what should've been," Eric said bitterly. "I should've gone out there, not Hank. He didn't have a chance, and I did."
"Well, yes," Father Delmor said. "That much is true. You did act badly." Eric blinked at him in surprise. Catching the look, the priest raised his eyebrows and coughed a little. "Perhaps you were hoping for a comforting lie?" Eric flushed, realizing that he had half-expected something soothing and forgiving. The old man shook his head. "I am a servant of the High Lord, who hates all evil," he said quietly. "And cowardice, and love of self over love of others -- that is evil. When you let those things govern your heart, you act wrongly. I cannot tell you otherwise."
Eric stared straight ahead, the candle flames blurs of light to his swimming eyes. He'd never let himself feel ashamed before. Running away from danger had just been common sense. And if his friends were still facing it, well -- they all had to take care of themselves, right? He wasn't some kind of fairy-tale hero. Nobody would expect him to throw his life into danger to protect someone else. Now those rationalizations hung before him, exposed for the thin scraps they were. He wrapped his arms around his stomach, his shoulders hunching forward.
Delmor shook him gently by the shoulder. "Don't take my words to heart so, young knight. Yes, you let selfishness rule you for a moment, and ill came of it. But in the end, you acted bravely, and saved your friend's life."
Eric didn't answer, pulling off his gauntlet and wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. What was there to say? He knew that the priest was wrong. He'd been a plain, simple coward from the first day they'd landed in this world.
The hand on his shoulder stayed there for a moment, then squeezed as the priest levered himself up from the hard bench. "I'm afraid that I must get back to your friend's bedside, or I would not leave you with these dark thoughts," the old man said gently. "But though I must go, another is still here." He gestured towards the altar. "The High Lord knows all that is in your heart, both good and evil. Do not be afraid to speak with him."
Eric managed to take control of his voice. "Thanks, Father." The old man slowly walked out of the room, leaving him alone again. After a few minutes, he stood and walked up the center aisle towards the altar. He stopped at the foot of the dais, feeling awkward, and knelt down for lack of anything better to do.
"Hi there," he said, looking up at the altar. "I'm Eric. Uh, you probably already knew that. Oh man, do I feel like an idiot. I haven't been to church for a while. Not since...not since my mom died, I guess. My dad kind of stopped going, and I wasn't really old enough to go on my own back then. Not that I'm trying to make excuses here, just explaining." He stopped and ran his hands back through his hair, wondering why he was bothering. But somehow it felt a little better to be here in the circle of candlelight, talking to someone, than sitting in the dark alone.
"I'm sorry about how I've been acting," he said. "I'm sorry about that time I ran off and left the others alone because I was so sure I could find the way home without them. And that time I didn't want to help rescue Uni from Kelek. And for all the times I've made fun of Presto and his hat. At least he does some good half the time -- that's a better record than I've got." He laughed shortly. "And I'm really sorry about that time I opened the box of Balefire. Not that that's a big surprise. Oh yeah, and I shouldn't forget all those times I've tried to take over from Hank or complained about one of his decisions.
"You know, I'm surprised the others haven't cut me loose before now. I've been a grade-A jerk all along, haven't I?" He sniffled hard, wiping his nose on his sleeve. "Says a heck of a lot for them. Hank especially. He's put up with...with a lot more than I would have, in his shoes. Of course, if he hadn't, maybe he wouldn't be hurt right now.
"Look, you've gotta know -- he doesn't deserve this. He's -- he's one of the good guys. A real hero. I guess they always say things like the good die young and God takes them home and stuff like that, but I'm begging you here -- please don't take him." Eric swallowed. "I guess that's being selfish again. Without Hank, I don't think we have a chance in Hell of getting home. Uh, sorry about that -- just a figure of speech. He's the one who's kept us together, kept us going.
"But I'm not asking for me." He stopped and sighed. "Yeah, right. Who am I kidding? I'm sure you hear that all the time. Of course I'm asking for me. If he dies, I just don't know what I'm going to do. Or what any of us are going to do." He stared down at his hands and finally whispered, "Maybe you do things different here, since there's magic here and all that. And, uh, just in case... If you'd be willing to, you know, make a trade... Well, what I'm saying is, if you'd take--take--take me, instead of Hank..." He stopped, gulping down fear. "I'd take that deal like a shot," he finished.
The candles flickered a little in the wind. No other answer came. He slumped down and rested his head on the dais, unwilling to move out of the circle of light, and eventually sleep claimed him.
* * *
A voice was thundering in his ears, and he jerked up, staring around wildly. "What? Huh?" But there was no one around, and the morning sunlight was streaming into his face. He rubbed his face, his muscles stiff and aching, but despite that, he felt better, his heart slightly eased of the crushing guilt. He climbed to his feet and looked up at the altar. "Thanks for listening," he said, a little embarrassed to be talking to the air in broad daylight, then went to find out how Hank was doing.
He stopped in the hallway just outside the chapel door. He could see his friends inside, standing close around the bed where Hank was lying. Closing his eyes for just a minute, he sent up a silent prayer, then stepped inside the room. Staring at the bed, he felt his eyes smarting as they filled with tears. Hank, pale and tired, but no longer visibly wounded, was sitting up in bed with a tray on his lap. His friends all turned to him, their faces bright, and welcomed him into the circle around the bedside.
* The End *