In a flash, I bend at the waist, yanking the hands that hold mine down. The guards are pulled down, one by each arm, and their heavy helmets clang against each other. Disoriented, the guards loosen their grip just enough for me to somersault forward, slipping out from under them and sliding my sword out of its sheath. When I stand a second later, I whip my sword so it’s aiming at the two guards.
Looking back to Sigiwald and Finn, I say simply, “You’ve stopped time here. How the hell did you do that?”
He looks reluctantly impressed. Finn looks…a little sad. What?
“Well, not stopped time. Not really.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Well, the city’s still all torn up. And you haven’t aged, considering you look ten years younger than Finn. No offense.” I add towards Finn, who rolls his eyes slightly.
Sigiwald sighs. “All you have said is true. But you say it as though this is how we wish it.”
Finn’s eyebrows raise. “I’m sorry, what?”
Sigiwald looks back to him, and his body relaxes. “You still assume that I called you here for revenge. I called you here for help.”
“Help? You just tried to kill me to make a point.” I say, exasperated.
“Well, yes.” He concedes, still looking at Finn. “My…anger got the better of me. As it usually does. But I only meant to threaten her to persuade you.”
“Oh, right, well, that makes it all okay.” Rolling my eyes, I’m not buying this guy’s story at all.
“You see, ten years ago, when the incident happened, my rage overruled my conscious.” Sigiwald goes on. “I…I was scared. And so, so angry. I do not know how it happened, but as soon as Finnegan left our realm, nothing could be moved on the side that was destroyed. We’ve tried everything, but not even a brick will move. Then, after a few years, we noticed that none of the people changed either. No woman could get pregnant, no person could age, no progress could be made. People come and go from other realms, but they never stay for long. Half our city is in disrepair and the other half is falling to the same because my people are prevented to progress.”
“Wait,” Finn interrupts, “you don’t know how it happened? You didn’t do it?”
He shakes his head slowly. “The first few weeks I did not let any person touch any of the disrepair. Perhaps…that caused it somehow? The people and I were angry, and I swore against you on everything precious I knew. But, five years ago, when a travelling merchant informed me of your supposed death, it all just…faded. Anger, like those other passionate emotions we felt back then, fades with time, as does everything. But not here.”
Finn dawns a look of understanding. “So when you heard I was alive…”
“Finnegan,” Sigiwald pleads, “seeing your face again stirred up that fire of anger. But you have to save my people from this….this hell.”
My mouth falls open, and I’m not sure how to respond. Finn does though.
Wait, what? ‘How?’
“Wait, hang on.” I look past Sigiwald at Finn. Oh, screw it. I walk around Sigiwald to Finn’s right side, my sword still vaguely pointing in the direction of the guards.
“I’m sorry,” I say to him in a hushed tone that everyone could hear, “are you actually suggesting we help him?”
Finn shrugs and then whispers, “Elizabeth, I’ve got to make this right. I mean, it is my fault.”
I shoot him a short glare.
“When I heard not only you were back but also that you’d taken up an apprentice, I knew there was only one possible reason why you’d come back.” Sigiwald slowly moves around to face us directly. “I was…foolish to assume I could threaten her to get to you. I…apologize.”
No one says anything until Finn urges him to answer his question of how to stop this.
“I’m not sure. But I imagine going back to where it happened would be a good start.”
Finn and I share a wary look as Sigiwald leads the way out of the hall, and then we follow him through the castle halls, side by side and at a safe distance behind him. Once we reach the gate, the destroyed half of the city lays to our right, and I gape yet again at the sight of destroyed buildings and rubble stretched out for miles. But Sigiwald doesn’t flinch an inch before stepping right onto the debris. His black leather boots crunch down on a wood plank, snapping it in half. The sound seems to echo and bounce around us, a change in the air.
Finn steps forward, hitting me lightly on the shoulder as he passes, snapping me out of my weird little trance. The two guards still follow a few feet behind us, and so our little procession makes its way across the dirt and stones and wood.
“So, where exactly are we going?” I ask Finn, kicking a little stone.
He’s looking around. “I think…maybe…”
I roll my eyes when he doesn’t finish his sentence.
Eventually, we come to the wall surrounding the city. Or, at least, what’s left of the wall. Which is basically nothing—only a few small towers of stones. We stand in the midst of broken wood and cracked stone and dust, but between us and the destroyed wall, for about twenty feet forward to the wall and thirty feet around, is a large, empty area of burnt earth. Almost an exact circle, the charred earth reaches from right in front of our feet to the wall, a thick layer of black dust that gets swept up by the wind in thin waves. It looks almost like mist, as the dirt and dust swirl in the breeze. Silently, we stand in a line, on the edge of the charred circle, and I watch the dust fold itself on the tips of my boots, the breeze blowing in our faces.
About halfway between us and the tumbling towers of the wall, something is peeking out of the dust. I lean forward, squinting my eyes to try to catch a glimpse of the thing, but the dust swirling in the air blocks my sight. Finn gently places a hand on my shoulder, pushing me slightly back from this burnt arena.
I look at him, annoyed, but he’s only looking at the thing. He steps forward, his boot falling softly through the dust as it reaches to his ankle. Sigiwald, standing to my left, and I watch silently, the guards several feet behind us, as Finn slowly makes his way to whatever’s in the dust. Then, he reaches it. And…nothing happens.
“What is that?” I call to him, standing on my toes to try to catch a glimpse.
“It’s okay,” he says, “come here.”
I make my way to him, the dust flowing in the air whipping at my face. Sigiwald follows in my footsteps, silent and unbothered by the dust.
When I reach Finn, I stand at his left and look down at what is sticking out of the dirt. A single arrow sticks out of the dust, its head lost in the black layers of dust. It’s cocked to the left, the fletching on the right side torn off so the left drags down. The arrow stands alone, and as I look around, I notice it’s directly in the center of the circle of dust. I look at Finn, about to ask a question, but I pause when I see his expression. His jaw clenched, his face scrunched, he looks at the arrow in….horror. Or disgust, or something not good. Then I realize. It’s regret.
“This was yours, wasn’t it?” I say softly. He only nods.
We stand a moment in silence, me at Finn’s side, both staring at the arrow. It’s one of those moments, the ones that even while you’re in them you know you’ll never forget it.
But in that silence, my mind is working, and something occurs to me.
“Hang on,” I say, turning around to Sigiwald, “on the way here from the castle, you snapped that plank. I thought that wasn’t possible, that nothing here could move. And I was kicking a rock…”
Sigiwald steps up to both of us, and for the first time I see something in his eyes. Something passionate. “It’s been working, you see. Bringing Finnegan back here is slowly deteriorating whatever has happened here.”
“Oh…” Finn says softly. “Oh, this arrow!”
“Did it cause this somehow?” I ask, way past confused and onto lost. “How even…”
Finn turns around to the two of us. “Like I said before, I was young and reckless back then. This arrow wasn’t mine, and neither was the bow I used. I sort of…stole them.”
“You stole them.” I say flatly. “Well, I’m so glad my mentor is one of high valor and…”
“From the Repository!” Finn goes on without acknowledging my sarcasm. “I needed a bow and mine broke, so I thought why not. Obviously, it had some other features I didn’t know about.”
“So, if whatever this did has been lessening as we get closer, all you need to do is, like, touch it?” I say. “And then the spell will be broken or whatever?”
Finn turns back to the arrow. “It’s not a spell, but yeah, I guess.”
He reaches down with his left hand, slowly, to grab the arrow.
But one second I’m watching his hand an inch from the arrow, and the next I’m seeing stars, clutching the back of my head in pain.
Before I even have a chance to react, I’m pulled backward by the wrist and hair, my head leaning back as Sigiwald pulls my hair back with his left hand and places his sword to my throat with his right. As the stars clear from my vision, the next thing I see is Finn with fire in his eyes and his sword aimed at my chest. No, not mine, Sigiwald’s.
“I seem to be experiencing some deja vu.” I say through gritted teeth. That gets me a yank of my hair, causing me to lean my head back further.
“Step away from the arrow.” Sigiwald says coldly to Finn, his warm breath in my ear. Up against the guy’s body, all I can feel is cold, as if his blood stopped moving along with his world.
Finn doesn’t move. “You tried this once already, remember? Best not to test me again.”
His sword is unwavering, still as a tomb and pointing directly at Sigiwald and I.
“Oh,” the man says while twisting the sword at my neck slightly, “I of all people know never to attempt that. But you see, I cannot allow you to touch that. I only brought you out here to make certain this was the cause of the time halt. And, of course, to take you out of the way.”
Between my thumping heart, I ask, “So, you want time to stay still?”
He laughs, but he sounds wary when he says, “This is my kingdom. I am….protecting it from those who would want to see it destroyed. You…wegferends have been visiting far too often, trying to involve yourselves. Look at what happened the last time I allowed that!”
Looking at Finn, I sigh as nonchalantly as I can with the pain raking through my hair. “You know, I really hate to say it, but I…”
“Told me so; I know, I know.” Finn finishes for me. “So, Sigiwald, time halting forever? What happened to ‘save us from this hell?’”
Sigiwald’s body tenses, and being so close to his body I can feel his heart racing. His hands are shaking, making the sword scratch my neck slightly. Something has changed; this seems like a completely different man than the one I saw sitting so still in the castle like a half and hour ago. I can’t seem to tell whether he’s just nervous to be opposing Finn or he’s just that angry. Or maybe…
“Hell isn’t this.” He spits back, interrupting my thoughts. “Hell is the destruction you rained down on us. Hell is…”
Finn rolls his eyes and interrupts, “Elizabeth, how are you standing this guy? I think you should blow this joint.”
“What are you saying? I will not let you destroy us!” Sigiwald almost screams.
But he isn’t holding my arms. And he doesn’t see as I open the watch and type in a few numbers.
“Yeah, you know, I might peace-out.” I laugh slightly. “Catch ya later, Sigi-weird.”
He gives me a bewildered look, but the next second I flop onto red dirt.
To Be Continued Next Thursday in the finale, The Forever King: Part 4!
Featured Image Found at: https://pixabay.com/en/uchisar-city-mountain-castle-65014/