At a relentless pace he raced forth unfaltering, one foot well ahead of the next, only to be beaten by the other in swift repetition. His lungs thrashed rapidly inside his chest, not in agony, but in ecstasy. His heart pounded in perfect rhythm, steady as a century old clock in a nobleman’s study. Not a muscle ached, but not for lack of work, his endurance well beyond mortal limits. Irikhart, god of fools, rumoured to be the most handsome of all gods, was on a quest. A quest most noble, most honourable, for a love promised by destiny itself. A love so pure not a thousand leagues of impassable terrain would deter, not ten thousand armed warriors could deflect, not one hundred thousand suitors could surpass, not one million ages buried beneath earth would forget.
He ran harder than solid rock, the force beneath the soles of his feet shaking the ground like thunder on open water, like the mighty blacksmith’s hammer on the aged anvil, like the iron-hearted star himself as it collided with the earth. Irikhart was unstoppable, neither a castle wall nor a mother dragon could detract him from his quest. His pace would never cease, not until he reached…
He stopped, dead in his tracks. Where did they say it was? Goldhead? Goldshoe? Gold…
“Blast!” he cursed to the wind, which kindly ignored him in return.
Irikhart surveyed his surroundings. The sun was setting over the beach; that must be west. Behind him, the coast meandered south all the way back to Helen’s Bay where he had come from. Before him, the sea backed away, the land curved from the north following the sun to its rest on the western horizon. And to the east, the mountains rose like a serpent’s teeth, the razor sharp peaks thrusting miles into the sky, the first stars flirting between them in the growing darkness.
Goldflint? Goldhead? What the hell was it called?
He spotted something of interest ahead. A small camp, tattered, and apparently abandoned. It clung to the beach where a little stream ended its journey, pouring the ice-melt into the sea. Nearing the camp, he wondered if any of the tents might still be occupied.
“Hello?” he called, but the camp offered no words in return.
Searching for signs of life, he charged into the ring of huts and called out again and again.
“Uh, hello?” he bellowed, his voice carrying confidently though the ragged camp. “Is, uh, anyone here?”
With patience earned from a lifetime of watching, Irikhart set to await the return of the residents of the abandoned camp. His gaze was drawn across the sea as he gracefully planted his foot high upon a trunk of wood set within a few feet of the campfire, placed just there for mortal bottoms. Behind him rose a startled voice of one that appeared from nowhere.
“What do you want?” he asked with little ceremony, and even less enthusiasm. “Can’t you leave an honest drunk in peace?”
Turning round to face the voice, Irikhart found a withered man, and could see without a doubt that he had spent the better part of the day with the bottle. Still, he stood on two feet, and his mouth worked well enough that Irikhart could ask him for help.
“I’m looking for a cave,” said Irikhart, attempting to keep an authoritative tone. “But I can’t remember what it’s called.”
The man stared at him for some time. He might have been thinking. He might have been considering whether or not he should waste the time thinking.
“And you want me,” he said, considering his words carefully, “to help you find a cave that you don’t have a name for?”
He was scratching his tattered beard. It apparently hadn’t been cut or cleaned in a decade. Perhaps it did hold the secrets Irikhart was after.
“It’s called… Goldsnake? Goldbird? Gold… something.”
The local authority on cave locating continued to search his beard for answers.
“Goldryke?” he ventured. “Goldryke Caves?”
“That’s it!” exclaimed Irikhart excitedly. “That’s the cave. Do you know where it is?”
Unwilling to release his beard, the man glanced back towards the mountains behind him, before fixing Irikhart with a curious, suspicious look.
“What would you be going to Goldryke for then? Would this be some sort of quest?”
“A quest indeed, yes. A noble one too, most noble.”
The beach dweller continued to ponder the situation, the wisdom of unbrushed and unwashed hair guiding him unfalteringly.
“And would the end goal of this quest be to impress… a girl?”
“Exactly right!” said Irikhart, surprised at the man’s talent for perception.
“Ah, of course,” said the man, releasing his beard, having deduced the truth. “That would make you a hero, then?”
“I suppose so,” acknowledged Irikhart, as humbly as only a hero could.
“You don’t look like much of a hero.”
Irikhart was silent for a second, then looked himself up and down.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” said the expert on heroes, surveying his outfit. “Those clothes are more designed for a fancy dinner with a nobleman’s daughter. Or perhaps the nobleman himself, were you asking for his daughter’s hand. And you don’t even have a weapon. A hero should be dressed appropriately, really, and carry a sword. It just so happens that I have a sword here, and a hero’s uniform. I could trade you both for your suit. I would be doing you a favour, but I don’t mind really – helping a hero is a humble man’s duty, after all.”
Irikhart realised the generous man was speaking the truth. Sure, it had been a long time since he had watched a hero in action, but they always carried great swords with them, and their clothes were ripped and bloodied just the right amount. They returned to the maidens bathed in glory with the sword sheathed high over their shoulder, on display for all to see.
“You are too kind,” said Irikhart. “I would refuse your offer, but you do speak the truth. A hero needs a sword, and he needs to be dressed for the occasion.”
Irikhart began removing his clothes, and folded them neatly as he awaited his bestower’s return from within his canvas chambers. The man soon returned with an iron sword with a bone hilt.
“It’s a little worn, of course, but what hero’s sword isn’t?” said the man on the beach as he displayed the weapon. “The wear proves its reliability in battle, shows its history as the blade of a hero.”
He handed the sword to Irikhart who received it appreciatively, admiring the chipped bone haft, the dull iron blade with rusted nooks, and the loose fit in the scabbard – a hero’s sword indeed. Next he was offered the vesture, fit for a hero, he thought, though he was a little unconvinced.
“Underpants?” he queried.
“Of course not. It’s a loincloth. A true hero’s outfit.”
Irikhart eyed them a little longer, still not quite certain.
“Shouldn’t they be made of animal hide, or have a wild print? A tiger, or something like that?”
“No, no. Nowadays, blue is all the rage. You know, the fashion,” he said with a confident nod. “Women love it.”
He supposed that made sense. Times had changed since last he’d watched a hero in action.
“They look a little faded. Old perhaps.”
“It wouldn’t do if a girl saw a hero in fancy new clothing, would it? She wouldn’t believe he had ever attempted, let alone completed, a quest.”
“Of course,” he agreed. It made perfect sense.
Irikhart gracefully donned the aged blue loincloth, which fit rather loosely around his waist. To his back he strapped the plain wooden scabbard, and sheathed the mighty iron weapon. He felt better immediately, prepared for his quest, ready for challenges ahead.
“Where did you say that cave was?”
The generous man turned and pointed to the mountains behind, covered in snow that glowed in the shimmering starlight.
“You see that, the tallest peak over there? Just climb up there. When you reach the top, you will see it. If you get lost, there should be a few winged folk around there that will point you in the right direction.”
“You have been too kind, and helpful. How can I ever repay you?”
The man’s hand leapt back to his beard as his eyes wandered off in thought.
“Well, if you happen to find any extra treasure in there, you could always give me a cut.”
“Of course. I will not forget what you have done for me!”
With that, Irikhart turned and began jogging towards the mountain. His sword clattering loose in its scabbard, his blue underpants keeping him insufficiently secure. But clad as a hero should be, he wasted no time in racing towards the highest mountain of the Frozen Peaks.
His unrelenting pace resumed, his ankles strong on the inclined paths, he sang himself a song of heroes past as the snow caps grew ever nearer. His destiny lay in his strength of will, unyielding, undying in the dark of night. No bush, no boulder gave him pause, neither cliff nor gorge delayed his charge. Little time had passed before the sand beneath his feet grew wet, then ice replaced the melting snow. No hesitance lulled his advance, and soon the morning broke upon the glaring white vista of the tallest peaks.
From there it was difficult to tell which mountain was indeed the highest. Without a break, he ran in circles searching for the tallest crown, when by chance he came upon a fallen hero, a predecessor, lost in his own valiant quest.
The man stood tall where he’d died, but frozen as if he had lost his final chance to move in life, as if an ice dragon had trapped him in his stance eternally. His grimace was clear through the fractured frost, his beard held fast but ready to crack. His feet close together, knees bent ready, and his sword hand gripped the hilt of his blade. His left arm stretched out before him, a lonely finger pointing away, and, following its direction, Irikhart spied the intended target. A single peak stood tall beyond the rest.
With renewed hope, Irikhart followed the man’s last wish, and towards the peak he raced as the sun crossed overhead, doing nothing to heat his half naked body. The winds grew colder as they howled through the mountains, fine ice smashing upon his unguarded skin. Were his heart any weaker or his quest less grand, he would have surrendered to failure, but not Irikhart, and not today.
As he neared the peak he noticed he had an escort. One hundred strong, great white beasts with four legs and wings, with claws the size of daggers and razor sharp teeth lining their beaks. In the blizzard they would be impossible to perceive, but the sun shone through, and Irikhart could count their numbers.
Soon he was surrounded, one hundred to one, yet still his sword lay loose in its scabbard. Forced to stop, he circled on his feet, searching for a gap in the flock, but none was to be found.
“What do you want?” he shouted. “I am just trying to get to the Gold… uh, Gold-something caves.”
He wondered if they could understand him, assist him even. What did he know of the giants of Frozen Peaks. Didn’t the kind man on the beach say something about them?
“Do you know where they are?”
One of the beasts stepped forward, its massive claws sinking deep into fresh snow. One by one its feet carried it forward, until it stood but an arm’s length from Irikhart’s head. Its beak drew slowly open, the teeth glinting in the sun. Closer they came until they almost surrounded his head, but still Irikhart stood bold, unmoving.
He heard a snap and a crash. The ice raptor vanished before him, tumbling through collapsed ice. With barely half a moment to think, he stood still and did nothing at all, until the cave-in dragged him down, falling away in chaotic debris.
He tumbled for countless moments, unsure which way he was facing, until he landed suddenly, soft on a warm surface. He rolled off onto the ice, and saw before him the giant beast lay dead, the ice raptor felled at his feet. The light was weak, but still he could see: behind him lay the entrance, ahead of him lay a tunnel, descending deep into the darkness.
“This must be it. Gold… uh, what the hell is it called again?” he asked the darkness of the cave.
“Goldryke,” it answered, echoing from the dark.
* * *
His quest nearing its end, Irikhart persevered. Deeper into darkness he marched, his eyes adjusting as he went. Time and day vanished from memory, each step appearing no different from the last. But soon he came upon a cavern most grand.
There in the entrance awaited a creature beyond mortal ken. Fifteen feet tall it stood, with eyes facing all around. One hundred ways it could see, and one hundred great tentacles with talons to defend their line. Its great head stood tall, with little body to feed. The ancient guardian was not there to eat, but only to defend the prize. Its hundred tentacles rippled in the air, threatening any who would go near.
Without caution did Irikhart face the beast. Without fear did he stand before it and speak.
“Excuse me,” he demanded with might in his voice, “could you step out of the way, please?”
The beast turned to face him by not turning at all. One hundred eyes it had, but with only twenty could he see Irikhart’s approach.
“What?” asked the guardian. “That’s not how it works.”
The two faced each other in silence while long moments slipped by, until eventually it was Irikhart who broke the impasse.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The guardian cleared its throat, clearly distraught.
“Well,” it said. “You are supposed to defeat me in battle, or die trying. Or at least wait till I am asleep and creep into the chamber undetected. That’s what a hero does. I don’t just stand aside, and let you take the treasure. It’s, well, it’s just not how it works.”
“Who said that? Are there some rules somewhere I don’t know about?”
“What?” exclaimed the guardian, exasperated. “What are you talking about, rules? There are no rules. It’s a fight to the death. It’s, well, it’s just how it is.”
“But I didn’t come here to die,” insisted Irikhart. “I came here to retrieve a coin. A gold coin, with a ship on one side, and seven stars on the reverse. Is it here? Have you seen it?”
They stood in silence for another moment. Soon, the beast curled up its tentacles. It looked like it sat down. It looked like it put its head in its hands.
“Godsdammit!” it said. “You are Irikhart, right? God of fools?”
“Yes!” he said, amazed. “How did you know?”
“Godsdammit!” sighed the guardian, making a gesture that looked like shaking its head. “Why are you wearing blue underpants?”
Irikhart looked himself over.
“It’s a loincloth,” he said. “A hero’s outfit. I traded it with a kind gentleman before entering the mountains.”
“Did he give you that rusty butter knife too?”
Irikhart drew the sword, and swung it a few times before him. Not in a threatening way.
“A hero’s sword. Worn and aged by its countless previous wielders.”
“Godsdammit!” said the guardian, loudly cursing Irikhart’s kin. “One hundred years of waiting, and this is what I get? What do you want the coin for, Irikhart?”
“Well,” he said, standing tall, “It’s-“
“Is it for a girl?”
“Ah, ahem, yes it is.”
The guardian was still shaking its head. Well, it was shaking its body.
“Right,” it said. “Look, if I let you take the coin, do you promise you won’t tell anyone? Just tell them I was asleep, or tending to nature, or something. I have a reputation, you see.”
“Of course,” agreed Irikhart excitedly. “I won’t tell anyone how nice you have been.”
“Fine, then. Go on.”
About twenty tentacles lifted in a gesture as the guardian stood aside. Irikhart trotted along into the chamber, having bravely defeated the ancient guardian without needing his sword. It wasn’t long until he found a shelf with a gold coin glinting in a beam of light that appeared as if from nowhere. Irikhart collected his reward, and discovered he didn’t have a pocket to put it in. Slightly annoyed, yet undefeated, he kept it in his hand.
“Sorry to bother you again. I promised a man a cut of the treasure. Do you mind if I take a little extra?”
“Is this the man that gave you the blue underpants?”
“The hero’s loincloth, yes.”
“Godsdammit!” said the guardian once again, glancing habitually at the end of one of its tentacles. “Look, just take what you need and get out.”
Irikhart collected a few smaller treasures that he could carry, and then turned to make his way out of the caves. Then he realised, he didn’t really know where he’d come from. Plus, there were those ice raptors outside the cave.
“Sorry, just one more thing,” he said. “What the best way to get to Helen from here?”
The guardian’s head was so deep in its tentacle palms that they may have fused together.
“Are you serious? Do you want a horse too?”
“That would be most kind of you!”
“Look, there is a back door down there. It will lead you to the foothills. Just go, before I change my mind.”
Irikhart found the door easily, and walked through. The tunnel was dark, but easy to follow. Victorious, he marched through the tunnel as fast as his feet could carry him, which was impressively fast given he was a god.
He emerged from the tunnel at the bottom of the foothills. Before him lay the green pastures of the west country, and the ocean beyond that. To the north, the coast travelled far before it bent out west. To the south lay Helen’s Bay, his path, his destiny, his future bride. Behind him lay a small cave entrance with a wooden sign that read: no entry.
With renewed vigour, Irikhart began his journey south, his relentless pace resumed, his debt to the man on the beach forgotten, his epic story ready to be told for all to hear. He pictured Ryleine’s face as he presented her with the gift, while dressed as a hero on his triumphant return. The smile, the hug, the offer of her undying love; for Irikhart had completed his heroic quest.
Even as the sun eased below the shimmering horizon and the darkness gave life to the restless stars, Irikhart never slowed his pace. His eyes were fixed before him, his feet falling with confidence, his destiny so clear – as if it were painted before him. But it wasn’t what he saw that was important; it was what he failed see. For high above in the darkened sky, a tiny light began to brighten. Had he turned his head just then, he would have seen not one, not two, but three stars falling; his kin descending to Renryre Island.
Thanks for reading Renryre Island Chapter X: A Quest Most Noble, Most Honourable
Next, Interlude: Wisdom Of The Gods
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