Another tale of Hralf, in which Hralf saves a life. If you’ve not met Hralf, start with the first Hralf story “Hralf, Hewer of Sagas.”
Enter, yes, please enter, O wise one! This one rejoices that you have come to his humble dwelling!
A tale of Hralf, O esteemed sir? It would be my joy and my delight, O most fortunate one.
Perhaps sir would care to hear the tale of Hralf and the Collossus of Kandar? A mighty battle it was!
Perhaps then the tale of Hralf and the Living Ziggurat of Doom? With the power of his mighty arms, he—
Perhaps sir has a favorite tale of Hralf that one might relate? For truly, this one knows many, many tales of Hralf, the wise, the mighty, the cataclysmic!
Oh, but sir! I am but a humble teller of tales—this one’s life can be of but little interest to a wise scholar such as yourself, even in how this one’s path has crossed that of Hralf, the mighty, the—
But if such a wise and exquisitely generous scholar were to insist—
One thanks you!
Yes, I was indeed so fortunate, so wondrously blessed by the good gods as to meet the incomparable Hralf, yes, and more, to share an adventure with him.
In my youth I was a servant to the Sultan of Solfege, a mighty potentate, and was privileged to be ever by him and to stand in the very shadow of his throne. It was my duty and honor to bear a great fan, made of the stalks and fronds of the marvelous Lomita plant, which grows round and about the Sultan’s palace and is sacred to the Sultan and his household. This fan I would wave, hour by hour, that the Sultan’s brow should never be troubled by the flies of the desert or the heat of the day. And due to my post I became aware of all the Sultan’s cares and projects; and so delicate and so precise were the wafts of air from my fan that I became a favorite of the Sultan and he hid none of his secrets from me.
I had been serving my appointed task for a year and a day when my master called to himself a team of adventurers. I saw nothing unusual in this, for my master was a collector of rare and magical items, and the collection of these items required the utmost skill and courage. But this day! It is a day that lives in my memory.
There were three in this team: a stern elf, cut about with the signs of many battles; a low halfing, dressed in the manner of the cavaliers of old; and leading them, Hralf, the mighty, the verbose, the last of the Lords of the Rolling Veldt, in whom were combined the virtues and powers of his lordly forebears down through many ages.
Tall he was, towering over even the elf, with noble mane well-combed and a sword and shield on his back. He did not deign to haggle with my master, standing with arms crossed while the lowly halfing did his bidding.
I recognized him immediately, for even then I was no stranger to the tales of his glory. Here before me was the one who had slain the Many-headed Hydra of Hyburnia, severing each head and cauterizing each stump with a torch of pine pitch. Here was the one who had defeated the Hordes of Calumnius, slaying ten gnomes at each stroke of his outstretched blade and putting them to flight. Here was the one who had walked through the dreaded Mines of Maleficus, looking neither right nor left but staying ever on the enchanted path, and so had brought the Eurydical Rose to the Beast of Orpheum and freed him from his everlasting bondage.
Truly I was in a tumult, a paroxysm, a cataclysm of joy!
At length my master completed his instructions, and bid Hralf and his servants to rest themselves in apartments prepared for them until their leaving on the morrow; and then he went in turn to his own couch.
With my duty thus over I was consumed by the desire to see more of Hralf the great, the indefatigable; and so I passed to the guest wing of the Sultan’s palace and offered to him my humble services.
The three had disposed themselves about the chamber. The elf reclined on a divan with a moist cloth over his face; the halfing sat among a pile of cushions with a cooling drink at his elbow; and Hralf, mighty Hralf, sat by a low table, carving words into a stone tablet with a hammer and a chisel that were most miraculously silent.
“Nah, kid, we’re good,” said the halfling in response to my query. “Your master’s provided for us right and tight.” He sipped insolently at his drink. “We’ll ring if we need anything.”
But ignoring his ill-bred words, I crept closer to the mighty one.
“And what might I bring his mightiness?” I said.
And Hralf deigned to look aside from his noble carvings to gaze upon me, and the weight of his regard settled upon me like a warm rug in the chill of the desert night.
“I do not know you, do I?” quoth he in lordly tones.
“No, O mighty one.”
“Would you like to read one of my sagas?”
What joy! What bliss! To be invited to read a tale carved by Hralf’s own mighty hand!
I bowed deeply, and nodded—for though you might not credit it, my master in his vast generosity had taught me to read. And more! For his eyes being weak he had often called upon me to lay down my fan and read to him, documents and scrolls, books and inscriptions. And as his collections came from so many ages and lands, and were inscribed in all the languages contained therein, he had presented me with a glass, a most magical and enchanted glass, that by looking through this glass I might infallibly read any writings in any language and script whatsoever.
And so, taking the tablet he condescended to hand to me, I bowed and I knelt, and taking the glass from the pocket it where it rested, I began to read.
A noble tale it was, a tale of Hralf’s forebears. I cannot repeat the words, for they were too lofty and exalted for my humble tongue, but the tale was thus: a lord of Hralf’s people came to a spot overlooking a river, and there feasted with his companions. They drank and made merry, and the lord saluted his folk many and many times with mighty quaffs from the Horn of the Rolling Veldt, a vessel made in past ages from the horn of a great and wicked beast; and that night as they rested, the cheetahs, wily and wicked, crept silently across the river and stole the horn away.
Great was the muster and mighty the host the lord called the next day, and the host of the veldt followed behind the cheetahs, strong and sure, and came to their encampment at the first of the sun’s rays, and slew them all, doing the mightiest of deeds; and regaining the Horn from the hand of their leader returned home in triumph.
And then the great Hralf handed me another tablet, about the slaying of the Beast of the Horn by Hralf’s first ancestor and his many wives, and how the Horn was made.
And then another tablet, and another tale of Hralf’s people, and my heart sank within me and my eyes grew dark.
And when I had finished it I put the enchanted glass aside. And I saw that he was watching me, and that he saw my dejection.
“Do you not like the tales of my people?”
I could not but answer, “The Mighty One’s ancestors are truly to be numbered among the heroes of the world! But rather I long for a tale about the Mighty One himself and his own mighty deeds!”
He cocked his head to one side.
“Deeds have I not done, and feats have foregone, to tell of my tribe and further their fame,” he said.
Truly it is said that the great excel in all virtues, and humility not least! But I could not leave this unanswered.
“But that is not true,” I cried. “For did not the Mighty One slay the Serpent of the Isles? Did he not ravish the Jeweled Heart from the Lich King of Kadavra? Did he not polish the teeth of the Jade Skull of Remembrance?”
Hralf regarded me for a long moment, and my breath caught in my throat.
“I like this one,” he said to his servants. “He shall come with us.”
I bowed three times, touching my forehead to the stone of the floor.
“As the Mighty One wishes,” I said.
My master was loath for me to go, but the halfling spoke the will of Hralf the inexorable with assurance.
“I’m afraid we’re going to need him for this job.” He turned to gaze upon Hralf, and the Mighty One nodded, ever decisive, as the great heroes must be.
“Very well,” said my master. “Be sure to return him to me unharmed.”
And so we set out—
What was our goal?
O wise one, it is my joy and my privilege to answer any question you might have, and at any length you should desire.
I say, O master of generosity—
My thanks, O servant of the gods of prosperity!
Our goal was a most prized gem, long lost to the ages, and enshrouded in mystic significance and holy power: the Stone of Omphalos. With this gem, it is said, one might pass unseen though crowds uncounted, and walk freely wherever he wills though the doors be locked against him, yes, and see clearly in the darkest night. My master had discovered its location: the Temple of Anra-Devadoris, in the city of Cimbola which was lost to the desert sands in ages gone by. The sands blow as the winds will, as the wise know; and when the stars align in mystic panoply, perhaps once in an age, the ruins of the city are revealed to moon and sun though the sands lie all about. My master had learned that we were in just such a time and a season, and was eager to retrieve the Eye while yet he could.
The road to the city of Cimbola was harsh and dry, and beset with fearsome creatures.
On the first day our camels and our persons were afflicted by the sand mites that infest the desert’s edge. Lo, there was much scratching and cursing and brandishing of imprecations by the elf and the halfling!
But Hralf, the inexorable, the imperturbable, strode across the sand undaunted, declaiming in stentorian tones:
“The insects infested the sands that surrounded, the dry lands so dusty that through which we strode! No blade could abate them, no claw could discard them, so forwards we filed the Eye to acquire!”
Truly the great are magnanimous in all ways, unlike the servile who wail and moan in pain at the least sign of trial!
By nightfall we had passed through this region and into the deep desert, where we found the first oasis my master had marked for us. We built a fire by the water, and prepared food, and ate of it; and then the halfling spoke to me.
“So, lad,” he said, casting his eyes at Hralf the ineffable, “it seems you’ve heard many stories about Our Hralf. Perhaps you’d care to share one.”
I bristled to hear the mighty one so casually named, and it seemed that the elf also found his tones to be lacking in respect, for he looked up and said, quietly, “Sarvalur.”
“What?” said the halfling. “It’s a long time until morning, I’d just like a story to pass the time.”
“Let the little one speak,” said Hralf, his eyes warm and benevolent upon me.
I sat up, and placing my hands in my lap, I began.
“I shall relate,” I said, “the story of Hralf and the Feathered Serpent of Agilia. It came to pass that Hralf—”
I beg your pardon, O son of wisdom?
Truly, O wise one, your intellect shines before the ages. Well may you ask how I came to be so intimately acquainted with the Mighty One’s exalted and noble history.
You see here, on these shelves behind me, my treasures. Truly it is said that knowledge belongs to the scholar and not to the dullard, and so from my childhood I have diligently studied these many pages and learned from them the truth of all that is important. I have saved each copper, and these coppers I have invested in all wisdom.
Here in this volume, if I may be so bold as to present the wise one with an exemplar, is the tale of the mighty Hralf and the Colander of Destruction! Nay, do not touch it, but observe. Note the delicacy of the pages and binding, symbolizing the fragility of true wisdom, so painfully won and so easily lost. Note on the spine the seal of the noble House of Copperbane, true friend of scholars. Note the price, but a single copper piece, symbolizing the worthlessness of all brute matter and the pricelessness of wisdom! From this volume and its many companions that you see behind me have I drawn my learning as one draws life from the waters of an oasis in the midst of deep desert.
I shared this wisdom with the elf and the halfling, having learned that Hralf, possessor of every virtue, was too humble to speak of these things himself. And Hralf listened, gazing nobly into the distance, and when I made an end he nodded to me and disposed himself to sleep. And so the night passed, and the morning came, the second day of our journey.
Beyond the oasis the dunes began their rise and fall. Here we were free at last of the mites, but our travails were not over! For the dunes are the home of the silicaceous toads, who burrow and dig their warrens deep within and who come to the surface only at the scent of water, such as might be found in the bodies of unwary travelers. The only sign of their presence is a certain pattern in the sand of the dune, a pattern which my master had described to us.
In time we came to one such dune. The elf directed his camel around the treacherous markings, and the remaining camels followed behind: the halfling’s, and mine, and those that carried our baggage.
But Hralf the brave, the unconquerable, journeying on foot as befits a hero, spurned that choice, disdaining to turn away from any battle. He strode on, humming sweetly on the desert air, his feet sinking into the sand of the dune like the hammers of the Lord of Forges; and the sand opened beneath him, revealing the maws and acid tongues of countless toads, shining like crystal in the noonday sun.
The Mighty One did not give way, but rather he roared and stamped and stamped and roared, crushing the toads to shining dust beneath his mighty boots, for he would not condescend to dirty his sword on such as these. Truly his agility was a wonder to my eyes as he leaped and whirled, executing a veritable dance of death, until he came at last to firmer sands.
“Toads we turned over, the sands they were swarming, with boots like behemoths I crushed them like candy!” declaimed Hralf afterwards, having dressed the welts caused by the vitriol of their spit. His servants hung their heads in sorrow that they had not assisted him in the battle, gazing the one at the other in admiration of Hralf’s power and brilliance.
That evening the halfling once again asked for a tale, though the elf frowned; and once again Hralf the mighty, the imperturbable, the ineffervescent listened gravely as I related the tale of his harrowing trek through the Fever Jungles of Jamnia. The night passed and the morning came, the third day of our journey.
We left the dunes and came to the Plain of Desolation, a broken land studded with the lairs of the loathsome antdragons. Of these my master had told us little, simply warning us to avoid their wide funnel-like pits; for at the bottom of each pit hides an antdragon in wait for the unwary who might step within and so tumble down the perilous sides.
The antdragons are always hungry, for there is but little that lives in that place, but they are patient, oh yes!
And so the path of our camels was a winding one, for the pits of the antdragons are both many and large.
At last our way led into the largest of the Sand Canyons of Boraxis, where our way was blocked by two such pits that spanned the floor with only a narrow saddle of sand dipping between them. The elf, ever dauntless, led the way across this saddle, each camel sending spills of sand sliding down to the right and to the left; and last came Hralf.
But never let it be said that Hralf shied away from battle!
It had worn on him all of that day to leave the antdragons behind untested, his frustration plain to any with the eyes to see it. And so when it came his turn to cross, and when he had reached the middle of the saddle, he feigned to stumble, and so propelled himself, rolling, down the righthand slope towards the antdragon that waited at the bottom, its mandibles perspiring in anticipation!
I gasped, and for a moment I doubted, though it shames me to say so.
But Hralf the mighty, the incomparable, the aromatic, was not to be a meal for such as this! For having landed heavily on the antdragon’s carapace he leaped back up the slope, paddling like a swimmer through the sand with his hands and feet, and so diminishing the saddle that separated the antdragon and its neighbor. And as the antdragon lurched its bulk after him, its mandibles gnashing, there came a fountain of sand from the adjoining pit. For antdragons are not friends, one with another; and as Hralf regained the canyon floor at the edge of the paired pits, the antdragons did battle.
Ah, it was a sight to see, the mighty Hralf watching dispassionately as the antdragons tore each other asunder with strikes of their long curving mandibles! In time nothing remained but two mounds of chitin and ichor, all to be quickly reclaimed by the drifting sand.
That night the halfling praised Hralf for his great victory over the antdragons, calling to mind each moment in the noblest of words, until I thought it was I myself who was speaking. And when the elf called upon him to end, I shared with them the blood-drenched tale of Hralf and the Hospice of Wounding, and so the night passed and the morning came, the fourth day of our journey.
The remains of the City of Cimbola lie in a valley like a vast bowl, at the end of the Sand Canyons of Boraxis, a vast bowl nearly filled with the dusty red desert sands. Only a portion of the city had been swept clear by the wind’s whimsy, and that only partially, for the streets and alleys remained choked with dust.
Yet the spire and dome of the Temple of Anra-Devadoris rose free and proud of the sands, the surface of the dome still dappled with the gold leaf that had made it the pride of Cimbola. Below the dome was a ring of arched windows by which light was admitted to the sanctuary that lay below; and below that the walls and upper ramparts of the temple slept half buried in the dusty sands.
Hralf indicated these windows by a sharp glance and a tilt of his majestic chin.
“The sands are deeper around the back side of the temple,” said the halfling, in this, at least, of one mind with his master. “If we can manage to climb them, we might be able to get inside through those archways.”
Eerie it was, and chilling, O wise listener, to ride through those silent streets, and past the remains of the upper floors of once lordly mansions. Nothing stirred there but the breezes, nothing grew but the drifts of sand. Not even the antdragons could make a home there, not even the sand mites would dare to break its awful silence. And yet we rode on, silenced and oppressed, all save Hralf, who hummed softly as with the aid of his dextrous and unsurpassed ankles he navigated the treacherous sands like a broad and paved avenue.
At last we came to the temple, and passing around it to the left came to a broad expanse of sand that covered even the rooftops. There we dismounted, and the elf staked out our camels that they might not roam and leave us to perish.
The ascent up to the level of the dome was made with the greatest of difficulty, for the drifted sand was steep and gave way below our feet. The halfling alone could climb it with impunity; and at last, laying hold of one end of a rope, he scrambled to the top and made it fast to the stone pier that divided two of the archways. With its aid we ascended, and passed within.
Sand had drifted even here, filling the gallery that circled the chamber a tall man’s height below us and spilling over to the floor tens of feet below that, obscuring the dark mosaics.
All was as my master had described, and yet we were filled with wonder: for the Flame of Devouring still burned in the Pit of Sacrifice that lay in the center of the sanctuary, its red light illuminating all that lay therein. By that light we were the first in countless centuries to look upon the stone visage of Devadoris, the Anra of Fire and Darkness, where he sat his carven throne. In one hand he held a stone sword, its flat etched with tongues of fire; in the other a black stone, a polished sphere that in no way reflected back the gleam of the dancing flames. His blank eyes gazed into the pit, and by the light of the flames his face wore a sneer of fiendish delight.
The elf lowered the rope within, and so we descended and came to stand by the pit.
Not for Hralf the indignity of drudge-work! He stood and kept watch, noble countenance raised, as his minions stepped carefully around and about looking for traps and other hidden dangers.
At last the halfling drew himself up to his full height.
“It looks clean,” he said. “Shall I?”
Hralf, the mighty, the judicious, chose not to waste his words on such as that, but by his lordly silence gave his assent.
The halfling sprang into the lap of the great Anra, sending showers of sand down into the pit where the Flame consumed them, and then climbed the idol’s chest, using its many bejeweled ornaments as hand and footholds, until he reached its stone shoulder; and then bestriding its outstretched arm made his way along it and plucked the Stone of Omphalos from its long-fingered stone hand.
And in so doing, he vanished from our sight.
“Got it,” we heard him say, and saw the marks of his feet when he dropped lightly onto the sand below.
His absence was nearly the last thing we ever saw, for as he landed the idol sneered more broadly, and making a fist of the hand that had held the stone it stood up, towering over our heads, even over the head of Hralf, the mighty, the imposing! I fell to the ground, my bones weak with fear, as it stepped forward, pulling its lower limbs free of the sand.
It knelt by the pit and extended its sword down into the Devouring Fire; and when it rose the etched flames on the stone blade were now burning in truth. Then it turned to face me where I cowered on the sand. It took two steps towards me, moving as swiftly as the night wind, and raised one vast stone foot to crush me. I tried to scramble away but could not move as the foot started to descend, the statue’s face grinning with a malicious glee.
And Hralf the mighty, the fearless, the ever-watchful, roared in rage, roared so that I thought my head would split. And suddenly, though he had had no time to cross the space between us, he was there by my side, below the descending foot. He crouched, raising his hands over his head; and placing his palms against the stone rose again, roaring as he exerted his wondrous strength. He seemed to blur, and the foot began to rise swiftly, higher and then higher, until the effigy of the Lord of Darkness and Fire went crashing backward into its throne.
I thought the fall would be enough to crack the stone and break the spine of the mighty figure, but no: it was the throne that splintered.
The elf pulled me to safety, pushing me behind a lesser statue that stood against the wall, and as he did so the unseen halfling shouted, “Hralf, catch!” I saw the Stone of Omphalos, a point of blackness, fly across the sanctuary to the mighty Hralf, who snatched it from the air and disappeared from sight just as the idol climbed to its feet and raised its sword.
I beg your pardon, most wise and attentive listener, for I confess that this lowly one is nearly overcome with sadness. Give me but a moment to compose myself, and I shall continue.
Why should I be so sad, you say? Hralf did not perish, you say?
And so he did not, for no such foul enchantment would suffice to bring down Hralf, the mighty, the invincible, the inflammable! Nor did his companions perish.
No, my sorrow is not for him or for them, but for my insignificant self. For what followed was a battle to rival any related in any of these my treasures arrayed behind me, a battle of a sort few men have ever been privileged to witness; and no more did I witness, though I was there in my own body, for by the power of the Stone of Omphalos the mighty Hralf was hidden entirely from my view.
I saw the idol swing its flaming sword at the halfling as, exposed, he ran for the shelter of another statue; and I saw the idol stagger as a stone tablet struck it on the back of its head, its feet skidding in the drifted sand.
“BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!” came Hralf’s roaring cry.
The idol whirled in place, turning towards the center of the sanctuary.
“STONE AND SHINS SHATTERED!”
Another tablet flew high over the Pit of Sacrifice, striking the idol in its chest and scattering gems set in gold in all directions. The idol stamped forward, sand flying, its head turning left and right as it sought its foe.
“A PUPPET SO PUNY, ITS GOLD WILL BE GATHERED!”
A third tablet flew over the flame tops and struck the idol’s nose, which crumbled.
Devadoris raised its head and opening its mouth as if to shriek, though there was no noise but the crackling of the flames. Then the idol stepped forward to the very rim of the Pit and bent low, slicing its flaming sword horizontally through anything that might be standing on the other side, and I gasped, for I thought that nothing could escape the swiftness of that blow.
But Hralf was no longer there!
“FLAME AND FIRE FINISH YOU!”
Something massive but unseen struck the Anra in the small of its back, and overbalancing it toppled slowly, head first, into the fire below. The stone of its body cracked with a deafening report as the Devouring Flames rose to the height of the dome and then receded, and sinking down into the pit, guttered, and then died.
We did not linger in the temple, though the halfling gathered as many of the scattered gems as he could find while Hralf gathered his tablets, nor did we linger in the remains of sad Cimbola; for when we emerged the desert winds were rising, and the sands with them. We sought shelter in the mouth of the Sand Canyon, huddling in a collapsed tent for a day and a night, and when we emerged the bowl of the valley of Cimbola was filled to its rim with sand. Not even the spire of the temple remained to our sight.
We battled no ant dragons on our return journey; we encountered no silicaceous toads in the dunes; the sand mites we endured; and we returned at last to the house of my master the Sultan. I took up my fan as the halfling put the Stone of Omphalos into my master’s hands.
“Well done,” came his voice from his seemingly empty throne. “And thank you for returning my servant in good health.”
Servants came then, to lead Hralf and his servitors to their quarters for the night, that they might refresh themselves and rest; and then the Sultan listened with awe and amazement, the Stone on a stand by his left hand, as I related the course of our adventure.
I attended the Sultan when Hralf took his leave the following morning, and my joy was complete when Hralf, the mighty, the generous, the unsilenceable, took a stone tablet from the sack at his hip and presented it to me.
“For a companion so charming, his words wise and wondrous, a remembrance remarkable his deeds have deserved.”
Then he bowed, and he and his left us. And that you may know that I tell truly, here it is, here by my side, my most cherished possession: the tablet that contains the tale of Hralf and the Stone of Omphalos, carved by his own hand.
Did I not wish to leave my master and follow him?
I did, and yet I did not. For the idol would have reduced me to a paste finer than the sublime wyvern liver paté that is served in the palace of Solfege, and I am not Hralf, the mighty, the uncrushable, to face such dangers over and over again, and live. I was but a humble servant; and my master having died in the fullness of time and his noble successor having no need of my services and no taste for the wisdom of scholarship, I became as you see me now, a lowly one who earns his daily bread by telling tales to generous listeners such as my noble guest.
Thank you, O most noble and benevolent one! May the good gods ever watch over you.
Photo by Juli Kosolapova on Unsplash