Swords At World's Edge
By Poe Ghostal
"So who is this Champion from another realm?"
Duncan stood before the Window of Knowledge, watching the Sorceress as she concentrated upon its surface. "I do not know," she said. "The forces of light work in their own ways. They shall send us the hero they think we need."
"They?" Duncan asked. "They who?"
The Sorceress ignored him, focusing her attention on the Window. She now wore her traditional outfit, a feathered costume tailored to look like a falcon. Duncan lapsed into silence.
The minutes ticked by. Still the Sorceress bent toward the empty Window. Finally she spoke. "The forces of light are very distant, very weak. The thread that ties me to them is unraveling. I have told them our need, but they are not sure they can help us." She paused, looking thoughtful. "Go now, Duncan. I must concentrate."
With some reluctance, Duncan nodded and left the chamber. He took a few steps down the corridor and leaned against a wall. If the Sorceress could not succeed in summoning another Champion, he would have to come up with a plan...he would have to enter Snake Mountain and find a way to rescue He-Man...
As his mind churned, weariness slowly stole over Duncan. Soon his head dropped to his breast, and he slept where he stood.
* * *
Duncan woke with a start. Instantly he felt a cold, sharp pressure on his throat. His eyes flashed open to see a pair of fierce dark eyes glaring back.
"Hwo eart þe?" the man said. He held a short, straight blade to Duncan's throat. "Hwo eart þe?" he repeated.
"I...I don't understand you..." Duncan gasped.
The man's brow furrowed in puzzlement. He pushed the blade deeper against Duncan's throat. "Hwær eom ic?"
"I...I don't..." Duncan stammered. The blade pressed deeper.
"Lyse hine!" a voice cried. The wild-eyed man wheeled to face the Sorceress. He kept the knife against Duncan's throat.
"I'm sorry, Duncan," she said. "I blacked out while summoning him. Beo smolt, beorn. Sind ure freondas. Butan eom ane wicca - gif ne lyse hine, bannaþ þe!"
The man's eyes widened even more at this. He looked at Duncan, then back at the Sorceress. His eyes narrowed. "Hwo is he?"
"An beorn, gelice þu. Duncan his naman is."
"Hwo eart þe?" said the man.
"Wiccas sind yfela," the man growled.
"What's he saying?" Duncan asked. The blade was still at his throat, but the pressure had eased somewhat.
"He says wizards are evil." A faint smile played on the Sorceress's face.
"He's right, for the most part," Duncan muttered.
"Hwy bringest me her?" the man cried.
The Sorceress looked at him. "Lyse hine," she commanded.
The man's eyes narrowed. For a moment, all one could hear was the panting of the attacker and Duncan's own gasping breaths. Finally the man looked at Duncan, pulled the blade away and stepped back, holding the weapon before him. "Nu, hwy bringest me her?"
Now that he could breathe, Duncan took a good look at the man. He seemed like some sort of primitive warrior. His hair was long and light brown, tied loosely in the back. The face was broad, square and roughly shaven. He seemed a little taller than Duncan, just over six feet. The man's arms and shoulders were immensely muscled, even more than He-Man's. He wore a shirt of linked metal rings that hung to his elbows and just below his waist. His breeches appeared to be made of some sort of animal skin and the boots seemed to be made of the same, only thicker and more tanned. A long sword hung from his belt, but the weapon in his hand was different - it was a long, straight knife with a triangular tip.
Though clearly disoriented and upset, the warrior had a measured, noble bearing that reminded Duncan of both King Randor and He-Man.
"Who is he?" Duncan asked. "Where did he come from?"
"He is from Earth," the Sorceress said.
"Earth? Like the Queen?"
"Yes, but he is from an earlier age," the Sorceress said. "He is but a legend in Marlena's time, and his people are forgotten to history. But he is speaking an ancient form of the Queen's language. His name is Beowulf."
The warrior looked up at the sound of his name. "Hwær eom ic?" he demanded.
Duncan listened as the Sorceress began a long speech in Beowulf's native tongue. Occasionally he recognized a word or two; he had occasionally eavesdropped as Queen Marlena had educated her son, Adam, in the language of her homeworld.
The conversation began to run long, with Beowulf asking many questions. As he listened, the warrior slowly lowered his weapon, and Duncan debated whether to try and make a grab for it. Beowulf had attacked him once; what if he tried to again? But remembering the sword at the Earthman's side, Duncan decided to wait and see what the outcome of the discussion was.
At long last, Beowulf straightened and slid the knife into a horizontal sheathe across his waist. "Ic helpaþ eow," he said.
The Sorceress smiled. "He will help us."
"Help us do what?" Duncan asked.
"Rescue He-Man, of course."
"Hæleþ," Beowulf said with a nod.
"Ha-leth? What's that?"
"That is his name for He-Man," the Sorceress said. "I have told him he is to go with you to Snake Mountain and battle Skeletor, who is a powerful wælgæst, or demon."
"And what does he say to that?" Duncan said, looking at Beowulf.
"He is unafraid. He says he has killed wælgæstas before."
"Really." Duncan looked at her. “I don’t know, Teelana. He looks tough enough, but is he really a Champion? I didn't think Earth had men such as He-Man. At least, not the Earth Marlena has spoken of."
"There are many Earths, many universes," the Sorceress said. "His is but one. He, like He-Man, is the stuff of legend, Duncan. He will be of great help to us. I have explained to him that he is to follow your lead. I know you have some knowledge of English; that should be enough to work with him. For the rest, you will both have to work by instinct."
Duncan walked up to the warrior and offered his hand. "Well, Beowulf, it is good to meet you. Thank you for your help."
Beowulf looked at the Sorceress, then clasped Duncan by the forearm and gave it one good shake. Duncan winced under the iron grip. "Ealdorman Duncan," Beowulf said with a nod.
Now it was Duncan’s turn to look questioningly at the Sorceress. "He called you 'Chief Duncan,'" she said.
"Ah," Duncan said, pleased. "Thank you," he said to Beowulf, who smiled mirthlessly in response and nodded again.
"Now we must prepare," the Sorceress said. "Get the Wind Raider ready. And bring me the repaired sword - I must try to enchant it once more."
* * *
Beowulf watched the ealdorman go. He had the bearing of a wise man - much like Beowulf's own lord, Hygelac, king of the Geats. Duncan's dress was most uncanny, though. Solid yellow metal, green clothing, a blue helmet - and all with strange lights flashing here and there.
The wicca, who apparently considered herself the Wicca, was more familiar...her dress, in imitation of a hawk, was similar to the animal-inspired clothes of the soothsayers in some parts of Geatland. But the seers were pagans, depriving themselves of the knowledge of God and His son. Beowulf had always felt a curious empathy with the soothsayers; yet the feelings conflicted with the Christian values that had been instilled in him, from an early age, by his mother.
But the Wicca seemed honest, and in any event Beowulf knew he was at her mercy. She had summoned him and given him a task, and he suspected he would not be returned to his own land until he had finished it. Such tasks had been given to him before and he had always triumphed. Grendel had been a wælgæst and now he was dead. Beowulf would deal similarly with this "Skeletor," and rescue the Hæleth, this “He-Man.”
"Are you hungry, Beowulf?" the Wicca asked him in his own language.
"Yes, a bit."
"I will have my servants arrange you a meal. Please follow me."
She led him on through the stone corridors. Beowulf marveled at the number of corridors; it seemed to be a labyrinth of tunnels! He wondered how or why someone would go to so much effort to live underground.
At one point they passed a window, and Beowulf gasped. The landscape stretched for miles before him.
"We are in a mountain!" he cried.
"No," said the Wicca. "A castle. It is a larger castle than I think you are used to."
"And it is made entirely of stone?" he said.
Beowulf was silent a moment. "I have seen such things before, from a distance," he said. "In Gallia, and other lands across the sea. But I have never been in such a fortress."
The Wicca smiled at him. "You shall see many more wonders before you return to your homeland, I suspect. The Wind Raider I spoke of earlier - it is a cart that flies like a hawk, carrying men across the sky."
Beowulf's eyes narrowed. "You mock me," he said.
"Not at all. You shall see. But come - I shall see to your meal."
They came to a hall with a modest wooden table and a pair of benches. The Wicca vanished through a door, and the warrior took his seat on the bench.
Presently she returned. "The servants will serve you soon," she said. "I must take leave of you; I am very tired from the summoning, and I must rest. Have you any further questions before I go?"
"Where is the ealdorman?" Beowulf asked.
"He is mending the sword of the Hæleth. It was broken in battle with the wælgæst."
"His sword is broken? Then it is worthless," Beowulf said. "He must have a new one."
"This is his second already," the Wicca said, a sad smile on her face. "Ealdorman Duncan is a very skilled smith, and this is a very special sword."
"Ah...it sounds much like the tale of Sigurd and Gram, his father's sword."
"I do not know that story," the Wicca said.
"Perhaps I will tell it to you, someday," Beowulf said. "But I have learned, in my own life, that swords - even the greatest swords - do not always work against wælgæstas."
"Not always," the Wicca agreed. She paused, her face thoughtful and sad. "Fare thee well, Beowulf," she said, and departed.
By Poe Ghostal
Duncan eased up on the controls, bringing the Wind Raider down several hundred feet. It now soared just over the tops of the scraggly, lifeless trees that were scattered amongst the ash and dust of the land below.
He looked to his left and eyed Beowulf. The warrior had his teeth clenched, his white knuckles gripping the armrests. Quite unbecoming of a legendary hero, Duncan thought with an inward chuckle. "Don't worry," Duncan said. "We'll be landing soon." Beowulf made no reply, which made sense since he couldn't understand Duncan's language.
They had taken a hovership for most of the trip, taking off from Grayskull and soaring over the desert and the Sands of Time before crossing into the dark side of Eternia - Skeletor's domain. Once there, Duncan had landed the ship and they had transferred to the smaller Wind Raider, which had a better chance of hiding from the sensors at Snake Mountain. Duncan knew his mechanically-inclined counterpart at the Mountain, Trap Jaw, would have the scanners blazing as long as He-Man was imprisoned there.
Beowulf had done better on the hovership where, once he had recovered from the shock of take-off, he could hide out in the back of the craft and not see how high up they were. But the Wind Raider, even with its rain canopy closed, offered no such luxury; there was nothing but air in all directions. Duncan was vaguely worried that the primitive warrior's nerves would be so frazzled by the time they landed that he'd be useless, but something told him the man would come through in the clutch.
The Raider's scanner beeped a warning. They were coming within range of Snake Mountain. It would be best if they landed at least twenty miles from it, Duncan decided. He eased up on the throttle and brought the ship down. It settled to the earth, rumbled once, then was still. The canopy slid open with a whirr.
Beowulf unsnapped his harness and practically leapt from the vehicle. Chuckling to himself, Duncan did the same. He paused to retrieve a large bundle, wrapped in cloth, from the backseat. Then he thumbed a switch on his prosthetic arm and the canopy slid into place. The Raider was now locked down; it wouldn't respond to any attempts at re-activation until Duncan returned.
"All right, c'mon," Duncan said, slinging the bundle over his shoulder. "This way."
It was slow going. The landscape surrounding Snake Mountain had suffered countless centuries of neglect, natural disaster, and war. The dark side of Eternia was covered with volcanoes, turning the sky thick with ash. Smoke issued everywhere from vents, and any place that actually had water was a stagnant marsh. The only animals to be found were fierce insects with all manner of poisonous appendages. But mostly there was dust - thousands of miles of dust and ash.
"Hell," Beowulf said.
"Þeos is Hell."
"I don't know what you're saying, my friend," said Duncan, "but if you're saying this is a bad place to be, you're right."
They trudged on throughout the afternoon. Only the dimming of the sky from a pale gray to a grim black gave any hint of the passing of the day. Finally, a jagged shape rose up before them: Snake Mountain.
They paused then to take a light meal, hidden in the shadow of a few boulders. Duncan was struggling to recall the secret entrance to Snake Mountain, shown to him by Skeletor's minion Whiplash during the struggle against the demon Sh'Gora. Skeletor had summoned the demon for aid in conquering Grayskull. But Sh'Gora had proved too powerful even for Skeletor, and he had nearly killed the necromancer before capturing Grayskull himself. Ultimately, it had taken the combined might of He-Man, Skeletor and their allies to defeat Sh'Gora.
Duncan knew all their plans were pinned on the slim hope that Whiplash had neglected to inform his master about leading the heroes through the secret entrance. It wasn't that unlikely, since Skeletor would undoubtedly have been rather angry with such a revelation; unless he was a complete fool, Whiplash probably wouldn't risk his neck like that. But the ordeal with Sh'Gora had been years ago, and Skeletor may have decided to seal the entrance at any time...
Duncan snapped out of his reverie. Beowulf was gone. The small spit they had made from rotten wood smoldered quietly. Duncan stood and surveyed the area, but the warrior was nowhere to be found. A nearby vent had started to puff out acrid smoke, making the air hazy. Other than the hiss of the vent, there was no sound. Duncan stood motionless, then eased his hand toward his rifle.
Something slammed into him from behind, knocking him to the ground. Powerful blows rained down on his back, and the wind was forced out of him. Whatever was attacking him let loose with a terrible roar, and Duncan caught a glimpse of orange fur. Beast men!
Duncan struggled to throw the thing off. Its knees had locked about his sides, forcing its enormous weight upon him. Talons tore his shoulders and gripped his armor. The beast man began to pull at the armor, forcing Duncan to bend backward. Further and further it pulled him; soon, Duncan knew, his spine would snap like a twig. He ran his hands ran frantically over the ground, searching for a weapon.
Then he remembered - he still had his mace! He snatched it from his belt, tearing the leather holster in his haste. Above him, the creature was gathering its strength for one last tug. Duncan whirled the mace and struck. The thing bellowed, but its claws remained fastened to his armor. Duncan struck again.
The beast man screamed in rage as the weapon connected with its skull. The monster tumbled away; Duncan leapt to his feet.
But the creature recovered quickly. As it made ready to charge again, Duncan's eyes flashed to his rifle, which was nestled in the shadow of the boulder. He lunged for it.
But the beast man had seen the gun too. It was a blur of motion; Duncan's hands closed on air.
Too stupid to wield the rifle, the beast man threw it to the ground and crushed it under one hairy foot. Then, with a triumphant roar, it charged. Duncan set his jaw and held the mace defensively.
But before the monster could reach him, a dark form hurtled from the boulder and crashed into the beast. It was Beowulf! The warrior had his sword out and was jabbing it into the creature's chest again and again. His left arm was locked about the monster's neck, holding back the dripping fangs. The two fighters rolled in the ash, which turned a dull red from the spilled blood.
With each stab of the sword, the beast man roared in rage. It clawed at the armor on Beowulf's back, trying to dig its talons into him. Blood flowed from a dozen wounds on the warrior's body.
But then the monster's roars turned to cries of terror. It struggled to escape this insane human with his terrible, living sword. The weapon plunged into its chest again and again. Finally, the beast shuddered and was still.
Panting, Beowulf slowly rose to his feet. His dark hair hung in ragged strands across his face.; his arms were soaked with blood. But his eyes blazed with a look of raw triumph; he was a vision of primeval man, victorious over the fiercest spawn of the natural world.
For a moment they said nothing, each panting fiercely.
Duncan broke the silence. "Thank you," he said.
Though he didn't know the words, the Earth man must have understood the meaning, for he nodded. Then he gestured for Duncan to follow him. Hefting his mace, the man-at-arms trailed Beowulf to a spot behind the boulders. There lay the body of another beast man. It had been decapitated.
"Nice work," Duncan said with admiration. "So this is why you vanished." He smiled grimly at Beowulf to show his approval, and the warrior nodded again.
Duncan tugged absently at his mustache while his mind churned. Did this mean Skeletor had some knowledge of their arrival? Was this a patrol, perhaps? Or just wild beast men? Either way, Duncan knew their only choice was to move quickly.
"Come on," he said to Beowulf. "We've got to get to Snake Mountain before dark."
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