Greywind raised his eyes and squinted. The leaves fluttering in the wind allowed only glimpses of the rocky outcropping. ‘It must be just ahead,’ he thought as he shifted the weight of his pack and continued his ascent.
He saw earlier that day, standing silent on the high rocky hilltop. The climb would be steep and treacherous, but necessary. He needed some solitude and space to deal with the challenge he carried on his back.
Amidst the warm still air, he picked his way carefully from boulder to boulder across an old rocky landslide. His worn, once white, tunic protected him from the glaring sun, but did little to keep him cool. As he leapt from one grey boulder to the next something in his pack moved suddenly, throwing the young man’s balance.
‘You would like to see me dead wouldn’t you?’ grimaced Greywind as he corrected himself with his lance and cinched his baggage tighter. The thing inside gave a muffled squawk. Wrapped in rags and restrained with leather straps within the satchel, the creature eventually settled from its outburst. Greywind blew his brown hair from his eyes and continued his march.
The prophet had given him this ‘gift’. But ever since then, things had not been what they seemed. The strange animal escaped from him, and with dire consequences. Left to itself it became a murderous wraith that haunted him for reasons he didn’t understand. Greywind captured the magical creature shortly before leaving Beril behind. Even now, its hate manifested itself at every opportunity as it fought for freedom and vengeance.
The bear, Beril, had been his ‘Tol-ha’, for almost as long as he could remember. Now, however, he was alone, without any such guardian. He knew the journey back home beyond the mountains would be perilous. Without the magic of a respectable Tol-ha to aid him he was forced to tame the ragged, hateful, creature that caused him so much trouble.
Breaking from the tree line, Greywind found himself further east of the cave than he intended. It would be a steeper climb to reach the cave now. He doubted himself for a moment, wondering whether it was worth the struggle to reach what he only hoped was a suitable place to accomplish his dubious mission. A good sized cave would be required to keep the flying wretch contained while he worked with it.
An excellent trainer, working with Tol-ha was something that came naturally to Greywind, perhaps a consequence of his early days spent foraging alone in the wilderness. Many of his people learned to control and unlock the powers of their Tol-ha by his instruction. Thanks to the might of his own Tol-ha, the mighty bear Beril, he had become well known as both a Tol-ha trainer and a warrior.
His own Tol-ha… Greywind’s leather boot slipped on a root as he re-entered the forest above the slide and recalled what had happened to Beril. The young trainer risked his life many times on this journey. His beloved Tol-ha grew progressively more weak despite Greywind’s best care and effort. It was the prophet who sent them on this mission to find the Hoi, mythical creatures said to be the keepers and supposed source of all Tol-ha creatures. Greywind and Beril succeeded in finding them, despite rumors that they did not exist. But the mysterious Hoi did not give him the answers that he hoped for.
The Hoi determined that Beril, somehow, did not belong to Greywind; that he was the Tol-ha of some other. This seemed impossible to Greywind since each Tol-ha knew only one master in its lifetime. He couldn’t remember a time when Beril had not been by his side. Despite his protests and no small struggle, the Hoi took Beril from him. With no further explanation Greywind was left to make the journey back with nothing but the pestilent creature he now carried in his pack.
The air above of the mountaintop was hot and dusty under the glaring sun, but a breeze blew from the South, carrying a refreshing coolness from the remnants of the passing spring. The breeze offered a taste of comfort from the dry heat and the heavy weight on his mind. Every respectable member of his race owned a Tol-ha. The assertion that Beril did not belong to him left him alone and an outcast from everything he had known. He knew the mystery was somehow related to the prophet and the ‘gift’ that he would now have to tame. But he hated the creature.
Greywind thought himself a noble man, as strong and courageous as the bear Beril. He couldn’t accept that the pathetic, mangy bird was his true Tol-ha. What did that say about him? To be tied to a filthy carrion eating beast would surely repulse any of his own countrymen. He couldn’t stand the thought, but he also couldn’t deny the signs.
Reaching the cave he felt the cool dampness flowing out of it and smelled the scent of the moss and lichen that grew within its seclusion. Pausing at the mouth of the cavern Greywind rested on the ledge, his lance against his shoulder. He would need his strength. Though his companions had tried, he was the only one who had been able to restrain the magic of the creature in his pack. This advantaged forced he to keep the creature, and now to tame it. It also spoke of ominous connection between himself and the beast. Greywind found his arms tense and his muscles refusing to relax despite the long climb.
‘I must get this over with.’
He needed to tame the beast only well enough to assist and help him on the treacherous journey home. After that Greywind could find some way to rid himself of it. Perhaps he could give it back to the prophet, or trade it for a respectable creature he could train. But, those thoughts were foolish and he knew it, no one sold or traded Tol-ha.
Clenching his fists, Greywind stood and entered the cavern. He found the inside to be much larger than anticipated. Its ceiling was concealed in shadows high above. The floor sloped smoothly down towards anterior passageways in the cleaved rock leading to down into the heart of the mountain.
He pulled his pack from his shoulders. Greywind grunted with satisfaction as the creature complained at the abuse as the pack landed roughly in a corner. Stooping, he carefully untied the leather straps that bound the squirming bundle of rags. At last, only one cord remained and dark ragged feathers could be seen under the unraveling fabric.
Standing back a safe distance Greywind extended his spear and deftly cut the last strap. The creature sensed its release and paused its incessant squirming. With a shake the rags fell and revealed the tattered form of the misshapen black raven.
The dark bird glared at the man with one of its sunken amber eyes. With a croak it leapt into the air toward its captor, toward the window of blue sky behind him. Swooping low, its talons extended at its former captor as it passed. But, Greywind was swift. With a quick swing of his spear the tattered bird was thrown back to the floor of the cave.
The creature shook itself as it regained its heavy scaled feet. It was an awkward looking a bird with beak and legs that seemed too large for its body. Again it glared at the man and crouched low as its truer nature began to show.
From beneath its feathers a mist spread, filling the cave. The raven grew in size and savageness. This new form was nearly as large as the man. Greywind watched with wary eyes. He had seen this magical change in the creature before, and much worse that this. The man had never seen nor heard of a Tol-ha of this kind, it was a hideous thing with its tattered wings and rasping breath. But, it was a powerful Tol-ha despite its foulness.
‘Foul wraith,’ he cursed under his breath as he readied for the next attack. It came all too soon. The creature lunged at him with serrated beak opened wide. Bracing himself Greywind forced his thoughts to remain steady. He knew the trick behind this beasts attack.
Standing motionless as it approached, their eyes locked on each other. The mist around the bird intensified, surrounding it, becoming one with it in a new, ghostly, form. The beak closed sharply on the man with an antithetical silence as the entire creature passed harmlessly through him.
This was the secret to defeating the wraith. So long as he faced the thing head on, without defense, without counter, its attacks were passed through him like shadow. But, to react or even flinch allowed the beast to strike.
The creature recoiled from the failed attack and darted to the back of the cave. Greywind watched as it renewed its former tricks and vanished into its own mist in the shadows only to magically reappear on the opposite side of the cavern. Vanishing again it appeared above him as it surged toward the mouth of the cave.
Again the trainer was too swift. He leapt this time and thrust firmly with his spear. He struck the creature on its nose, diverting it, and causing it to lash out and tear his shoulder with a taloned foot.
Both fell to the ground in the dimly lit cavern.
“Cursed thing,” he grunted, picking up his weapon. The furious raptor began to circle him now, crawling in its awkward way on its feet and the clawed wrists of its wings. It hissed and croaked its hatred toward him, forgetting any intention of escape. The glare of the man’s eyes reflected the creature’s sentiments.
Greywind lunged at the beast striking with his spear, but it quickly vanished. His heart beat in his ears and the sting of the tear in his shoulder filled his eyes with vengeance. It was not like him to be so hateful. He was not given to a loss of temper, especially when working with animals. But, the loss of Beril, the injury to his shoulder and the disdain for creature before him, boiled over in a heated passion.
“CURSE YOU!!” he screamed into the shadows. His voice echoed off of the immense cavern walls. The beast materialized and gave a bellow that merged resonated throughout the mountain walls.
He swung at the ethereal raptor again.
“WHY MUST YOU HAUNT ME?” he cried into the darkness. The thing snapped at him as he struck nearly cleaving his arm. The sounds of fierce cries from both man and beast filled the cave in a chaotic tumult of noise.
“If you were supposed to be my guardian, WHERE WERE YOU?” the sorrowful days of orphaned abandon before Beril had found him flashed through his mind like fire. Could it all have been a lie? How could this wretch, absent for so long have been his Tol-ha? Why had he been abandoned by everyone, by everything?
“DAMN YOU!” He stabbed with his spear, no longer caring if he injured the beast. The creature leapt aside and with one bite snapped his spear in pieces. The Tol-ha rammed him with its body, throwing him across the cave, and let out a fearsome call that shook dust from the cavern ceiling.
“… DAMN YOU! …WHERE WERE YOU!,” the voice sounded like his own but came out of the echoes of the ghostly bird.
“You abandoned me!” Greywind screamed.
Again the creature called out as it rushed at him with a thrust of its great wings.
“…ABANDONED ME!” the echo called out again in his own voice.
“Lies!” he shouted as the massive raven collided with him. gripping its matted feathers in his strong fists, Greywind refused to let go. The Raven it try to fade into the shadows to escape. But a Tol-Ha’s true master can restrain its magic. With all of his focus and all of his hatred Greywind held to the creature, binding it in the physical.
He wrapped his arms around, trying to restrain its wings as it snapped and clawed at him.
“WHERE WERE YOU!” the echo resounded from the shadows again.
“I am the one who was left alone!” Greywind retorted
“…ALONE!” again his own words returned to him with vengeance.
The bird rolled, clawing at the man, forcing him to let go. Before he could stand, it pounced on him pinning him on the ineven cave floor.
“You ABANDONED ME wretch!”
“… ABANDONED ME!…”
This time the man’s words and the creature’s echo overlapped so closely that they merged into a single cry of rage. Greywind brought his legs up under the raptor and pushed the thing off with all of his might. Again, he tackled it preventing it from shifting into the mist.
With his arms wrapped around its chest he felt the thin skin and ribs beneath its emaciated flesh. ‘Its been starved,’ he realized, and for a fleeting moment a twinge of pity rose within him.
The creature pressed into his wounded shoulder forcing him to shift his grip. He punched at its head and grappled with it again. Neither would surrender in the struggle. As the evening waned into twilight, and twilight into the black night, the sounds of the battle continued to resonate throughout the mountain’s interior.
The man blinked hard after his head collided with the stone floor of the cave. A cool gleam of light distracted his attention. The gentle glow of dawn slipped through the mouth of the cave as Greywind rose stiffly again to face his foe.
It was dawn already. Had they really fought through the night? His body was fatigued beyond what he had known was possible, and yet the raven would not surrender.
Swaying and unsteady, he stood to his feet and prepared again to fight. The raven was feebly crawling away. He reached to grab it, but his own limbs were weak and sore.
The creature continued to drag itself towards the corner of the cave. On the side opposite lay the satchel he had carried the day before. Half limping, half crawling Greywind dragged himself over to the bag and rummaged through its contents. Producing a few morsels of dried fruit and a loaf of bread he leaned his back against the cave wall and began to eat.
“Arrwk,” the creature squawked angrily at the sight of the food.
“Hmph,” Greywind looked at the now even more tattered and filthy creature with a grimace, and began to shove more food into his mouth. As he did, his eyes caught sight of his own hand in the ray of morning light that pierced to the back of the cave. It was dirty, scratched and bruised. He felt his face; it was smeared with filth and blood, his eye was swollen and bruised. Looking again at the tattered creature, he recalled the isolated wanderings of his youth and the painful loneliness he had endured as he had searched for his parents.
Sighing, the Greywind broke off a piece of bread and held it out to the languid animal. The bird hissed and crouched, but inched ever so slightly closer. He gestured with the morsel. It squawked again and took one cautious step forward. But that was as far as the bird would come.
Finally, Greywind threw the piece half way between them. The bread barely hit the ground before the black beak scooped it up and swallowed the food whole. The man chuckled under his breath and held out another piece. This time the raptor approached, cautiously crawling on its wings and feet. It snatched the offering and hopped back two paces to devour, but quickly returned when it had finished.
His supply was soon depleted and the dirty black raven returned to its opposite corner. Both rested their weary bodies there in the cave, and the raven’s savage appearance magically diminished as it slept.
A rustling sound awoke the man from his slumber. The morning rays that pierced the cave had been replaced by the brilliant glow of afternoon sun outside.
Looking for the sound he saw the bird’s silhouette at the cavern’s mouth. The creature looked over its shoulder at the man as he rose and slowly approached.
The raven was smaller now, though still three times larger than a normal bird. It looked up at him sideways with a cautious, but glimmering eye as he joined it at the mouth of the cave.
They both took in the beauty of the landscape and together breathed in the sweet fragrant air that wafted from forest below. The man looked again at the raven, giving a knowing nod as it returned his gaze.
The bird clucked softly in reply and spread its great ebony wings. Hopping from the ledge the raven swooped low over the tree tops before thrusting itself upwards with powerful strokes. Higher and higher into the sky it rose as he watched it disapear from his sight.
Returning to the cave, Greywind gathered his satchel and the remains of his spear. It would take a several days to find a proper tree, and carve a replacement. Returning to the ledge he looked to the sky, and the empty blue expanse.
He made his way down the western slope alone, but with greater ease than when he had ascended. This Tol-ha would not to be tamed, but a truce, however tenuous, had been made. The raven would return to him in time. Until then he would journey and search for the answer to the mystery that bound them.