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jerhad continued to sleep fitfully throughout the course; Stanton had failed to rouse him after several attempts.  The Elf was feverish, his tongue and mouth dry, and he often cried out in his sleep. 

            Stanton worried.  Having stripped Jerhad naked and examined him for any sign of a scratch the Elf might have taken from the foul creature, he found none.  Later, still fretful, he had checked again even though he knew it would prove futile.  A couple of times, he tried to put water into the Elf’s mouth, but it did not work.  It only produced violent coughing and increased agitation.  Finally, he gave up and let Jerhad sleep.

            At sunsetting, the third course since Andreanna’s abduction, there came a soft knock at the door; Stanton opened it.  There stood a small elderly lady; she was very wrinkled and deeply stooped over with age. 

            Suspicion slowed Stanton.

            “Wait here.”  He closed the door and returned with the Elf’s knife.  He opened the door, saying, “Hold still.”  He touched her with the blade.  Nothing happened.  What am I doing?  Trying to use magic?  I don’t even know what I’m doing with it.

            “What do you want, old lady?”

            “My name is Nan.  I am the village healer.  The innkeeper told me that your friend is very sick.  I’ve come to do what I can.”

            He thought for a span of heartbeats.  If this continued, Jerhad would die, and Stanton somehow doubted that the Elf would wake on his own.  Not much to lose.  “Come on in and take a look.”  With his head, he motioned toward the bed where Jerhad lay. 

            Nan went over to Jerhad.  “Oh my!  He’s burning up.  He’s far too hot even for an Elf.  Get Froman the host to get a bath of cool water ready.  Quickly.  We must cool him.”

            Stanton hesitated.  Should I leave the Elf with the old lady?  He took a chance he hoped that he would not regret.  A while later, they immersed Jerhad in the water. 

            “Not too long, or he will shiver and get warm again,” she cautioned.  “Let’s take him back to bed.”

            Once in the room again, she mixed some herbs in a bowl of water and heated the potion over a candle, allowing it to steam its vapors about Jerhad’s head. 

            “Can I ask what happened to him?”

            Stanton shrugged.  He told her everything.

            “This is not good,” she gasped, shaking her head.  “It is as I thought.  The hurt is in his spirit not in his flesh.  The magic was too much for him.  The wound of the loss of the girl has made it worse.  It is an injury of magic, which is infected with his loss.  I have heard of such, but I had not seen it until now.  I was not ready for this.  I will return at the rising.  Keep him cool.  Soak him again if you must.  I must go prepare if I am to save him.”  She left.

            Stanton stood at the foot of the bed, confused, lost.  What had she said was wrong?  Magic?  He had warned the Elf not to play with it.

            About two spans after the next rising, the old lady returned.      

            “I will need your help, boy.  I was hard put to, but I found the herb I need up in the foothills during the night.  I don’t want to waste time to explain.  You wouldn’t understand or believe me if I did.  Just listen.  You must be strong.  You must be willing to go where you have not gone before.  It will be dangerous for you.  You will need to master your fears.  Your sword and skills will not avail.  Only your strength of mind and heart will help you and the Elf.  If you have love for him, that will help our cause also.”  She pulled three dark green leaves from her pouch.    Witch’s Dew! 

            “That’s poisonous!” protested Stanton, advancing around the bed to where Nan stood.

            “Not when it is used within one-half course of its being picked,” she said.  “But it is dangerous in how we use it.  It might be better to be poisoned by it than to fail in the use we give it.”  She crumpled a leaf and stuffed it into Jerhad’s mouth, Stanton’s hands involuntarily moving as if in attempt to stop her.  She spread a blanket on the floor, and Stanton placed Jerhad on the blanket as the old lady indicated.

            “Remove your clothes and lie next to him.”

            “Are you crazy, old lady?”  Stanton sputtered.

            She went back, bolted the door and barred the shutters.  Ignoring his protests, she proceeded to remove her own clothes.  Stanton was overcome with embarrassment.   

            “Are you going to help?” she frowned.  “I cannot do this alone.”  Hesitatingly, embarrassed, he took off his clothes and lay next to Jerhad.  Placing one leaf in her mouth and chewing it a bit, she handed the third to Stanton as he took up his position.

            “You must be in as much contact with his skin as possible.  You must hold my hand and not let go under any circumstance.  You will know what to do when it is time.  Be calm.  Be strong.  Conquer your fears.  I know what I do, but as you have seen, I am old.  It will be up to you.”

            He put the leaf in his mouth and chewed.

            “Draw close to him, boy.  Give me your hand.”  She lay on Jerhad’s opposite side. 

            Stanton began feeling queasy, feeling…poisoned.  Drowsiness and darkness enveloped him as he voyaged down…down…down.

 

            “Ah, there you are,” said Nan.  “I thought for a span of heartbeats that you would not come.”

            Stanton gazed at her; she was ageless.  She could have been four, forty, or four hundred cycles.  She was very lovely now but not in a sexual way; he saw beauty, honesty, integrity, healing and other things in her that he could not identify or describe.  Her hair was silver in color and she radiated the same hue in an aura about herself.

            “Where are we?”

            “We are at the border of the land of evil dreams.  Your friend has gone in and become lost.  He is in trouble.  We must follow and retrieve him.  We will meet many evils there.  They are dangerous to us only if we heed them.  They are but dreams.  Be of a strong mind, boy.  It is your only defense, your only weapon here.  All evil may be stayed by the knowledge that it is but a dream.  If you forget, you will become lost in there also.  If we become separated, remember where your body lies.  You will find your way back.”

            For the first time in his life, Stanton was truly afraid, desiring to run, almost frantic, not knowing what he could do without sword or knife.  Normally, Stanton would be in control of every situation he placed himself in; now, he had no idea of what he was up against or what was required of him.

            “Come.  Time grows short,” urged Nan.

            They walked into the darkness.  Things moved about them.  Something brushed against Stanton, making his skin crawl; he drew back.

            “You are not listening to me, boy!  These are dream beings.  The more you notice them, the more real they will become, and the more power they will have to harm you.  Then they will take you!”

            “Have you done this before, old lady?”  The term “old lady” was becoming a confusing oxymoron in his mind because of her present essential appearance.

            “No.”

            “What?”

            “No.  I was told of this by a Druid healer.  She was very old, and I was very young.  She chose not to use the Druid Sleep any longer and died.”

            Fire and demons, thought Stanton.  The goat leading the cow!  He considered backing out.  His body lay on the floor of the inn.  He could go back.  Slowly, feeling disassociated and disembodied, he perceived himself slipping toward his drugged body.

            In the distance, he heard Nan say, “Have you no love for him, boy?”

            Stanton stopped.  Love for him?  Then he realized how close he had become to Jerhad, and to Andreanna.  How they had fought for each other, willing to lay down their lives without a second thought.  Willing to die for each other, knowing it was right.

            “I see you have come back.”

            “Let’s get this over with.  I don’t like this, old woman.” 

            “Neither do I, boy.  Neither do I.”

            “What about you?  You don’t love him.”

            “No, not the way you mean, but I am a healer.  I love the essence of Life and Health wherever I find them in whosoever possesses them, even in those who have capacity for great evil.  The Life within them is dear to me.  I am a healer.  I must preserve the thing I love.  Therefore, I love him as I love you.  It is mine to preserve Life and Health.  Come.”

            As they went walking through the darkness, the scenes about them became increasingly vivid.  A child lay in bed crying for fear of the ravenous Trolls that hid beneath.  Wolves with red eyes and long fangs chased a girl through the snow, who, though she ran and struggled, did not seem to gain ground.  Long tentacles wrapped around a fisherman holding to the mast of his ship, terror widening his eyes and clinging to his visage, as if etched on a stone.  A tentacle wrapped around Stanton’s leg and knocked him to the ground.

            “Boy!  Stop it!” hissed Nan.  “It is but a dream.  You are of a greater mind than this.”

            Stanton shook himself as if to brace his thoughts, and the tentacle slipped into the water.  They moved on, witnessing the dreams of the children of Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls.  Frightening dreams.  Dreams of terror and darkness and fear.  Dreams of Evil. 

            Stanton was wide-eyed with fears of his own.

            “We draw near.  Gird your thoughts, Warrior!”

            “Why do you call me that?” he asked, stalling.

            “I see you as you see me, as you are.  Your life force has the essence of one who is a warrior by nature, not by training.  It is what separates you from being a mere soldier.  Silence!  We arrive.”

             Stanton heard Jerhad’s cries and sobs in the distance.

            ”Quickly!  He has need of us.”

            Stanton saw Jerhad running as if in slow motion, a black creature, like the one that had attacked them at Moreau’s Ford and wearing Andreanna’s contorted face, followed.  Its fangs dripped with blood, and its claws tore at the air a hair’s breadth behind the Elf. 

            Stanton’s skin crawled; it was too much like it had been in the inn. 

            “Ignore it!” hissed Nan.  “Do not give it existence through credence.”

            Stanton closed his eyes and composed himself, breathing deeply, but noticing at the same time that he did not feel air moving into his lungs.  When he opened his eyes, Jerhad and the creature were gone.

            “We will not have many more chances, Warrior.  Remember who you are!” she commanded him, as Jerhad came into view again, the creature pursuing closely, reaching for the Elf, calling to him. 

            Stanton braced himself and stepped in between the two, his back to the beast, feeling its cold breath on his neck, its claws brushing his skin. 

            “Jerhad!” he shouted, more so to compose himself than to get Jerhad’s attention.

            “Stanton?  Is that you?  Look out behind you.  Oh, no!  She’s got you.”

            Stanton drew a hair’s breadth from sheer panic, and he writhed in discomfort from the sensation of the beast at his back.

            Then Nan’s face appeared before him in a mist, as if in another dream.  “The battle is on, Warrior.  Fight!  Fight for your life.  Fight for the Elf’s life.  Fight now, or all is lost.”

            “No!  Jerhad!”  He grabbed the Elf by the arm.

            “Let me go, she’s got you.  I’ve got to get away.  No, Andreanna, no don’t!”

            “Stop!” shouted Stanton even louder.  “It’s a dream!  Look around you.  Can’t you see?  It’s just a dream.  You have to wake up.  You’ve been in here four risings now.  It’s time to wake up.  Wake up, or you’ll be lost in here forever.”

            “But I am lost, Stanton.  Andreanna has been trying to kill me, chasing me…trying to devour me.  And I don’t know where I am.  She has claws.  Her eyes are lifeless,” the Elf sobbed.  “Ye gods, she’s behind you!  Run, run for your life!  Oh no, she’s got you!  Stanton!  No Andreanna, don’t,” he screamed, thrashing in Stanton’s firm grasp.

            “Jerhad.  It’s a dream.  It’s not real.  I’ve come to take you out.  Listen to me.  Please, Jerhad, please listen to me.”

            Jerhad stopped abruptly. 

            “What did you call me?”

            Stanton stood, confused.

            “You called me Jerhad….  It must be a dream.  You’ve never called me by my name.”

            Stanton looked around frantically, locating Nan who stood off in the fog.  I don’t know what to do, he pleaded with her with his eyes.

            You’ll be fine.  You have him.  Lead him out, he heard her voice say in his mind.

            “Behind you, Stanton.  She’s got you!  Oh, the blood.  Stanton, she’s killed you.  Andreanna how could you?”

            “Jerhad, watch.”  Stanton turned and stuck his arm into the Andreanna creature’s maw.  She disappeared.

            “Where did she go?  Why is she doing this to me?  I thought she loved me?”

            “It doesn’t exist.  It’s a dream.”

            “There she is.  Run!”

            Stanton held him tightly.

            Hold him with your heart also, Warrior, came Nan’s voice to his mind.

            “Jerhad, friend,” he said softly.  “It’s a dream.  Let’s get out of here.”

            Jerhad looked at him.  “But if this is a dream and I wake up, Andreanna will be gone.  It’s no worse in here than it will be out there.”

            “We’ll find her, Elf Boy.  We’ll find her, you and me, and we’ll make them regret they ever heard of us.”

            “Really?”  A change came over Jerhad, and Stanton saw him in his true essence.  He released Jerhad’s hand and dropped to one knee, head bowed, fist to his chest. 

            “Yes, Sire.  We will.  I swear it, Elf Prince.  I swear it.”

            “What?” he asked, not understanding Stanton.  “Alright then, I’ll come with you.  Which way?”

            “The inn at Moreau’s Ford.  Remember?  Our room, on the floor, that’s where we need to go.”

 

            Stanton awoke just as the old lady finished putting on her clothes.  She had covered Jerhad with a blanket.  “He will sleep now.  He will recover,” she smiled.

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