Wolf's fang, dragon's fire
Sometimes the greatest treasures
Are found just by chance
Let destiny lead your foot
And you will see for yourself
The sun hung low over the treetops like softly glowing embers, fuzzy and faded through the thick fog that wrapped the landscape like a suffocating duvet. The swamp terrain was only crossed by a single road that once upon a time had been well maintained; now it was more or less like a half-overgrown animals track. It was rare that anyone came this way now, and the village at the end of the road showed signs of it too. Two wanderers came with the dusk; the first was leading a good horse after him, a great dun mare with black stripes up the legs and black mane and tail. The man who followed kept a certain distance, he went without a horse and both had pulled the cowls of their capes far forward over their face. It was evident that they had been on the road for a long time because their robes were dirty and wet and both went with weary steps.
The village consisted of a larger collection of houses, all decaying and dung lay in heaps around the corners, some skinny dogs and pigs were rummaging around and the general impression was that this was a place one should not visit unless one absolutely had to be there. The colors of the walls had long faded and the stench from the open sewers could be felt from a distance. The two walkers stopped and watched with narrowed eyes the main street that winded its way through this accumulation of dilapidated hovels. The first man sighed and petted the horse that snorted of the smell and shook its head; it loathed the place just as much as its master.
A few people were watching, a few old women who sat in the open with hand work and an ancient guy who spat and stared at them with hostile eyes as they passed. The women rushed inside and closed the windows; it was not exactly a warm welcome.
It was only one inn there, it could not possibly be big enough for anyone to make a living of it, the host probably earned his living the same way as the rest of the population. The place was so run down that it was a miracle that it stood and gave an impression that was directly deterring.
The two looked at each other and shrugged, if the rumors they had heard about it were true they fit well with what they saw.
Rheynek shook his shoulders and tried not to breathe through his nose; it smelled there, a ghastly stench that almost made him retch. Actually they should have been on the way home now after a completed mission but some rumors they had heard had caused them to head to this secluded place. So far the village did in deed look like a place that could accommodate both traffickers and murderers, and worse too. He felt that his nerves were close to the outside of his skin, it was evil there of the worst kind. He knocked on the table that served as a desk and it creaked in a door at the end of a dark corridor. A rather voluminous man came waddling toward them; he looked pretty filthy and smelled so bad that Ghuad who were standing behind Rheynek sneezed. The long greasy hair could not have seen water in half a generation, and it seemed that much of the stench came from the man’s mouth; it was rather sparse with teeth there.
The guy looked suspiciously at them, he saw two very tall and broad-shouldered men dressed in pretty good but dirty clothes and both carried weapons. The first man actually carried two swords on his back and some of his movements revealed that the man was accustomed to using them too. “Yes, what issit you want?”
Rheynek looked narrowly at the guy that didn’t exactly reveal some great service readiness. “We need a room for the night, we choose a wrong path today and my horse needs a new shoe. Is there a blacksmith here somewhere?”
The guy spat on the floor and cut an inappropriate grimace. ”Yeah. But he works only in the daytime; you’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
Rheynek rolled his eyes and sighed. “But a room you have?”
The host pulled a sour grimace. “Have a room, is not big stuff so do not complain.”
The guy waved them along and they came into a narrow corridor with a few doors. He opened a door and showed them into a room that looked terrible at the best; there were two beds there that didn’t look like they could be able to hold the weight of a cat, each with a dirty straw mattress and a chair. One window was not there and it smelled of stale sweat. “A shilling each.”
The guy held his hand up and Rheynek dropped two pennies into it, he did not reveal how much money he had with him, he had a suspicion about how this host earned a living. “Is no food here just so you know, and the stable is in the backyard.”
He cast a quick glance toward the shaded face under the hood but saw nothing; it was too dark in there. Rheynek just nodded and the guy backed out of the door again, so fat that it seemed almost incredible that he could move. Rheynek waited until the guy was gone, then he nodded to Ghuad. “I’ll place Starwind in the stable, keep watch in the meantime.”
Ghuad just nodded and sat down on the bed that creaked like something that was suffering a slow painful death and threatened to fall apart at any time. Rheynek went out and found the stable; it was empty and just as worn as the rest of the place. It was a little hay in there but it smelled bad and was barely edible for goats. He found a bag of oats in his saddle bag and gave it to the mare. She needed her strength as they had been on a long trip. He found a bucket and hauled water from the well, it was thankfully clean and then he gave the horse a message that no one should touch her until he was back. Starwind was a battle-trained horse; she would attack if someone tried to steal her.
Rheynek felt that the hairs on his neck stood straight out as he walked back to the sinister room, if he had ever seen a place the gods seemed to have left it had to be this place here. There were apparently no colors there any were and the swamp lay around the place as a dangerous moat.
Ghuad pulled down the hood; he threw off his cloak and stretched. “Do we need to do this?”
His voice was tired and Rheynek sighed heavily. “We do the goddess work Ghuad; I think she wants us to do something with this rat nest.”
Ghuad looked expectant, he seemed to have ideas.
“Burn the whole thing?”
Rheynek had to smile. “Maybe not as violent but who knows, I feel that this place holds great evil.”
Ghuad nodded slowly, it glowed faintly in his red-golden eyes, and there was no doubt that he felt the same as Rheynek there. The white-haired warrior sat on his bed, very carefully. It threatened to break in the middle of his weight and he looked crookedly at Ghuad who sat at the edge of the bed edge and balanced. “I do not think we should sleep tonight, or at least sleep in shifts.”
Ghuad yawned so everyone could see all the sharp teeth that revealed that he was no human. “Then I take the first round of sleep, and I’ll sleep down on the floor!”
Rheynek grabbed his sword and pulled it from the sheath, checked that it is not stuck anywhere. “Okay, but arrange the blankets so it looks as if someone is sleeping there.”
Ghuad looked at Rheynek and quickly arranged the dirty and worn blankets so it could look like someone slept in them. “I think the host survives here by robbing the guests, the few he has.”
Ghuad shook himself and checked his own sword too, he lay down on the back behind the bed where he was not visible from the front door and pulled his cloak together as a pillow. It took only a few short minutes before he slept heavily. Rheynek sat on the floor with crossed legs, he could stay awake and rest in meditation, so he did not need much sleep. He had a pretty clear idea of what was going to happen during the night. He let Ghuad sleep a few hours, then they switched keeping guard and so went the night.
It was quiet there, a dog barked, it rattled in a few broken window panes in the draft, some people went shouting and quarreling past on the street. It was in the last hour before dawn that the two noticed a change; they were both awake and heard a strange creaking. Someone was on their way through the house, heading towards their door.
Rheynek slipped in behind the door where he would be invisible to the people who came from the hallway and Ghuad disappeared behind one bed. They both knew what they had to do. Rumors told of many who had disappeared here, there should be an end to that now.
It creaked slightly in the floorboards; Rheynek slowly counted the number of steps and listened carefully. There were three people; two of them relatively light but the last one very heavy, probably the host.
The door had no lock and Rheynek held his breath as the doorknob slowly went down. It was well lubricated, unlike anything else in the house. He kept Nadharn ready in attack position, waited while icy anger worked in him. How many had been killed there? How many had been robbed and dumped somewhere in the swamp? The door slid open and Rheynek saw the end of a crossbow sticking out, two arrows flew swiftly and bored into the piles on the bed. Then he went into action, put his foot against the door and kicked it back so hard that the person with the crossbow flew backwards against the wall on the other side of the hallway. Then he tore the door up, grabbed the first and best and he tore the man back into the room. It was a pretty tall person who was dressed in a dark tunic that consisted mostly of patches and dirt, the guy was over his prime and scarred from smallpox.
Ghuad were on his feet within a split second and before the man could even lift the miserable sword Ghuad had thrust his sword through the man’s throat so came out the back of the neck. A brief tug and the guy plunged to the ground more or less beheaded.
Rheynek had a cold smile on his mouth now, he got hold of the man with the crossbow, he was thin and pale, and of all things cross eyed too. Something in his face said that his parents must have been fairly close relatives since his facial features just reeked of inbreeding. The man tried lifting his hands to defend himself but Rheynek was furious now, he swung Nadharn in a wide arc and cut a deep gash in the man from the shoulder down to the breast bone. The wolfs fang as usually bit both deeply and eagerly. He pulled the sword free again in the same movement and saw that the host had turned and tried to get away groaning and gasping.
Ghuad roared out. “He’s mine!”
The dark-haired warrior was rushing out the door and caught up with the fat guy in two long strides, his sword whistled through the air and cut the spinal cord of the guy just above the waist, the host collapsed paralyzed from the waist down. Ghuad growled, it shone in his eyes and anyone with eyes could see that this was not a human.
The host screamed wildly in pain and fear and Ghuad put his boot over his throat and pressed down. “Shut up or I’ll make sure you die very slowly.”
The guy gasped and sobbed and Rheynek placed Nadharn in the sheath on his back again, after shaking the blood from the blade. “How many have you killed here?”
The host just shook his head and spat and Ghuad stared narrowly at Rheynek. “Do not think the guy will talk voluntarily.”
He snatched his sword again and ran the tip of the long, narrow blade down right between the legs of the man; a thin howl was the answer. Rheynek might like a more aesthetic method usually but this place just did something with him, it was so inhuman that he did not care that Ghuad used abusive techniques. “Speak, or I’ll skewer the other too!”
“I do not know, I do not know, forty, maybe fifty!”
The man squealed like a stuck pig. Rheynek snarled and a menacing frown appeared between his eyebrows and his yellow eyes had a dangerous shine.
“More than enough to get you and your team mates hauled before the executioner had you lived closer to a real city. And more than enough to be judged by us.”
The guy looked in disbelief at the two, they had looked like regular people, huge and strong of course, but now it was clear that he had misjudged them completely. The tall white-haired man was beautiful as an elf with bright yellow eyes like a cat and dark skin, the other man was dark-skinned too but he had red-golden eyes and strange hair and ears almost like an elf.
Rheynek showed the green Jade ring on one hand. The host gasped in disbelief and if he thought he could get away before he had no such beliefs now. Weapons Master was no joke, no one escaped their judgment and power. Rheynek looked sharply at the man “Are there more of you here in the village that lives by killing and looting? Answer me and we let you die clean and fast.”
The guy gurgled; his injuries began to affect him seriously. “T... Two, the house down by the river.”
Rheynek nodded and Ghuad drove his blade with gusto right through the chest of the guy, the body twitched a few times and then he loosened the blade again and shook it clean. “Two, it’s not much. What does the others here live from?”
Rheynek sighed and grimaced. “Smuggling I can guess, is nothing else here to make money from. Wildlife does barely exist here, agriculture is impossible and I cannot think of anything else either.”
Ghuad looked around with distaste. “What can be smuggled in such a place? Have they even anything of value?”
Rheynek pointed north. “Twenty miles farther north there is a valley where I know they grow a lot of herbs, some of which are forbidden, they can be used to create drugs that make people completely dependent and crazy!”
Ghuad spat on the floor in disgust. “It explains things. So what now?”
Rheynek smiled, but the smile was not pretty. “We offer the house by the river a visit. And it is not a friendly one!”
Ghuad rubbed his hands. “Got it! “
They took their things and Rheynek got his horse from the stables, the mare followed them without having to be leaded, it was well trained. They crept forward as silently as they could, it was still so early that there were few people up there and they went fairly quickly down to the narrow river that smelled as bad as the rest of the place. The house that was there was if possible even more decrepit than the inn, various bars were placed here and there to support it, otherwise it would have collapsed long ago. The walls seemed to be completely rotten. It was dark but they could see a faint flickering semblance of fire through one of the cracked shutters. Rheynek sniffed the air; he caught the scent of people through the wall, and food waste. Ghuad looked expectantly at him. “What should we do?”
Rheynek was about to answer when he was interrupted by a shrill scream from inside the house, it was terrified and trembling and clearly a woman’s. The sound was quickly cut off but the two out there just looked at each other once, then they went into action without even hesitating a split second.
Rheynek kicked in the front door of the house and got Nadharn ready while Ghuad just smashed through the wall in the other direction, with his strength and unusual view on things he moved through the crumbling walls both fast and easy. They both came thundering into a fairly large room that was the only one the house consisted of with the exception of a small limited part that had to be a kind of cabinet. An open hearth was burning in the middle of the house and the fire crackled slightly and gave little light. There was almost no furniture in there, just a box that served as a sort of bed and a few chairs and a rickety table.
Two men were in the room, both were dressed in what had once been good leather armor and they were each armed with an ax. One was on his knees beside the bed and fighting against a girl who was bound on hands and feet and thoroughly gagged. It was probably she who had screamed. She squirmed desperately and kicked and it was obvious that the guy was trying to get her pants off without letting her loose.
The two men gaped in shocked disbelief at the two who stormed in and Ghuad made a short growl and drove his sword right through the man standing. He was dead before he hit the floor, the other grabbed the girl and threw her in front of him as a shield, the man had at least some presence of mind.
Rheynek hissed, the yellow eyes shot lightning and before Ghuad could say or do anything, he had thrown out his hand and something hit the man right between the eyes with a bang. The man dropped the girl and fell and Ghuad looked amazed. “One of your throwing nails? Thought you just used them against vampires?”
Rheynek walked over to the corpse and pulled the pin out. “No, they are good against all kinds of filth, but it is definitely abuse of good silver!”
He knelt beside the girl who looked terrified, it was perhaps just to be expected. She trembled visibly and Rheynek cut the ropes around her wrists and legs gently with his dagger. She had tear stains on her cheeks and he saw that she was barely more than a child, maybe fourteen but hardly more. He pulled away the dirty rag that was used as a gag and got aware of something else too, her eyes and ears revealed a good portion of elven blood. She had to be a half-breed and the thought of this fragile creature being caught in such a place was shocking.
She looked at the two with wide eyes, rubbed her wrists with a grimace, but she still looked terrified. Rheynek understood that they had to be just as scary for her as the two villains and sat down on his haunches in front of her, trying his best to look friendly. “Do not worry, we will not harm you Sweetie, how did you end up in the clutches of these beasts?”
She looked at the two, she shivered all over and the muscles in her seemed to tremble just like they would on an animal when it is about to bolt. It looked odd but Rheynek understood that it was natural for her. “Who are you?”
Her voice was shaky but aggressive, she was hardly less scared but a little more on the offensive. Rheynek showed her the ring and she instantly got eyes huge as teacups before she threw herself forward and kissed the floor in front of Rheynek’s knees, it was more than obvious that she knew what Rheynek stood for. “Oh praise the goddess, you must help me!”
Rheynek looked a little embarrassed. “Of course, but explain a little first, and what’s your name?”
The girl sat up again, she had a desperate look on her face. “I am Thiliam; they caught me last night and brought me here.”
She grabbed Rheyneks hands. “Please say that you will help me, they have captured my mother and they will burn her as a witch.”
Ghuad drew his breath in a hiss and his face told pretty well what he thought of this piece of information. Thiliam looked frightened at him and Rheynek smiled soothing. He knew Ghuad’s looks could scare people. “Ghuad is not dangerous for you girl, he’s a friend. I’m known as Rheynek, they call me the goddess hunter.”
Thiliam looked narrowly at him. “I have heard of you, mother worships the goddess”
She got up on trembling feet. “They have her captive in an old castle out in the swamp, she tried to stop the trade in drugs here, and now they have found an excuse to get rid of her. I tried to sneak over there to free her when they took me.”
Rheynek nodded and helped her to stay on her feet. “You are a half-breed, your mother or your father?”
Thiliam looked down. “My father, I do not know whether he is alive or dead, but I think he is alive somewhere and knows naught of my existence. Mother wanted it that way. “
Rheynek nodded to Ghuad and took off his jacket and gave it to Thiliam who took it with a shy nod and pulled it around her with a relieved sigh. It was obvious that she froze. “Where is this old castle?”
Thiliam straightened up and pointed towards the swamp. “An hour’s ride from here, I can show you the way. It is urgent, because they will probably do it today, they will get rid of both of us. We can create problems for them. We live in a small cottage on the other side of the swamp; mother’s a medical expert and knows a lot that makes them jealous and suspicious.”
Rheynek thought quickly about it, he got a sharp glance from Ghuad who was shaking eagerly where he stood. “What are we waiting for?”
Rheynek shook his head. “Nothing I’d say, let’s get out of here.”
Thiliam brightened up and Rheynek whistled for Starwind, the mare came trotting over to the broken door and Ghuad lifted Thiliam up into the saddle.
“You will not have to walk. I would think that your legs are not feeling particularly good?”
She nodded and looked down at Ghuad’s beautiful but scary face. It was evident that she still struggled to figure out what he was. Rheynek grabbed the reins and was about to begin walking with the mare when they heard the sound of running feet and then shouting and screaming. It was obvious that the dead in the inn were discovered and someone had put two and two together and guessed where the perpetrators were.
There were several people who came running and Rheynek cursed. “Which way shall we go?”
Thiliam looked terrified. “There is a hidden path through the swamp; it starts by the tree that is completely white.”
Ghuad nodded quickly. “We passed by that yesterday, we just have to get out to the road again.”
Thiliam looked confused at Ghuad. “You have no horse?”
He just smiled at her. “Don’t need one!”
They saw the light from torches now and Rheynek grabbed the reins and ran, Ghuad ran behind and had no trouble keeping up. It was clear that they were discovered now; the cries increased in intensity and came closer. An arrow suddenly slammed into a stem next to Rheynek and he came up with some words that made even Ghuad shocked. “Thiliam, duck down, they have archers.”
She gasped and did as she was told, lay over the neck of the horse and Rheynek dropped the reins and saw that the crowd was on its way between the buildings at full gallop. More arrows crashed into fence posts and other things around them and Rheynek knew they couldn’t run away from them in the swamp, besides, this required local knowledge. He could probably take many of them but they were too many for him to kill everyone without being killed or injured. He glanced at Ghuad. “Can you take them?”
Ghuad turned his head; there was something strange in his eyes. “Sorry, cannot change shape now.”
Rheynek stared confused at him and Ghuad turned, Rheynek saw the reason for the slightly pained expression. An arrow protruded from one of his thighs, just below the hip. It had to have come at an angle from above and behind judging the angle of the shaft. Ghuad gripped the shaft of it and broke it with a low moan.
Rheynek knew that he only had one shot, without Ghuad’s ability to change shape he was the only one who could rescue them and he let the gift of the goddess loose and pulled all the magic he had into a glowing core of power in the inner of his soul before he let it loose in a chilling jerk. A wave of pure energy rolled through the street and pulled all who came running over, roofs and walls collapsed on several buildings and the burning smell was rife. He roared to Ghuad “Get on horseback!”
Ghuad looked confused at him. “But ... She doesn’t tolerate me ...”
Rheynek grabbed the reins and the mare threw her head when Ghuad grabbed the saddle.
“That she’d better do now.”
Ghuad pulled up behind Thiliam who was pale with fear, she was really young, it was clear now. Rheynek slapped Starwind on the butt and the mare rushed out with an indignant neigh. Rheynek saw that they had more than enough with getting back on their feet; they would probably not pursue them with the very first. He therefore contented himself with a simple incantation that hid their tracks. He ran after the horse and knew that this had become much more than he had expected.
They soon found the tree and Thiliam dismounted and went ahead. “The path is very narrow so you hold on to it, if you tread outside you’ll drop straight down.”
Rheynek looked doubtfully at the watery hell that lay before them, dimly lit by the morning sun. It looked like a bottomless swamp everywhere. He looked up at Ghuad that looked doggedly, the snapped arrow shaft stuck out at a strange angle that revealed that the arrowhead was set deep and well into the flesh. Ghuad smiled wryly. ” Cursed bad luck. “
Rheynek shook his head and touched the shaft gently and checked the wound, it bled very little since the shaft blocked the wound canal. They just could not extract the arrow, then there would be major blood loss and major injuries and Ghuad needed his strenght now. It could not stay in there either, as it was probably inflammatory and although Ghuad endured a lot in this form it could be dangerous even for him. They just had to think about one thing at a time.
They followed Thiliam who walked through the swamp with confidence; she obviously knew the road as well as her own name. Rheynek wrinkled his nose of the scents there and Ghuad looked around him with disgust. His senses were more fine-tuned than Rheyneks. “This is a damned place!”
Thiliam nodded. “It is indeed, a sorcerer cursed the county a few decades ago, everything has gone just downhill ever since.”
Rheynek had to smile fast. “Does not necessarily need a curse to get that way, but it certainly helps”
Thiliam smiled gently back, she was really a sweet girl and one day she would come to be a bit of a beauty. It was very common among people of mixed race. The horse moved steadily and agreed to carry Ghuad; she probably realized the gravity of the situation. They went for a good while before Thiliam led them into a gentle curve that almost went back the same way for a while, then they met an island in the swamp, a large rock which seemed pretty low but widespread.
She sighed with relief and found a ravine that led up to solid ground, nodded to the two.
“The castle is up here, hereafter, we must be silent.”
Rheynek loosened his sword and Ghuad got down from the horse. Rheynek looked a little doubtfully at him. “Should you fight like that?”
Ghuad grinned horribly. “The issue is whether I can fight like this and the answer is yes. I can swing a sword even though my leg is a bit stiff.”
Thiliam looked expectantly at them and Rheynek just had to admitt that Ghuad was right. Presumably the arrow did not slow him down at all.
They walked on slowly, the island was densely covered with a kind of low prickly bushes that provided good cover and Rheynek soon felt the sour smell of smoke and people. Thiliam nodded and gave sign that they should leave the horse behind.
Some gray walls were stretching up from the ground as gray boulders; they were old and in poor condition but better built than the village. Presumably this fortress was built to protect the population some time long ago, and built to last. It was fairly simple, basically a wall around a few buildings and a narrow gate that could be closed off.
Rheynek could hear shouts and voices talking loudly but it was not clear what they were talking about. Thiliam bit her lower lip “Oh great goddess, if only we are not too late.”
Rheynek shook his head. “I do not think so, but you better wait here! It is best; you have to lead us away quickly when we have freed your mother.”
She looked as if she would protest, then she nodded reluctantly. Ghuad patted her on the shoulder. “If anyone comes, you can notify us with whistles.”
She brightened up a bit again and nodded, it was clear that she wanted to do her part.
Rheynek hung off his jacket and loosened his two swords, he was ready to fight. Ghuad also had made himself ready; they sneaked away to the walls and climbed up along old ivy that was strong enough to take the weight of two men. It was no longer a real fortress, only a refuge. They looked into the courtyard; it was as expected simple and small. It was made a kind of fire in the middle of it and it was quite a few people there who had a distinct lack of hygiene and class. They looked as social outcasts and it was probably true. Some men held a woman caught between them, she looked defiant and proud and showed no fear. It was obvious that she was beyond her prime but was still a beauty and Rheynek sharpened his ears and listened to the argument. It was obvious that they down there were arguing about whether they should just burn her or have a little fun first. She was probably a big temptation and they seemed to want to have a go at her first.
Ghuad bared his teeth and growled and Rheynek smiled coldly to him. There were twenty men down there in all, and a few women. They were armed, but it was with bad swords and a few axes. No match for a weapon like Nadharn. Rheynek pointed at the inner corner of the courtyard. “Sneak along the battlements and attack from that angle, I aim for her. “
Ghuad was just baring his teeth and was gone away, it was clear that the injury didn’t hamper him at all. Rheynek crept forward along the primitive battlements as far as he could get without being detected. There was some sort of edge built towards the courtyard to prevent people from falling down during a fight, now he hid behind it. He got as far as he could, looking down at the crowd again. The argument went like before and Rheynek sighed and concentrated, it was best to use some magic even in this situation. He was the one among the goddess chosen ones who were most equipped with such gifts; the others were different from him in this respect. He was in many ways comparable to a magician, even though he was not trained as one, in him laid the abilities just in the person he was, he did not need any training to use it.
He whispered a command and a lightning shot out from the clouds and struck a hay wagon near the crowd with a bang, it started to smoke and burn at once and people were standing as if paralyzed for a few seconds. Then Ghuad struck . He came rushing into the crowd before him and swung his sword like someone reaping a wheatfield. Before people had gathered, he had killed several and when they started to go to counterattacks Rheynek saw his chance.
He jumped down from the battlements and attacked from the other direction. The guys who kept Thiliam’s mother left her and looked around for something to defend themselves with but it was too late. Rheynek was much faster than a human and both plunged without their heads before they had time to run more than a few steps.
Rheynek quickly cut the ropes that bound the woman and threw a dagger to her. She just nodded and prepared to defend herself. Ghuad was clever and deadly and his opponents had begun to recede but now they met Rheynek from the back. Rheynek roared and swung his two swords like a true champion, he parried and cut limbs and necks where he came to and the survivors ran now. They understood that they could not win.
Rheynek turned, the woman they had freed stood there with a woman before her legs, and it was one of the women there who apparently was trying to run away but she was stopped by her. Rheynek smiled and Thiliam’s mother smiled back. “We must go quickly, your daughter is waiting outside of here. “
She nodded with a friendly grimace and followed them through the gate and around the fortress until they found the place where Thiliam waited. She beamed with relief and gave her mother a hug. The woman looked warmly at the two. “We are grateful to you! My name is Athera of Alad.”
Rheynek bowed quickly and presented them. “We must get away from here, probably there are several more here on the island and we cannot kill anyone either.”
Athera stared at them. “You should, everyone here is just scum, heartless and raw beast that could kill their own mother for a copper penny.”
Rheynek sighed. “I do not doubt that, but the goddess will decide their fate”
Athera tilted her head. “Yes she can do that, it was her blessing that you came to our rescue.”
Ghuad was rubbing his leg with a grimace and Athera got aware of the dark blood stained pants and the shaft sticking out of his leg. “By the gods honored one, you are hurt!”
He tried to dismiss it but Athera struck his hands to the side and looked closely at the damage. “It is deep, but I can heal it, if we get home.”
Ghuad smiled strained “It sounds great, and when it’s done I’ll burn this rat’s nest to the ground and no protests please.”
Thiliam stared impatiently at them. “Then you should move on, they will surely come to our home too after a while, when they are gathered.”
Rheynek patted her on the head. “Okay Sweetie, show us the way!”
They took a different path this time, Athera got to ride with Ghuad and looked like she enjoyed herself as she sat before him in the saddle. Thiliam almost trotted before Rheynek and he let her choose the pace, presumably she would be angry if he asked her to calm down, it was clear that she thought it was urgent. They walked for more than an hour and everyone was soaked when they saw another island rising from the swamp. This was low and only a kind of hill with some trees and some rocks.
A small cottage was sandwiched between two huge boulders and Thiliam literally slid through the door. Ghuad helped Athera down and she went to look for her daughter. The room was small but filled with all sorts of strange objects, herbs hang to dry in the roof and it had a weird sort of smell, a kind of medicine smell. Everywhere there were containers and strangely shaped gear. Athera nodded Thiliam. “Pack the important things into sacks while I arrange his leg.”
Thiliam looked intently at her mother. “Do we have time ... “
Athera interrupted her. “Yes, the arrow must get out before it gets infected. They do not come for a few hours yet.”
Ghuad was seized by the arm and escorted over to the bed, it was good, broad and covered with a good carpet Thiliam gripped and packed down. Athera did not hesitate, she seized a dagger and ripped Ghuad’s pant from the waistband down to where the arrow was set. Then she pulled the garment down and Ghuad blushed and looked extremely embarrassed because he had nothing underneath. Athera took no notice of it; she considered only the damage with a frown. “Lie down on the opposite side of the injury.”
Ghuad obeyed and felt his face burning with embarrassment. Thiliam glanced at them and giggled wildly before she turned violently and Athera just stared at her daughter and smiled quickly. “You have to get used to the sight of well-shaped men girl, it’s only natural.”
Rheynek started helping Thiliam with packing and let Athera take care of Ghuad. He guessed that she was strict and determined enough to deal even with him.
Athera took out a glass bottle with a golden brown liquid, she pulled out the cork and a strong smell filled the air. Ghuad snorted and had to turn his face away, his sense of smell was very strong. Athera stared at him with cold eyes, and then she poured from the bottle directly onto the wound. Ghuad stiffened and made a strange hoarse sound of pain, it burned in his body and he swore rather rough. “Easy there honored, the wound must be cleaned and this burns away everything unclean.”
He closed his eyes and groaned again, it stung like little else he had known in his long life. She retrieved some strange tools and dropped them into a bowl with the same fluid. “It will hurt honored, but there is no way around it I’m afraid. It will be painful no matter how I do it but I’ll be as gentle as I can.”
She washed her hands in the stinking brew and examined his leg gently. Ghuad suddenly felt strangely anxious, he had never feared injury before, had scarcely imagined himself being able to get an injury. Now the idea of being severely hampered was very uncomfortable, he had never been weak.
Athera squeezed and twisted the shaft and Ghuad choked outburst of pain that forced themselves forward, it hurt and burned intensely. “It is deep as I thought, but did not twist in, it’s good. Then it will be easier to get it out again.”
She took out what looked like a kind of flat beaten spoon and Ghuad looked at it with confusion. “What is it?”
Athera smiled proudly. “My invention, I’m sliding it down along the shaft and it covers the barbs so one does not cause even greater damage when one pulls the arrow out.”
Ghuad looked doubtful but Athera nodded firmly at him. “Brace yourself honored; I would think that you can handle this without drugs?”
Ghuad gritted his teeth. “Of course.”
She blinked teasingly to him. “Well, I thought so.”
She put his leg back slightly and pulled his foot up so the muscles got tight, then she caught his eye. “Scream if you must, it helps.”
Ghuad grinned fast. “I do not think it is necessary.”
Athera smiled back, there was a devil dancing in her eyes. “Do not say you were not warned. “
She grabbed the shaft and began pushing the narrow instrument down the wood and Ghuad twitched. He stared straight into the mattress and forced himself to breathe, the pain tore at him, and it was like being slowly cut up with knives. Soon he felt that he was shaking from head to toe and dripping with sweat as she slowly pushed the instrument deeper into the wound. Ghuad cursed quietly and fervently in Elvish, hoping Rheynek did not understand the language and what was said. Rheyneks terrified mine revealed that he certainly understood. “Ghuad! Don’t say things like that in front of a lady!”
Ghuad was practically panting. “That I don’t ...a damn...about!”
Athera looked at him and smiled weakly. “There I have reached the arrowhead.”
She made a kind of jerk and they heard a faint click, presumably the arrowhead slid into the spoon now. Ghuad made hollow groans and his hands were white as he grabbed the mattress. Athera smiled reassuring but it was again something strangely reckless in her eyes. “The worst will soon be over.”
She caught Rheynek’s gaze and sent him a naughty smile, grabbed the shaft and the instrument with both hands and jerked, hard.
Ghuad wanted to scream, by all the gods how he wanted to scream but could not, the arrow was pulled out right away and came out followed by a stream of blood and he was sure he was going to faint at any moment. Red dots danced before his eyes and his heart was pounding wildly. Athera threw the arrow away in a bowl and was effective.
She grabbed another container and poured something new in the wound and this time he screamed. Rheynek stared horrified and pityingly at his friend, it bubbled in the wound and Rheynek did not doubt for a second that it was just as painful as it sounded.
Ghuad was just lying trying to gasp for air while Athera poured some blood stopping medicines into the wound. It seemed to work really well for the blood stopped flowing. Then she pushed a kind of ointment into the wound and closed it quickly with a few simple stitches with a kind of thin whitish line Rheynek could not identify. “What is it?”
Athera smiled benevolently. “Cat Guts, it is brilliant.”
Ghuad looked like he wanted to vomit and now he would most definitely prefer not to know what the rest of the stuff she had used on him had been. His leg hammered and burned and it had swelled a bit too but the arrow was at least out of him.
He fought his way up, and shivered yet, his body was wet with sweat and he pulled his long hair out of his face with a grin. “I swear that you like this woman, to torture people!”
She just smiled back, it shone in her eyes. “Not so, if someone else had taken care of this it would have been a lot worse, believe me. The only other way to get out such an arrow is to push it all the way through to the other side.”
Ghuad’s color faded slightly and he clapped his hands to his face. He swayed slightly. Thiliam looked compassionately at him, and Rheynek swallowed quickly. It had been a brutal but quick performance.
Athera looked sternly at her daughter. “Have you packed the things?”
Thiliam nodded quickly and Athera threw all the strange instruments into a small box, she was efficient and quick, and got a great deal with her. Thiliam ripped up clothes and such and threw it into a bag, it was clear that the two women had been prepared to leave quickly for long. They knew what they were going to bring with them and not. After a bit they were ready and Athera looked around with sadness. ”It has been a good home, but not a place for a young woman like Thiliam. I have a sister on the coast; she will accept us with open hands.”
Rheynek swallowed a little moved. “Is there anything I can do?”
Athera grimaced. “Yes, burn the house; they should not get the pleasure of using it.”
Rheynek looked at her in surprise, she was indeed strong. It took willpower to just secede that way. She looked up at him, her face was proud. “It holds many good memories, but I will carry them with me in my heart. And they shall not desecrate them.”
She picked up several of her bags and carried them out. Rheynek was a bit unsure on how to bring it all. Ghuad should not walk yet, and Starwind could not carry everything.
Athera whistled sharply and it whinnied from the woods behind the house. A couple of gray half-blood horses came running and she smiled contentedly. “I did not expect that those bastards could get a hold of you, and I was right.”
Rheynek grabbed one horse by its forelock and Athera soon found some pack saddles from behind the house. She harnessed the two animals with swift hands and lifted Thiliam’s bags in place while Rheynek held the horses. Ghuad stood leaning on the door frame with an introverted mine, it was clear that it bothered him to be so affected by the injury. Rheynek looked expectantly at her. “Where are we heading now?”
Athera tied the horses up and grabbed the lead rope of the one in front. “First north until we meet the road heading towards the coast and then along it to the city. You can follow as long as you want.”
Rheynek was about to say something when Ghuad cut into the conversation. “We will accompany you to the road; it also leads back to where we belong. When we have come so far I will return to this place in my true shape and then I will not leave anything standing”
Athera tilted her head. “Well-spoken wind rider, burn everything, absolutely everything. This is not a place for people since it pollute their souls and makes them evil and twisted.”
She whistled to the horse and started to walk and Rheynek waited until she was disapperared along the path before he put a torch to the straw roof. The roof caught fire right away and the whole building was burning eagerly as he hurried after them. Athera looked back not even once but Thiliam looked behind her with tears in her eyes.
They went for much of the day until they rested at a large grove of trees, the swamp was turned into a sort of half open field and they held a good speed. Rheynek led the way and he made sure to hide their tracks well. They did not need stalkers now. Thiliam revealed that she was good with a sling and whacked some rabbits for supper. When they had reached the hill country above the swamp they encamped in a dense grove, with huge old oaks that were common at the site. Rheynek relaxed and Thiliam blushed when he praised her for her hunting skills. Athera looked thoughtfully into the fire and Rheynek looked searchingly at her. “How is it that you have lived in such a place, you’re one of the goddess’s servants are you not?”
She sighed and pulled the blanket tighter around herself. “It’s a long story; my mother’s family has always been medical experts. It is not always well regarded, especially in places where men should have all the power. And then I chose a man who was not one of them. I had to escape, it was indeed a matter of their honor and so everything could happen.”
Rheynek cut an ugly grimace. “Not exactly what the goddess like. “
Athera smiled wryly. “So definitely not. But I have lived well here, it has been lonely but I’m used to loneliness. It is a friend I know very well.”
He grimaced. “But Thiliam’s father could certainly have helped you?”
Athera looked down again; there was something distant in the mine. “He’d done everything I had asked him for, but I do not like to owe anyone anything. He gave me some great days and nights not the least, and it was everything he thought he did, and all I thought I got too, until long after he had moved on. That Thiliam was conceived was probably a trick of the Goddess I think.”
She looked at her daughter who had now fallen asleep, rolled up in her blankets like a kitten. “I named her after him, it is a name both men and women can wear. You may know what it means?”
Rheynek nodded slowly. “Yeah, Fog Bringer. The first night of frosts is often called it.”
Athera smiled wistfully. “It’s been frost in my heart after he left so it was a good name.”
She patted him on the shoulder. “You’re a good man Rheynek, your heart is pure, maybe too pure for you to understand this world’s cruelty completely. I’m sorry, but the world will slowly make you more cynical. It’s inevitable if you do not want to fade away. I will not let that happen to her, so this is a good thing. In a town, she will get a life, friends, and maybe one that loves her eventually. More I cannot ask for.”
Rheynek nodded toward Ghuad who sat leaning against one rock wrapped in blankets.
Athera smiled again; there was something strange in her lingering smile. “Ghuad may be on the side of good in this, but kind and tame he’ll never be. I have looked into his soul; it is as luminous and eternal as life itself, and equally devastating. He is a formidable ally, and just as mysterious and inexplicable as the time that passes. Ghuad is the stone which can tilt the weight in our favor; you will see it sooner or later.”
She smiled again that strange lingering smile. “Being close to a creature like him is like drinking wine of Aflarhian grapes, you know it’s not good for you, that in the long run it will hurt you but you hunger for more, it’s inevitable.”
She stood up and nodded to him. “Good night to you weapons master. I have debts to pay.”
She went against Ghuad and Rheynek just stared confused at her before he turned and rolled into the carpet again. He did not understand what she meant by that last one, but could not bother with it now. He was tired and needed rest after all the power usage in the past.
Athera sat down beside Ghuad, he looked up and smiled at her, she smiled back. There was something sad in her smile. “How do you feel?
He grimaced. “Stiff and sore, it pounds and burns still. “
Athera nodded soberly. “Let me see.”
He pulled the blanket aside and lay on his side, pulled away the rather tattered pants. She touched the wound carefully. “It heals already; you’re ok in a few days I think. You have a good healing ability wind rider.”
Ghuad nodded and would pull the fabric back in place but she stopped him. Her hand slid over his skin like the smoothest silk and Ghuad opened his eyes and looked at her blankly. “What are you ...Ooohhh!”
Her hand had moved from his thigh to a quite different area and what she did had little to do with wound care. She looked at him obliquely; there was something strangely wild in her eyes. “I hurt you; it was inevitable but regrettable nonetheless. I owe you this, the goddess wants balance.”
Ghuad had to close his eyes and swallowed convulsively. “Athera, you need not ...!”
She looked at him. “I told your friend that being close to a creature like you is like wine, you will always be hungry for more even if it is dangerous.”
She pushed closer to him and kissed him gently. Ghuad would not completely believe in this, he was confused and also noticed how his body responded to her very skilled touch. She ran her hands over his face. “I will soon be no more wind rider, in human years I can still live a long time, but it will be only a brief moment for your kind. Anyway I will live forever in your memory.”
She pushed back his upper body so he lay almost flat on the carpet; Ghuad understood her but would still not quite believe that it actually happened. He remained completely passive and just stare wide-eyed as she slowly pulled off his tunic and pulled herself up so she was straddling him. There was something in her eyes that was playful when she pulled the blanket up over them and he gasped as he noticed that she had nothing on under her skirt. “Look at this as my contribution to the goddess balance.”
Rheynek marked half asleep that there were strange sounds he could not identify. He woke up a little more, looked around. Thiliam slept like a child but he could see movements on the other side of the now glowing fire, and there was no doubt that the sounds came from there. Rheynek had to shake his head in disbelief and whisper before he lay down to sleep again. “Ghuad, you are crazy!”
The next day the sun was bright and Rheynek had to grin of Ghuad’s strangely good mood his injury taken into consideration. Athera was as usual but Thiliam did certainly sense something because she was watching her mother very cautiously. They broke camp and got off and saw no sign of pursuers of any kind. Rheynek did not expect it either; he was good at hiding tracks. As the day drew to a close Ghuad could already walk, the wound healed almost so one could see it and Athera was very happy with it. They camped for the night by a lake and Rheynek caught a few fish they had for dinner. Thiliam was unfamiliar with fish but liked it well and the night was quiet. The next day it rained but they reached the road at noon. It was many travelers there and they said goodbye to the two women there, and promised to do something about the village and the evil it roomed.
Athera and Thiliam went with some traders from the city and gave the two more hugs and told them to just come by if they ever were in the city. Rheynek felt almost embarrassed but Ghuad was just anxious. Now he was almost fully recovered and longed to do something again.
When the procession was gone Ghuad ran into the woods and found a large glade. There he let tranquility descend upon the soul, searched deep within him and found the power that gave him a different body, his real and original. A loud boof could be heard and a bright light lit up the forest for a few seconds, he stood there and shook his wings. It felt good to be himself again but also strangely alien. He liked better and better to be in the more human body, it had so many feelings and joys he didn’t knew as a dragon.
Ghuad made himself familiar with his wings and Rheynek climbed on his back and tied himself onto the back between the huge wings with a long strap from the saddle. He was also eager now.
Ghuad kicked and took off with a puff of air, the enormous black body swung up into the air and headed back toward the swamp. Rheynek was ready to use magic and realized that he could hardly get Ghuad to change his mind in any way. They soared into the village and approached when it began to grow dark. It hung a few veils of smoke over the city from the chimneys and fireplaces, and briefly the smoke became formed into a shadow that no doubt was a black wolf.
Rheynek sighed softly, the Goddess symbol, she agreed with Ghuad. This place was only home to evil and it would continue to breed more evil until it was finally destroyed. And that job was theirs. Ghuad took a leisurely round, then he hovered in the air like a falcon over a mouse, the neck swelled up and the dragon spewed a compact column of fire that hit the ground like a bright lightning from above. Two houses burst into flames and screams sounded. People came running out and the sight they saw caused them to run around like headless chickens in panic. It was total chaos.
Ghuad hit house after house and drove the residents ahead towards the swamp. Rheynek helped with incantations and gradually the whole village burned. He could see the souls of those who lived there, as flickering rays of multicolored energy and none of them were nice, most were more or less black. Ghuad chased the gang into the swamp before he turned into the wind and headed towards the island with the castle. The Goddess did decide who lived or died in the swamp, they were in her hands, ruler of nature as she was.
Ghuad torched the fortress on the island and did the same with the survivors there, he saw that there was nothing left to rebuild. Then he headed to the north and Rheynek leaned forward and shouted to the dragon. “Where in the world are you going?”
Ghuad grinned so all his long teeth showed. “I shall solve a problem once and for all!”
He just followed the wind for a while; they came to a narrow valley with open fields up the steep sides. Rheynek looked down in disbelief. “What are you up to now?”
Ghuad nodded with his long head and changed course slightly. “BBQ party!”
He zeroed in on one field and a long beam of fire scorched all that was green there. Rheynek viewed with disbelief while the dragon scorched one field after another. The fields that roomed harmless or useful plants were allowed to stand, it was just the herbs that could be transformed into drugs that were charred and scorched and Ghuad did it so thoroughly that the soil was sterilized and never would carry crops again. Rheynek had to grin. “Well thought Ghuad.”
Ghuad was proud. “They can breed rabbits instead, much better for everyone.”
He leaned into the wind again, it burned and smoke rose everywhere and some people ran around in confused anxiety. They did not understand this attack at all.
When they got back to the road where Starwind waited Ghuad was tired and sore and turned back immediately. Rheynek saw with astonishment that he was pale and had to sit down. “It took my strength, but we did it. “
Rheynek sat down beside him, thinking back on it. A rumor had led them to something that had been yet another mission for the goddess. He had been created for this life but sometimes he wondered what would be next.
They rested there that night and the morning after Rheynek bought an old mule of a cattle trader that came by with his flock, they told him a little lie that Ghuad’s horse had eaten poison ivy and died. They headed towards Shabuch again and had ridden a few days and was soon home again when Rheynek was interrupted in his ponderings by a jingle of unusually salty vocabulary from Ghuad. Rheynek turned in the saddle and looked confused at Ghuad who looked as if he had seen a ghost. “By the goddess, what is it?”
Ghuad laughed a strangely incredulous laughter. “That I did not understand it, I’m a big idiot, she almost said it straight out.”
Rheyneks mare stopped and he looked confused at Ghuad who smiled wryly, it was somewhat ironic in the mine. “Said what? What are you talking about?”
Ghuad sighed softly. “When we rescued Thiliam I noticed that we saw the light from the fire through the window hatch, when we broke into the house, it was only embers that glowed in it. I did not think about it, then!”
Rheynek gaped in gradual dawning understanding. Ghuad looked down. “Athera told you that my kind was as wine, addictive. How could she know if she had not already tasted that wine before?”
Rheynek beat his forehead. “Aw what the hell, I should have known. Thiliam’s father was no elf was he?”
Ghuad shook his head. “He was like me, a member of one of the young dragon races, only in elvish look. Therefore, she looks like a half blood elf. She has fire already Rheynek, we saw that she can control fire but does not know it herself.”
Rheynek stared savagely at Ghuad. “What does Athera want with this?”
Ghuad sighed. “God knows, but she would never do anything bad to her daughter, I know she is fanatical about those she loves. I think Thiliam gets a very good teacher when the day comes when she must learn. Because it will.”
Rheynek looked searchingly at his friend. “It’s more right? You think of something more ...”
Ghuad cut a strange grimace, half-embarrassed, half-pensive. “Ah, well, you know me.”
He scratched himself behind the ear with a wry grimace. «You surely noticed that ... The night after we rescued them? “
His voice was pleading and Rheynek had to grin, Ghuad could at times be downright embarrassed by even small things. “When you had a real tumble with her yes, do not deny it.”
Ghuad swallowed and blushed. “It was hardly just for balance I think, she is afraid of fading away Rheynek, afraid to grow old and die. I think she intends to live forever through her offspring. And I think that ...”
Rheynek sighed and felt strangely tired, people never ceased to amaze him. The purest intentions often turned out to be as double edged as a sword. “And you think she did it to get one more child right?”
Ghuad cut an ugly grimace and nodded. Rheynek lifted his shoulders in a gesture of disbelief. “It is possible, your race and people are not really able to mix you know, but she is a medical expert, it’s possible she knows how she can get it to happen again but I doubt it. Take it as a good time for you both and no more than that. If it should be that the almost unthinkable has happened, we will hardly find her again. She has steel in her that lady, she will not let anyone mess around with her plans.”
Ghuad smiled obliquely. “Okay, I’ll see it as just a chance meeting in the dead of night but I feel almost used in a way. “
Rheynek had to grin and spurred the horse again. “No risk Ghuad, I’d love to see whoever who can force you to do anything, no, turn it down. We made a mission to honor the goddess and soon we are back home so relax. And remember that Athera certainly is the goddess servant, there may be more to this than we think. The goddess spins long plans and we are all pawns in her game. It is possible that Athera also was just ruled by the goddess will. If I were her, I would definitely have as many more of your kind on my side as possible.”
Ghuad nodded and smacked his lips and got the mule moving again but his gaze hang back toward the place they came from. It was strangely thoughtful and distant. At some point, he would come to meet Athera again or at least Thiliam and if i what he believed deeply in his heart had happened, she would not to be alone then. Their people were so few, everyone was valuable, he swore quietly to himself that he would find the truth sooner or later, and when Ghuad Blackfire swore an oath no power on this earth could prevent him from fulfilling it. Even not the Goddess own hands and will
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