When he woke, with a gasp, she was there, sitting opposite the fire still, skinning a hare. He must not have been out for long as it was still the dark of night.
He pulled himself to sitting and realized that there was no longer any pain in his leg. His body was still sore, his belly still empty, but his leg felt fine and that was enough to banish the dream from his thoughts, as strange and unsettling as it had been. He bent and flexed his knee, pulled back the leg of his britches to examine the wound only to discover that all that remained of it was a small mark of paler skin, in the vague shape of a star. He sighed with relief as he twisted and flexed his leg and felt no pain. A small portion of his heavy burden had been lifted and he could smile again. He got to his feet and stretched, just to be sure his leg was as good as it appeared. He bowed to her.
“Thank you,” he said. “You’ve healed my hurt. Better than any Serenity.”
“That’s twice you owe me your life,” she said, as she made a careful incision in the throat of the hare, drawing her knife along it’s belly with care.
“Twice?” he repeated. He supposed if she had not come along and built a fire he might have simply passed out and froze to death. Or he might have found some hidden reserve of strength and built one himself, but he doubted it.
She paused in her work to give him a look. “Do you recall a moment when several Bechuz swallowed fire and spat it upon you? Do you recall a large ball of fire floating over your head?”
He was drawn back in his mind to that moment when his head should have passed through the blazing ball of fire, but instead the fire moved out of his way. And then it erupted and all around him were set ablaze. But not him.
“You...you were controlling the fire?” he asked not quite able to believe.
“Of course I was,” she said. “Do you think the Bechuz have such power?”
“Gods,” he breathed. “A sorceress.” He moved away from her, sat back down across the fire from her and watched in a daze as she carried on with the hare. She spilled its guts out onto the skin, plucked up what might have been the heart and popped it into her mouth. She chewed, hunched over the dead animal, with a dagger in one hand. His hands moved idly to the empty sheath at his back.
It was one thing to use magic for healing. That was allowed. Magic was outlawed otherwise. It had been so for several hundred years. To perform magic of any sort, unless one was a sanctioned Serenity, was punishable by death. He was unable to control a shudder and hoped she did not notice. It was true that magic still existed in the wilder places of the realm, quiet, hidden, secret. Always denied. He had never met someone who openly admitted to performing magic, unless that person was already accused and stood before the noose. Was she merely so open about it because she had saved his life, because he owed her something? In truth he was afraid of her. More so than he had been when he wondered if she would run to the castle, more so than when he had been surrounded by an army of kobalos. An army he could fight, though he might not win at least he could do something. Magic he did not know, but for the power of Innogen’s sceptre, and that he’d had all his life to learn to resist. But this woman could create a ball of fire as large as a horse, hold it still over his head for minutes, move it out of his way and make explode, make it burn. She could defeat an army in minutes. It was a terrifying thought.
With that thought he noticed at last that she was chewing on the hare’s leg raw, despite the fire burning before her. He frowned. Even woods-folk rarely ate meat raw when they could cook it.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I am eating,” she said. “Magic use requires strength.”
“So your magic comes from living flesh?”
She scowled at him. “Magic comes from within. Strength comes from eating flesh. And I would hardly call it living. Do you not eat the flesh of animals?”
“Often they are cooked, first,” he said.
“Cooked...” she said quietly, as though she’d never heard of it. Her tone changed.
“Yes,” she mused, and he barely heard her words over the crackling of the fire. “I remember the men in the market, selling cooked meat on sticks. Adeyon said it was sacrilege...I...” All at once her face seemed just a little more gaunt than it had, a little more worn. “You do not eat raw meat?”
“No,” he said. “No, only savages and seamen eat their meat raw.”
She looked at the dead animal in front of her and then touched a finger to it. In a moment it’s flesh had changed colour from red to a deep brown and the smell of cooked flesh filled the air. His stomach growled. She cut off a leg and tossed it to him. He bit into it eagerly but something was not quite right about it. There was a foulness to it that he had tasted before, but he could not put his finger on it. Perhaps she had found it dead already.
“There’s something wrong with this meat,” he said. She only looked at him. He continued to eat, as he was near starving, though it wasn’t the most pleasant.
This woman knew things about the kobalos. Things that would prove useful. He needed to ask her but she had been reluctant to speak so far. How did she know these things? Perhaps she had been raised by wolves in the forest, and that was why she ate the way she did. Wolves hated kobalos, they hunted them, not to eat, but merely to destroy, for kobal flesh is most foul. But she had said she’d been raised in a city by the sea. It could have been Andrese, or Psy or even Thrain. Or it could have been a city in the far east, beyond the Spine Peaks, but she had come a long way if that were so.
“You said they were taking the children for a sacrifice,” he said. “That I had a few days?”
She continued to rip the meat from the bones of the hare, chewing only a little and swallowing large chunks. She really was some kind of savage, she must have lived alone in these woods for some time, perhaps raised herself here. No one raised in a civilized village would eat that way. Except perhaps the Thrainishmen, and all men knew that Thrain was less than civilized.
Finally she spoke, though she did not look at him. “They’ll sacrifice them on the dead moon.” She glanced up at the cloud covered sky and when she looked at him there was a great sadness in her eyes.
“Bella’s moon,” he said. She nodded and tossed him another leg of hare. As he bit into it he remembered the strange taste. He’d had it before, when an unseasoned hunter had sold him some meat. The stag had not been killed quick enough, and fear had tainted the meat.
“They will not likely be injured too dearly before then,” she mused, looking down at the remains of the animal. “They will not be made comfortable, but they will keep their limbs. The sacrifice must be whole.”
Kobalos liked their meat tainted with fear. It was the one thing that came through on all the stories. Kobalos running people down like a pack of wild dogs, never injuring them enough to kill, waiting for the fear to stop their hearts.
“This meat has fear in it,” he said, staring at her intently.
“Yes,” she said still not looking at him. “Seasoning.”
“Were you raised by kobalos?” he asked, unable to keep the anger from his voice. “Is that why you know so much about them? Is that why you know their leader’s name?”
“Rottdokk is not their leader,” she whispered. But he didn’t hear.
“You’re one of them!” he cried, standing. “You’re trying to poison me with that meat! Gods only know what you did to my leg. Why haven’t you called them back to kill me? Who are you!”
“I am Mag,” she said, anger clear upon her face though she moved with a calmness as she got to her feet. Her eyes pierced him, pinned him to the spot. “I healed your leg though I had little power left in me. I fed you so that you would not starve to death. I answered your questions so that you might save your children. If I wanted to kill you, do you think you could have stopped me?”
He thought about the ball of fire again and remembered that she had not laid a finger on him to injure him. He shook his head, wondering what had gotten into him. He was tired, he had jumped to the most foul conclusion he could, because he feared her. More precisely he feared her magic. And her knowledge.
“Tell me, then,” he said quietly. “Why are you here? Why help me?”
“Why does the moon illuminate the darkness?” she asked in return. “Because she must.”
They stood there in silence for a moment, digesting each others words. He noticed that the wood around them was growing a little lighter, though the light only created more shadows among the trees. He could see the mess of hundreds of footprints in the snow beyond the burn, heading away beyond the rise.
“Thank you,” he said finally. He bowed to her and left.
Upon hearing the footsteps behind him he turned to see her running to catch up. She handed him his dagger and walked beside him. It was not difficult to follow the footprints of an army.
“When I was a child,” she said. “I was sent to a temple of Mag Rand Am.”
“Because of your magic,” he said. She nodded.
“It was strong in me from the start. My mother always said I was not her child but the child of the Lady of Waters. She...she feared me. She hated me. She tried to take my power away, but...”
She shook her head. “I never made it to the temple. Kobalos attacked our caravan. They killed many and took several of us captive.”
“Kobalos don’t-,” he began but halted at a sharp glance from the girl. “I mean, I have never heard of kobalos taking prisoners.”
“They saw the power in me. Arr-Ghamiscar likes pretty girls, especially ones with power. He called us spilzock and kept us as pets. There were several of us, but they made us hate each other so that we couldn’t join together to fight back or flee.”
“I’ve not heard of this Ghamiscar, what is he?”
She shuddered. “Ghamiscar make Bella’s realm look warm and comfortable. They make slavery to a Lauklann Warwife seem a gentle bath. Imagine the hundreds of little girls that go missing all throughout the forested valley’s. No one suspects that they live in agony under the earth. Tortured until they break, made to do terrible things. Force fed raw flesh of Gods only know what, never knowing if its cow or rabbit or the girl who used to scream in the cell next to you. Never knowing if you’ll see the sky again or when they’ll decide to stick a hot knife in your eye. Afraid, all the time.”
He watched tears streaming down her cheeks, though she tried to hide it.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. She looked at him, eyes still moist.
“Now imagine the creatures in charge of this, worse than those stupid Nidrig, or the bechuz, worse than Rottdokk. Smarter, stronger, more cruel and with power on a leash. That is Arr-Ghamiscar . And he would send an entire army after me.” The last she said with a bitterness he had not heard from her.
“The army was after you,” he said. He stopped to stare at her, trying to find something about her physical form that might lead him to understand why she could be so special to so foul a creature as she described. But magic is not something a man can see with his eyes.
They had stopped at the edge of a slope, the footprints he had been following disappeared. How could an entire army’s footprints simply disappear? The snow all around them was white and crisp and clean. The slope leading down was thick with growth and snow and looked as though it had sat undisturbed for centuries. The trees grew thick together and the little light that came through the clouds did not penetrate their foliage.
“Through there,” she said, ducking down under a branch and making her way slow and careful down the slope into the darkness. She soon disappeared and he quickly followed. The slope was slippery with snow and fallen leaves and the trees grew so thickly together that it was difficult to pass through. He found her before a large bramble bush, its branches a tangle of deep, red-brown bark with thorns thick and long and sharp.
“This is the entrance,” she said looking back at him. “I told myself that if ever I got out I would never return.”
“Thank you for bringing me here,” he said. He sighed as he turned to her. “I do not suppose we will see each other again.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“But...you just said-,”
“If I leave you now, it would be as good as killing you. It would be like to leading a child to a den of lions.”
“I am not a-,”
“I know,” she said. “You’re not a child. But you are blind.” She lifted her hands and held one on either side of his head.
“What are you doing?”
“Kobalos have excellent dark vision, they see less well under the light of the sun. There will be no light, except a few rare fires. It will be so black you won’t be able to see. I can put a note over your eyes. It will act like a mask and you can take it off whenever you wish. But so long as it is on you will be able to see through the darkness.”
He nodded, though he was still reluctant. Her magic had saved him twice already and still he did not trust it. He supposed that was Innogen’s fault. Mag touched the first finger of each hand to his temples. A bare whisper escaped her lips and something like spiderwebs seemed to settle over his eyes.
“There,” she whispered. “If you want to take it off, merely touch those spots with the second finger of each hand.” He glanced around him. Where before there had been too many shadows, now all was clear and bright. He smiled despite himself.
“Under this bramble,” she said. “There is a gap in the ground. That’s the entrance. Oomglaken is large and dark and deep and there are as many ways in as there are deaths. If we are quiet and stealthy, we may succeed.”
He nodded and watched as she lay down on her belly and crawled under the brambles. Then he followed her. The going was slow, though the brambles had prevented any snow from reaching their feet there was still moist decaying leaves and the thorns snatched at their clothes and hair, marking any exposed skin they could find. She stopped and he crawled up beside her. There was a deep slit in the ground, about five feet long and two feet wide and he wondered if he could even fit through. Within, the darkness looked like nothing more than a hollow dug from the dirt by some animal.
“Are you sure?” he asked.
She nodded. “The Nidrig drag the gute through the brambles and toss them in this hole like a mouth so they think they are being chewed up and devoured.”
“Wait,” he said. “What are Nidrig and what are gute?”
“Nidrig are the lowest caste. Fodder. The little green-skinned bastards with the big mouths. Bechuz are Nidrig, with small magics, they were the ones eating the fire. But the magic drives them mad, they become unpredictable and the Orscan cannot control them after a while. They usually end up getting themselves killed. They’re not the most intelligent. Gute are slaves. Mostly young human boys, which they steal and torture until they are loyal. Or dead. They are almost worse than Nidrig.”
“And Orscan,” he asked. “They are bigger, crimson fleshed?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “They are brutal warriors. Smarter than Nidrig but not as smart as Ghamiscar. They are as hard and strong as stone and are very difficult to kill. You met Rottdokk, he is the hurtfurk..um...war leader.”
He nodded and then shimmied forward and slipped through the gap. It was a tight fit but he made it. The drop he had not expected and found himself falling for what seemed like forever before he finally hit the ground hard and fell. He recovered quickly, rolling to his feet in time to see Mag hit the ground beside him. He caught her before she fell. She was shaking.
“You don’t have to do this,” he repeated. She shushed him quickly with a finger to his lips.
“Why does the moon illuminate the darkness?” she whispered. “You must promise me one thing.”
“I owe you that much,” he replied.
“If it looks like...If they...” she took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. “I would rather die than let them have me again.”
“It won’t come to that,” he said.
“But if it does...?”