Orb and Arrow, Book I: Exploration

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*** 9 ***

Another day of easy travel and they entered hill country sometimes having to lead the horses through narrow paths. Still, it was beautiful. Her travels had not taken her through the hills and her eyes were constantly finding something new which she would immediately point out. The first day was full of such sights.

“Elden, look at that waterfall! The height of it and how narrow it is.” The fall was a hundred feet in height or more.

“Arrow Falls is its name. We’re headed to Old Man Rock. No, don’t ask me about the name, you’ll know soon enough.”

“How lovely the flowers are here and the scent! What are they called?” Elden, who had traveled the hill country, had a fine time keeping up with her questions.

The wind in the hill country could be chilly at night. Elden helped gather enough firewood to keep a fire going all night. “There are wild things here in the hill country, some with sharp teeth. No proper wolves but dogs gone wild can be dangerous. Tonight we dine on dried rations and fruit. I want no scent of cooking meat to draw them.”

They wrapped themselves in blankets and woke by turns to keep the fire burning.

Their second day led them up and down hills and once up along a narrow trail above a deep defile. Going was slow and there was little time to talk. On the third day, they came out near a waterfall and she stopped, pointing.

“Old Man Rock,” she said. “Now I understand. He has a fine chin on him.”

Elden smiled, indulgent, but waiting.

She stiffened. “There are men behind us.” She reached further, “And to the right but at a good distance.”

“And?”

“No darkness in them. Concern perhaps?

“Well done. They’re hillmen. They keep small crofts and even market areas here although not true towns. They’ll have someone follow us to make sure we mean no harm but it’s unlikely they’ll come much closer than they are. A cautious folk, hillmen, but not unkind to strangers.”

“By your tone you’ve met them.”

Elden smiled. “I have passed through the hills many times. We’re on friendly terms, the hillfolk and I. We may even see their flocks from time to time for they produce fine wool in the hills.”

Past Old Man Rock, it was only another day to come out of the hills. The hillmen evidently thought them no danger as they began to see flocks of sheep and the occasional shepherd with his dog.

As they left the hills, they filled water skins at a small stream. The river was behind them now as it flowed west. There would be water for the horses here and there, but Elden wanted to ensure their drinking water.

“Two more days and we will be near enough to Lands-end. The town is set up above the sea with a cove at its base. We’ll see it in the distance.”

They ate cold rations that night and dried fruit beside a small fire. They spoke little and there were no lessons. Elden was tense and she could feel his worry. He had not told his apprentice that he planned to leave her behind on the last day. He knew she wasn’t ready for what he had to face and wanted to forestall the arguments he knew his decision would bring. He also knew he could leave her in a binding spell, and with the horses for protection, long enough for his business to be completed but he thought of the idea with deep displeasure. While he hoped to come from Lands-end alive, he was uncertain of the outcome. He continued to review his War spells and protections but, if Harrolen had been using them constantly overseas…’Life is always uncertain,’ he thought.

They were both more alert the next day even though the fields were still prosperous and well-tended. They were a good thirty miles from Lands-end when they stopped for lunch. They had only trail rations and dried fruit, filling but hardly tasty.

“Elden, if we are to have something substantial for supper, I’ll need to hunt. There were birds earlier, roused as we passed. A short ride, a brief stalk, and a better meal tonight.”

“We’re too close,” he said firmly.

“Close yes, but there hasn’t yet been any darkness, no mar to the last few days. Besides the birds are behind us so I’ll need to ride away from the town.”

“You’re restless?”

“You’ve taken us miles out of our way; no farmhouses, few people to report they have seen riders, yes, I’m restless. And hungry.” Her tone was insistent.

Elden stretched out with his far-sense feeling a prickle here and there but nothing to worry him. Still, he worried.

“Mark our place and mind your distance,” he cautioned.

“Just when have I been lost?” she asked sweetly.

“Be off then.”

They had unsaddled the horses but she needed no saddle with Bright. Taking her bow, she looked at him, “Nap and dream of a fine supper.” She put her heals to Bright and they were off.

Brillar doubled back on their track for miles to where she had seen birds in the distance. She crossed an open field and went through a short wooded patch. She had gone over three miles from her first track when she felt something, a darkness moving quickly and from the road behind her. She urged Bright into a canter reaching forward.

At the camp, Elden was suddenly on his feet. “Brillar,” he breathed.

Bright was in a gallop now, moving through an open field heading away from the road and the camp. More horses and men came from the right. She expected spells but none came. She was moving Bright to the left when group of horsemen came from the wood on that side, their horses fresh. She urged Bright back to the right but was cut off. Murmuring a spell for the mare, she was rewarded with a fresh burst of speed, but two more men appeared cutting her off, one swinging a rope. A few strides more and the rope found her, wrenching her backwards and hurling her to the ground. She struck her head on a rock, skidding, bow lost. Barely conscious, she was aware of a man bending over her then there was nothing.

“The horse,” one of the men said, as Bright galloped off.

“Forget the horse, we have what we came for,” was the reply. Brillar was thrown over the man’s horse, unconscious, and carried off.

At camp, Elden reached out searching, finding only small signs and patches of darkness but nothing from his apprentice. He waited, pacing, uncertain, for an hour before Bright, heavily lathered and wild eyed, joined them.

“Brillar,” he said choking, and leaned against Bright before he could fall. There was nothing to do; it was nearly dusk and Bright was exhausted. All he could do was do was wait for the morning.

The men who had taken Brillar had horses set in relays toward Lands-end. When she started to rouse, something harsh was poured into her mouth. She tried to spit it out, but her jaw was clamped shut until she swallowed the bitter drink. Two changes of horses and they clattered through the dark gate at Lands-end and to the home of their lord. Lord Harrolen.

“Confine her,” he told them, “and have her drink this.” He handed them a flask. The men nodded and carried her to a cell, shackling her wrists and forcing her to drink.

Harrolen took an easy supper; Elden took none. He rubbed Bright down giving her a small drink, then walking her. He brushed her coat and let her drink her fill. ‘It would not do’ he said to himself, ‘for Brillar to find her mare weak and muscle strained. And we have a lot of ground to cover in the morning.’

When Harrolen had dined he went to the cell posting guards outside. “She drank?” he asked.

“As you said,” came the uncomfortable reply. Harrolen looked at the man sharply. “It’s necessary. He must come.” The man nodded reluctantly.

Harrolen took a lantern into the cell. He forced Brillar’s mouth open and poured in the contents of another flask waiting for it to take effect.

His men had already told him what they knew of the story. When no word came from Pilik, he had sent others to search and found Trog. A few silver coins and the man had told them everything they needed to know about Pilik’s death and the archer who had killed him. Now he had her foldbox with the crest of the Sisterhood that marked her as a mage from the Life School and knew she must have removed the dimlock. That scarcely interested him. No, he needed to know why she was still with Garnelden and if he would come for her. “Now,” he said, as she roused, “I think we should have a talk,” and he sat on a small bench at the wall.

The drug was powerful; the blow to her head had left her sick and dizzy and she had little will to resist. The first drugs had been used to keep her unconscious and the last sapped her strength even as it woke her. She tried to fight the questions, but couldn’t find the Control. Mana slipped away as it was called with nothing left for casting a cleansing spell. The brief session left her drained, exhausted.

Satisfied at last that he knew all he would get with the small methods he had used, sure that he knew all he needed, Harrolen forced another K’ish potion through her lips and left her slumped on rancid straw. He had paid the guild of the K’ish extremely well for the potions. It would take time enough for her to waken; time enough.

“Now he will come,” thought Harrolen. “Now he will kill to save his apprentice.”

Elden began before first light and covered the ground to Lands-end at a gallop, strengthening both Jez and Bright when they needed it. He took the horses to within a half mile of the gate. He had seen no one. He removed their bridles and unsaddled them, stroking Jez affectionately on the cheek then doing the same with Bright.

“You know the way,” he told Jez who had been bred and born at a house of the Brotherhood, “Take Bright home with you.” He gave the chestnut a slap on the hindquarters and, filled with regret and foreboding, turned away toward the town; then he straightened and quickened his pace. Whatever waited, he had to be ready.

The town gate swung open as Elden approached although he neither heard nor saw anyone. It stayed open as he went through and down the cobbled street.

“So he doesn’t expect me to flee,” he thought grimly.

The street was completely, disconcertingly quiet. Nothing seemed to move. Rats had all appeared to have found their holes and even the people he could sense were disturbingly still. The streets widened; his path ahead was clear. He walked by quiet shops and homes knowing his way and stopped at a wide plaza.

Drawing a breath, he stepped into the open, unprotected, half expecting a dozen arrows, but there was nothing. A few paces more and he stopped in front of a broad short stairway. Harrolen, dressed in the simple clothing of a Brother appeared at the top of the stairs and descended two steps to face him. Elden glared up at him.

“Where is she,” his voice was harsh.

At Harrolen’s gesture, a guard appeared on his right dragging Brillar in shackles, an archer by her side. Elden stiffened.

“She’s unhurt thus far, only drugged,” Harrolen answered the unasked question. “Although taking her may have caused some bruises.” Elden scowled at that him at that, his face tightening. “Still, I will release her as soon as we have finished our business.”

“And what guarantee…” Elden began.

You have no guarantees,” was the shouted reply. “You deserve no guarantees. And,” he menaced, “I could always tell them to kill her now. Or perhaps they should take their pleasure first?”

At the threat, Elden took a step forward. Archers appeared instantly.

“Another step and you both die,” Harrolen’s words were callous.

Elden took a breath and exhaled. “My life for hers then.” The words came out more calmly then they were felt.

“I don’t want your life,” was the screamed answer and Harrolen was suddenly shaking. He collapsed on a step. “I want no more lives,” the words sounded as if they were said through tears.

Elden tried to take it in. The rightful home of the rightful lord, now dead, behind Harrolen. The dozen archers he could see and the others he knew were behind him. A crying man on the stairs? Perplexed, Elden ventured loudly, “Then why are we here?”

“Because you left me!” was the screamed answer as Harrolen shot upright still shaking. “Twice you left me! Yes, yes you think I’m mad. But cunning enough to bring you here, once sent by the Brotherhood,” the words were spat out, “and now by lure.”

Elden took several steps back, madmen are dangerous and this man was clearly mad. Harrolen advanced no closer.

“Brother,” now he could see tears, “you left us, abandoned me and Parday to Lord Celbex over the sea.”

“What are you saying? Yes, I left you,” he sneered despite the danger, “you loved killing so much, you took such joy in it. When he said we should clear villages you laughed with him and I escaped that night. If that was a leaving, then I left you.”

There was mad laughter in answer. “You fool! Didn’t you know we were watched? Listened to? Followed? I joined in with the laughter and the drinking, not knowing what you planned. Thinking we would plan together to run for the sea all three of us. And you left us to him. After you were gone, they took my Parday! Took her and my unborn child, hid them away, I saw them only when it was permitted and under heavy guard. I killed for him to save my son! To watch him grow when I was allowed to see him. And there was no escape. There were two guards with me day and night, her death and his if I tried to leave them!”

Elden felt a chill, he shook his head, had he left them to that? To grief and agony?

Harrolen was pacing now, ranting, “What I have suffered….the blood of men and their wives……of children, yes of children. Soldiers raping women and girls…tortures……and I had to smile………I had to drink the bloodwine that I would vomit out in secret after all were in a stupor…..the bloodwine…… wine mixed with the blood of virgins raped,” he sobbed seeming near collapse, “blood only my death can wash away.”

“And the family here?” asked Elden, now completely unsettled.

“A ruse! They’re on my ship; I grew rich while I protected us, becoming a minor lord in my own right. My son holds those lands now and Celbex is dead. My wife is gone, lost to years of suffering and there must be balancing of the scales here and now. These men around you.” He gestured. “When I die they will have a share in my ships and my riches,” he gestured again and the archers stepped back lowering their bows and setting them on the ground. The guard holding Brillar set keys to her shackles and she slumped barely aware. “These men were selected to look hard and frightening. The few who touched people in the town were punished.”

Elden stood transfixed. “A hoax? A wild hoax? Then why not reveal yourself to the Brotherhood, to your friends?”

“And let you off so easily?? No, no there had to be more, a balance for me, for her. I won’t be shut away as mad. There will be more. I can’t remove the blood of the innocents,” he rubbed his hands on his arms, “but the Brother who kills me will bear its stain! That is your punishment.” He was shaking all over. “YOU, you who left me. You will bear its stain.”

“You wanted me alive then?” Now Elden was angry and shouting. “You gave a dimlock to your bounty hunter! You would have had me dead for all it mattered to you.”

Through fog and pain, Brillar heard shouting and the words “dimlock” and “dead.” She began to gather strength wordlessly, without moving, breathing in deeply.

“It was only to be used if needed,” was the shouted reply, “I expected them to take you sooner and closer. I suspected that you wouldn’t come willingly to kill a Brother even one such as I have become.”

“I would not,” Elden shouted back, “I’ve not killed in many years. I want no killing!”

“That one,” Harrolen gestured toward Brillar, “has killed, and for your aid. That much I had from her.”

Elden stiffened again. “She was attacked by your man. The kill was in self-defense.”

“As you say, Brother. No matter, it’s time for you to do a kindness for a member of the Brotherhood. I will not defend myself.” He came down one step.

Elden stepped back again and tripped, falling to one knee before recovering. Brillar saw him fall through swollen eyes, closed them and drew in more strength, reaching almost unperceptively for the what the archer had left behind, drawing it toward her.

You will KILL NOW!” Harrolen screamed.

“You have archers,” Elden began…

“They are innocent!” another scream, “the blood must be on a Brother’s hand.” Brillar, hearing the screamed words, readied, drawing in more strength…

You WILL kill me, you must.” Harrolen was ranting. He sent a sudden bolt of lightning at Elden, who was forced back but turned it aside. A second bolt, this one of fire singed his clothes but was turned before there could be more.

Hearing the screaming, smelling the smoke from the spells, knowing their attention was on each other, Brillar made one great effort, pulling bow and arrow to her hand, drawing in strength as she could….. A deep cold blanketed the room briefly and was gone.

She was nearly ready…..

Harrolen howled again filled with anger and frustration, “IT MUST BE YOUR HAND!”

“Not my hand, Brother.” Elden stepped back finally, submitting, eyes closed, spreading his low-held arms at his sides, knowing it could mean two deaths.

Seeing him through a haze, Brillar pulled herself to one knee, drew the bow and let fly.

Harrolen crumpled to the ground silently, an arrow deep in his neck, as Brillar wavered and collapsed on the stones.

Opening his eyes at the sounds of the falling bodies, Elden stared, first at his Brother, then at Brillar. He rushed to her, already chanting the few words of healing he knew she must need. As he reached and gathered her, a man stepped out toward them, hands raised in friendship.

“He knew he would die here today, by some means. I’m his lieutenant. His instructions were clear. You’re free to go. Horses are being brought to the plaza, or there’s a cart, if she can’t ride.”

At Elden’s first spells, Brillar had strengthened a little, and now she could faintly hear the arcane words whispered in a string. She stirred a bit. “A cart I think and many thanks” replied Elden, blinking rapidly still bewildered. The lieutenant left without a word.

“Is,” she choked and swallowed. “is……?”

“It was a true arrow, fast and true,” he nodded, tears in his eyes.

“Then,” he could barely hear her, “you must be alive.” She sagged in his arms.

Part II

None who have killed man can return to us.

Law of the Sisterhood

Symbol of the Sisterhood

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