*** 7 ***
“Do you know Brother Thilian well, then,” she asked, as they left him behind.
“Well enough, he’s been here for over 25 years.” His eyes were on the land around them.
“So long?” She was reaching out with far-sight
“He finds the quiet life here preferable to any life in a town or even a House of the Brothers. You remember what I said about some of the Brothers skilled in War.”
She was thoughtful, then “And you? You told me you spent time in the Wild but not how much.”
“There was a Brother here many years ago; a great Master of Item magic. When I returned from war I…let’s say I found living with the Brothers difficult and went looking for him. At that time, he had been in the Wild alone for several years. It took me some time to find him and more time to convince him that he should take me as an apprentice. He was an old man when I found him. I stayed with him for three years and became a Master in the skill then I buried him. He had loved Wild and wanted to stay; I gave him his final wish. What do you see,” he said suddenly.
“Animals to the left, but no teeth to them. Something with teeth hunts them I think, but only one hunter.” She was thinking about danger coming on them so quickly.
“One in your range, three in mine. Keep the bow ready.”
“Then they’ll resist magic?”
“No, but your first kill in the Wild should be an easier one. Others will come later. And with more teeth.” He continued to move on but away from the teeth. The ground was already different to her, much drier, although it had been changing over the last few days. They had walked several miles when she stopped.
“Elden?” she said. “Ahead, a sand pit? Something else?”
“Well done. We’ll give that a wide berth. A sand worm. The sides of the pit are slippery with small grains of sand. Little that falls in can scramble out again. Can you feel the bones?”
“Buried? Under the pit?” He nodded. The trap of the sand worm was 30 feet wide and some fifteen deep.
“Should you happen on one unaware, deal with the worm first, then tunnel through the sand until you find solid footing.” At her look, he nodded again. “Yes, I speak from experience,” he could almost feel her slight smile.
“As the Master says.”
“There’s a small spring ahead and the water should be safe. We drink there and save what we carry. Springs are scarce and safe ones are always marked with a sign, a small star, if others have drunk from them. It’s usually scratched into a rock. Still, be sure to reach out and check the water before drinking. Not that any spring is really safe; everything that lives has to drink and some have teeth.”
The pair stopped and drank then moved off to eat trail rations. The land around the spring still carried some of the rich grass of the settled lands, but most of what she could see ahead was drier and sparser.
“In the morning, it’s best to decide where we stop at noon. In the afternoon, we’ll mark a place for the night. Now, apprentice, keep this in mind at all times. If we have to fight more than one, we do so side-by-side if we can back on rock or steep hill and back-to-back if we’re in the open,” at her raised eyebrow, he continued, “If we’re caught in the open, surrounded, I’ll cast ring spells of some sort and need you close or you are likely to be hit by one. If we are attacked from above, the spell will be a dome. Whatever happens, be ready. Those spells drain mana quickly. If I’m depleted before the attackers are driven off, the word is “Refresh” and you’ll have to defend us both as I draw in more mana. My commands will be short, simply ‘Back’ or ‘Side’ as there is likely to be little time. Keep your quiver well stocked.”
“Still,” he continued, seeing her solemn expression, “we’re close to the border and I don’t expect such an attack yet. Now,” he said pointing into the distance, “that rise and rocks? We spend the night there.”
As they continued, he pointed out the various plants he knew. Some with toxic thorns, others with edible tubers, still others with small insects in them that would sting or bite if disturbed. “Most things in the Wild have a defense,” he explained. “They aren’t gentled like the plants on farms.” Some of the tubers she collected for their meal other plants she avoided as instructed.
The one time Brillar chanced to glance back, the settled lands were far behind them. Around them spread the Wild, wide and harsh. Flat with small hillocks, mountains in the distance and plants that were green only at the base and dun or tan above. The sun baked them and sudden gusts of wind stirred dust. Things that were trees in settled lands were stunted here from lack of water.
Once she asked, “Is that fruit?” and pointed to a squat tree that seemed to have small red balls hanging from it. Elden picked up a stone and threw it at the tree. The “fruit” erupted into insects that circled a bit, then resettled.
“There is no fruit for us in the Wild,” he said sternly, “and little else. Tubers and if we’re fortunate a kind of ground melon near a spring although animals enjoy those when they ripen and are not likely to leave any for travelers.”
Twice they stopped and changed direction, once to circle around three sand worm traps close together, and once when he decided they were too near to dire wolves. “They hunt in packs. Two will usually harry the game, tiring it while others wait to make the kill. Best to take out the first pair and wait for the others to close in. Running from them is a dead man’s game.”
When they stopped for the night, Elden took some time checking the rocks and boulders for occupants, insisting that Brillar do the same. When they located anything dangerous, a quick spell dispatched it. He allowed them a fire to roast some of the tubers and they warmed herbs in water.
“After today’s lessons, I think I’ll find sleep difficult.”
“SIDE,” he commanded, and she scrambled up, bow ready.
“Well learned,” came from where he was seated, and she sank back down. “You moved before you looked to see what I was doing.”
“I have been knocked from a cart, pierced by my own arrow, and nearly unhorsed by a blow from a sword,” came the weary reply, “A barked word from you and I will move and quickly.” Elden chuckled.
“Well said. But you’ll sleep because I’ll set a watch for the night.” He opened a pouch and took out what appeared to be a small bug. Tapping it three times, he set it on a rock above them. “A Ward. If anything approaches, the noise it will make would wake the dead.” He stirred the fire. “But that is for tomorrow.”
He folded himself in a blanket seeming to have no cares. Brillar did likewise, but it was some time before she slept, warning bug or no.
She came awake just after dawn. The fire had burned down and he was already adding small branches. The Ward was gone again. A brief warming cup and trail rations and they set off again.
“Today’s lesson is to name back what you learned yesterday,” Elden began. He was surprised when she made no mistakes, even finding tubers he hadn’t seen. There were no ‘fruit trees’ for her to throw rocks into, but they did stop at a sand worm trap where a small animal was struggling up the side only to fall back.
“Watch. Better a known enemy than one unknown.” They watched until the exhausted animal, something like a cwel, fell to the bottom. What appeared to be feelers found it, then a dry head appeared, a mouth gaped and the animal was pulled under the sand. Brillar shivered. He took her arm and pulled her away. He had chosen their noon camp and it was some distance away.
“Elden. Under the ground and ahead to the left.”
“Well done, we’ll move around it; they don’t like footsteps above them. Murks they’re called and they live in darkness under the ground. They eat tubers and roots. If you are starving and only then, they can be eaten for the taste is foul although there are creatures that dig them up and eat them.”
“BACK,” came the command and she nocked an arrow as she took her place. “They’re moving fast.” He felt her stiffen and ready the bow. “Dire wolves, perhaps those we sensed on the first day now joined into full pack. They’re hungry and tired or they would have tried to chase us down first.”
Elden spoke and gestured as the pack gathered around them; a ring of fire kept them back. He heard her bow and the dying yelp of a wolf behind him. Snarling, a dozen more moved closer and were met with fire and arrows. Snarls and whimpers came from several wounded wolves then the remainder jumped forward. A ring of blades sprang from Elden’s hands and he shouted, “Refresh” to the sound of her bow as he pulled in more mana, then sent out directed fire. The rest of the wolves, only four left unwounded, ran off yelping.
He turned to find his apprentice standing calmly. Reaction, he knew, would come later. “There are two wounded that won’t live,” and he sent spells into both. “Never leave the wounded to suffer. Not even your enemy.”
She nodded then pulled arrows from five animals. “I thought I counted six arrows.”
“Easy enough to miscount the first few times in a battle.” Now she shuddered and he went to her, holding her against him.
“And this is a common enough reaction.” He felt her nod against his chest. When she took a deep enough breath he released her. “Well enough?” he asked.
“Yes, well enough,” she returned.
“Now then, there is a ritual you need to learn. One claw from each wolf.” She stared. He held up a great paw, pointing. “There is one claw up behind the others that curves as it grows. One curve for each year. Four curves on this animal.” With his knife he cut it free. “Take the others from your kills. The paw on the left only. Some have tried to claim extra kills by taking both, but the curl is different.” She went obediently about her task and collected four more claws.
“By rights, at least two of these were slowed by fire,” she said, calm but somewhat repulsed.
“It’s the kill that matters.”
“You take no claws from your kills?” she asked.
“If I need to, I’ll wear the claws I have already.” At her look, he smiled. “A foldbox can carry many things besides silly hats.”
Glancing up he added, “Carrion eaters are coming, we need to hurry.”
They moved off at a trot, making good time even with detours around ‘fruit trees’ and reached their noon camp in the early afternoon. Their stop was brief since the night’s camp was still some way off. A good pace and they reached it as night fell. Elden set the Ward as Brillar gathered twigs for a small fire. With his belt knife, Elden showed her how to scrape the claws then set them in the ashes for a final cleaning. “Tradition,” he said when asked why a cleansing spell wasn’t used. “Brother Verian taught me and I need to teach you the same tradition.” She could only agree.
In the morning, he opened his foldbox and took out a leather thong, tying the claws to it. “For your pouch.” She accepted it without a word. He had spent time in the Wild and she was sure there was a reason for what he was doing.
They spent the next few days easily. There were no more attacks although they were alert enough. They did skirt several areas where Elden, with his better developed senses, thought he felt some darkness. They moved steadily southward and to the east toward some low hills.
“Good hunting there,” was all he would say when she asked.
One early morning, Elden brought them to a halt near some low rocky hills.
“Something odd,” she began.
“You see it? Now, reach out and tell me what you find.” He waited.
Eyes open and glancing around them, she reached out, tensed, tried again.
“Something moving? No, not really moving...bubbling? Things living but not alive?”
“A well of mana and magic. It does bubble up and move and things spring up from it. Things living but not alive. They’ll resist most magic. The best I can do is weaken them for you. As I told you, the wells come up unpredictably and are highly unstable. This one,” he reached out, “is probably only a few hours old. We were lucky to find one so soon.”
“And?” was her pointed question.
“And I thought I’d give you experience with the creatures spawning here. These are golems although other things can be spawned including sprites. You seldom find golems even when you’re looking for them. Stay out of their reach; they’re quicker than they look. Aim for the area between their jointed rocks; it’s where they are weakest. A tall rock outcropping is a fine perch, a tree they’ll knock over quickly. I’ll weaken them, make them vulnerable but from a safe place.” That brought a stare. “Oh, and don’t get too close to them. They are currently in something of a sleep. Too close before you’re ready and they may wake up and try to smash you.”
“Many thanks, Master,” she said when he finished. “How much time do you need to find this ‘safe place’ of yours?”
“Around the hill and you’ll see everything. These golems will look like piles of rock but shimmer slightly. You fire first, then I’ll drain or weaken what you hit.”
“Shimmering rocks and him in a safe place. A fine day this is,” she muttered to herself as she began the stalk around the hill, bow at the ready.
“Those rocks should be high enough for your stand,” Elden said gesturing, “and only a moment for me to find a good spot to cast on them. Oh, and keep them occupied? Once I cast on them, they may come for me instead of you.”
He moved to her left and took station higher up on a hill. Slinging the bow, Brillar climbed the rocks he had indicated, searching for hand holds as quietly as possible.
Atop the rocks, she knelt and readied an arrow. The “shimmering rocks” were well within bowshot. As her first arrow struck its mark, the ‘rocks’ twisted and moved into something shaped like a man of rock but something many times the height of a man. A second pile also surged upright.
“Drained,” came the yell from behind her as she loosed again. With each hit, the creature made a shuddering grinding sound. A third arrow, then a forth and the creature crumpled.
“The second is well drained and vulnerable,” came Elden’s shout. It was moving past her perch toward him when her first arrow hit and it turned toward her rocks. The creature’s arm struck at her, shaking her perch and she had to steady herself. The second arrow found some vital spot and it crumpled.
“Another down the valley,” he yelled, and this time she could see a faint glimmer as his spell hit the creature. Three arrows dispatched it and she stood.
“No more in my sight,” she shouted. “Nor in mine,” he replied coming down from safety as she scrambled off the rock.
“Well done, my fine archer, well done; the golems were well struck. It’s hard to decide if they have vital spot except for where the rocks are joined,” Elden called as he approached. Nearing he added, “There may be a time when we need to do something like this. It was good practice for you. Now, let’s see what we can find among the shards.”
Most of the ‘kills’ if they could be called that, had disappeared. Watching Elden she bent over, running her hand over the short scrub and dirt, striking something hard then holding it up into the sun, amazed. He had moved to the second golem.
“Elden?” She turned to him, holding up her hand.
“On your first kill? Look at the size of it! Fit for a king’s crown that.” He came over and took the gem. “Best check the third.”
“Just these,” she said on her return holding out her hand. Three small gems glittered there and he shook his head.
“I have seen many things in the Wild, but these? On your first kills? The first has no flaws!” He examined the small gems. “A bad flaw in one, the others are perfect. And on your first kill.” He shook his head again. “Stow them; we should move off.”
She put them in a belt pouch as he began to move. “On her first kill,” she could hear him muttering as he began a smooth trot, and she grinned following.
They pushed hard for the rest of the day eating rations as they moved. When he finally called a halt, Brillar was exhausted. When the Ward was set and the fire lit, Elden put his hand out for the gems looking at them in the firelight.
“If you will now please explain?” she asked.
“There are wellings up of mana and magic creatures all over these hills although diamond golems such as we found are very very rare. Even without my spells you would have downed them but it was faster with spells. They are what draw some into the Wild. We could leave the Wild now – no let me finish – return to Laurenfell or any other settled place and want for nothing. Of course, that was true before we set out for the Wild.”
He handed her the gems. “Put the three good gems in the foldbox and the flawed one in a belt pouch. And from now on, wear the wolf claws around your neck.”
She tilted her head at him in an unspoken question as she did so.
“Rovers could be camped nearby. They can be bargained with and the claws we will both wear,” he had taken out a long necklace of claws, “will suggest that we are to be left alone.”
“If we’re not?” She watched him in the firelight.
“Then we shall see. The foldboxes mark us, so they’re best kept stowed in our packs.”
“A moment,” and Brillar opened the foldbox removing herbs and powders then closed it and stowed it.
“These will show me a healer,” she said. “I imagine even Rovers need the occasional healer?”
“They have their own, but who knows their skill. Always good to be prepared.” He settled back. “Rovers have their own customs,” Elden explained. “and they vary widely. The Rovers I met when I was a student with Verian were quiet enough, even friendly. One group of families camped near us for a while and they were good neighbors, but we’re deeper in the Wild than I ever ventured.”
They spent three quiet days moving through the Wild although both now wore leather armor even when sleeping. They had found several springs, but one had been surrounded by animal bones, suggesting it was unhealthy or that something nearby was waiting for the unwary. They were in the low hills now and the mountains in the distance could be seen in more detail. The ground was less dry, the trees a bit taller suggesting water nearby.
One morning, she woke to a hand on her arm.
“Make ready,” he whispered. “They’re just outside the range of the Ward.” He scooped it up quickly as she prepared her bow.
“Now we wait. They’ll be watching and they must know we’re awake. If we more off, we’re easily surrounded. We stay, keep out backs to the rocks and wait.” Elden settled back down.
They waited. It was nearly noon when he said, “Do you see them? Rise slowly, bow ready and make sure the claws can be seen.” She did as she was told.
More than a dozen men came towards them, well-spaced, their own weapons ready. One stepped forward.
“You are in our territory,” his accent was harsh but understandable.
“We meant no intrusion,” said Elden, “we merely came to take our chance in the Wild as many have.”
The man gave a gruff laugh and was echoed by those closest to him. “With a lass?”
“The lass,” replied Elden politely, “wears an odd necklace for a woman, don’t you think?” Another laugh greeted that.
“Claws can be given,” the leader started, but stopped as an arrow hissed into the ground at his feet. Another arrow was already nocked and ready.
“And a ‘lass’ can collect what she wears,” came Brillar’s quiet retort. “Or perhaps you would like another demonstration?”
“Calmly, woman,” said Elden sternly, then, to the Rover, “She’s a bit headstrong as you can see.”
“What is one bow against many,” the Rover replied, although he did look at the arrow less than a finger’s breadth from his foot.
“Two dead, before I fall, and you first” she snapped at him.
“Woman, QUIET,” Elden shouted at her sensing something she hadn’t. He gestured and smiled ruefully at the Rover. “She has taken some taming.”
At that the man roared with laughter and there were echoes all around. “Then you have your hands full. I suggest you give her the flat of your sword now and again to season her.”
Brillar’s aim had never left the man’s heart. “So Rovers must ‘season’ their women to keep them?” her voice was full of scorn.
That brought her a hard look. Then a relaxed laugh at Elden’s problem, “Are you sure she’s worth the trouble? Perhaps we should take her off your hands.” There was more rough laughter.
“Many thanks for the offer, but I have some time invested in her and would hate to have to begin again.” Elden’s hand came up and pushed her bow down, although it went reluctantly. “Besides, she’s a healer of some skill and useful….at times.” Now there was a warning for her in his voice.
There was more laughter, then one of the men left his place and crossed to whisper in the leader’s ear gesturing at Brillar.
“My friend reminds me that his son took a bad fall from some rocks. His eldest boy although not yet of man height. If your ‘healer’ can keep her bow tucked away?”
Brillar held the bow down and relaxed her stance then nodded.
“Blindfold them,” was the command and a man started forward.
The bow was up at once, aim steady. “If I am to be trusted with healing, I will see where I walk,” she said firmly.
Elden simply shrugged at the leader who laughed even more.
“Well said, for a woman, well said,” but there was a sneer in his voice. “Put down the bow then and follow, if you can.” The last words were a challenge. With a gesture, he gathered his men and started off at a run.
Elden groaned and took off with her trailing.