Orb and Arrow, Book I: Exploration

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*** 9 ***

Brillar was lead to the fire by Norrel and Widowanlis and room was made for her at the circle. The women’s fire was some distance away from the men’s but much more cheerful, ‘Or perhaps,’ she thought honestly, ‘it was just my presence last night.’ Stew in great bowls was handed round with wooden spoons for utensils. There was light chatter all around the fire and she was included although there were some references that she didn’t understand. Glancing up at one point, Brillar saw another figure, set apart by a few paces, her back to the group. Seeing the direction of her glance, Widowanlis whispered, “The pleasure woman.”

Brillar bent her head shaking it, angry then stood abruptly placing her bowl on the ground. Leaving the fire, she strode to the girl, who looked at her in astonishment.

“Your mother wants you by the fire,” there was command in her quiet voice. Taking the girl by the arm, she half led, half dragged her to the circle. Locating her mother by the expression on her face, she sat the girl firmly beside her. Brillar returned to her seat and took up eating as if nothing unusual had happened. Across the fire, an arm went around the girl and she was pulled to her mother.

There was no more chatter that night.

The next day, Pral sat up demanding food and complained when ‘food’ was only light soups.

“You, young man,” said Brillar firmly, “have made a mess of your head and your insides. Light soups for two days, then soup with meat, then you can have real food.”

“We mean to enforce that Pral,” said his father. He knelt to put his arms around his son and Brillar heard him whisper, “We almost lost you.” He straightened, “So you will behave!” The boy settled back meekly.

Brillar went back to Widowanlis and spent the morning teaching her more about the herbs they had gathered. Norj declared that he was feeling better and was able to step outside. “To be shut away, having to listen to all this chatter is unhealthy for a hunter,” he proclaimed. He was able to hobble to another tent where an older hunter sat on a crude bench. Behind him, the women smothered laughter.

In the afternoon the two visited the woman who had stomach pains finding her up from her bed and cheerful. They were back at Widowanlis tent when a woman came with a boy who had, that morning, fallen into thorn brush and taken deep scratches which his mother had already washed.

“They will fester,” Widowanlis said, “without an ointment.” She took a covered bowl from a shelf and applied it to the scratches. The woman sat with them and chatted for a while. When she left, Widowanlis explained how the ointment was made and how long it kept and Brillar nodded assuring her that it looked and smelled like something she also prepared and used.

Brillar was again asked to join the women’s fire and was happy to find that the ‘pleasure woman’ sat with her mother. That evening, instead of keeping to one place, some of the women came to push Widowanlis aside and sit next to Brillar quietly asking questions about her home, her life there and the bow all had heard she carried. One finally asked, “Did you really fire an arrow at Sarl?”

“The headman is Sarl? Well, not at him, but near enough to his foot to make him cautious.” Those within hearing could only stare at her.

Elden looked questioningly when she came back late to the tent, but she fell asleep quickly.

Before dawn the next morning, Brillar was shaken awake.

“Up and quickly,” urged Elden, shoving her pack and bow at her, “and move. Something’s happening.”

When the pair stood, they were confronted by Rovers.

“You are to leave, now,” came a stern voice.

“We’re ready.” Elden’s reply was calm but she could feel his tension.

“Without the woman,” came another voice.

“She has brought disorder here. She will be punished for everyone to see,” the headman stated with finality.

Reaching out, finding only anger around them, Elden made the only answer he could unleashing a ring spell that caught the men by surprise. The spell was dark, smoky and mixed with dancing lights. Men around them dropped like stones. He drew in more mana. A spear whizzed past them.

“Run,” he shouted and they ran downslope toward open land. There were five miles or more between them and the Rovers when Elden brought them to a halt. He had revitalized them several times during their flight, now he grabbed her arm spinning her around.

“What, by all that is Good, have you been up to,” he shouted; there was fire in his voice.

“Healing,” she shouted back, “I have been up to healing.”

“And something more, I think, you little fool,” he continued to shout.

That brought her up short. Elden had never spoken to her that way before.

Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she answered, “Widowanlis and Norrel asked questions and I answered.” She was still defiant. “Norrel’s daughter, Ralla, is only seven, and already promised to a bully of a boy twice her age. She asked if it was so everywhere and I answered. Others asked and were answered as well.”

Elden could only turn in a circle, “So you just answered? By all that stands in the Light……just answered?” He stalked away, leaving her to follow.

He set a hard pace putting distance between them and any who might try to follow them. It was nearly dark when he stopped. She pulled up behind him holding her side. He had offered her no help during the day and no time for comfort. She was tired, dusty, hungry and thirsty. He gave her nothing, not even the ease of a fire. Brillar dumped her pack which had been hastily stuffed, relieved to find everything there. She took a long pull of her water flask finding it close to empty. Opening the foldbox, she added water to the flask then took out rations and a blanket; her other blanket had been left behind.

There were no words between them and, for some reason, she felt lost. Neither slept well, despite the Ward.

It was the same in the morning, just silence as they sat and ate where they had slept, then:

“I should never have brought you.” His voice was so low she could hardly hear it.

“Then I would be dead already, torn apart by dire wolves,” her voice was just as quiet. “You know I would have come anyway.”

“Then we are both of us, fools.”

They sat silently for a time; Elden stood and adjusted his pack. “We need to move. The spell will have held them and left them too weak to follow, but there were others.” Both put on the leather armor they had placed in their packs.

He did set a hard pace but gave her support when she needed it. He even stopped and allowed her to dig some of the tubers she recognized and she hid a smile, knowing there would be a fire that night.

That afternoon they had to push their way through brush with heavy thorns. Elden thrashed at it with a short sword but they were still heavily scratched and bleeding, leather armor or not, when they entered an open area.

“That, I think, was the barrier marking the end of the Rover’s territory. That’s what I was told as we hunted, but there are other bands of Rovers. We’ve pushed hard, even with magic, and I think a bit of rest will do us some good.”

Brillar was busy with healing spells and nodded her agreement. They were quiet as they made a fire and ate. She waited for him to say what was on both their minds.

“I knew you were troubled there,” Elden finally began, “by the treatment of the women. I had few dealings with Rovers when I stayed with Brother Verian and none since. I thought the bands had similar laws although codes of behavior would be better terms for them. In the band of Rovers I met, men and women both hunted. These Rovers were different. They may have seemed harsh to us but this is harsh land. You were troubled the first night; there were other things?”

As she told him about the way women were named and wed to men without their consent; he nodded. She went on to tell him of Widowanlis and the way she was treated even though another man seemed ready to have her, and he nodded again. When she came to the treatment of the “pleasure woman” Brillar nearly broke Control. Then she related what had happened at the women’s fire and he looked up sharply.

“She was a child,” she pleaded, “grief stricken by the loss of her husband, sent off to be used as a whore? Then traded off like a cow or a goat? No. I would do that again.”

Elden stared into the fire. “I’m sorry.” She looked at him quizzically. “They told me about the pleasure tent when we went to hunt, thinking I might want to use it seeing that I had such a… difficult woman. We should have left then but the boy was still so ill and I knew you wouldn’t come away easily or without explanation. We’re well away from them.”

He looked at her ruefully. “You caused quite a disturbance. Sometimes, apprentice, you are a great deal of trouble.”

Somehow, that soothed her. Both slept better that night.

They had been traveling south, now Elden suggested they head a bit toward the west staying along the thorn hedge until it stopped. The hedge was apparently fed by an underground stream that kept it alive if not green and healthy. Keeping it to one side of them gave them some protection from attack as few animals would willingly push through the barrier. Still, they moved with caution.

Lessons were few in the next few days. Constant use of far-sight, constant concern about attack was draining. Draining but useful.

“Elden?” She drew up.

“I see it. A mana pool to the south and further west. Spawning…..” he stretched his sight, “fire sprites.”

“Sprites?” there was delight in her voice.

“Yes, I know, you’ve heard of them,” he said wearily, “and wanted to see one. Now you will. If we keep to the hedge, they’ll be aware of us and we’ll be within their range. We could step away now, move around them, but there may be other trouble. Hold out six arrows. There’s an item spell you haven’t learned.”

Brillar held out the arrows and Elden quickly cast a frost spell on the arrow heads which became white with cold.

“They’re most susceptible to cold. Use those first. How many will spawn from the pool is always unpredictable. As I told you, sprites range in size. Take closer ones first and we’ll try to get past them along the hedge. We fight side by side today. Be wary. The dancing lights can be mesmerizing.”

The fire sprites were quick to notice them and Brillar was slow to fire at first. They might be dangerous but their dancing lights were as beautiful as….

“NOW,” Elden shouted, and she let fly at the nearest sprite, then the next as the first crumpled to the ground. A third fell to a frost arrow. Beside her, Elden’s hands cracked with frost as he lobbed bolts at larger sprites further away.

“Slide along the fence,” came his command as another arrow struck its target. As they moved along the fence, she used her last two frost arrows and began using those without the spell. Her targets proved more difficult to drop, taking two or three arrows to fall as Elden kept up his barrage.

“Refresh,” he shouted, and she sent arrows as quickly as she could, dropping the two closest sprites before hearing his crack of frost again. The sprites were in the distance now, visible but no longer attacking. Elden urged her along the fence.

“We’re out of danger from them now. They usually stay by the pool unless they sense a threat. You, apprentice, were slow with an arrow.” His voice was stern.

“You were right. They were beautiful. It was hard to focus. I’m sorry.” They moved further to the west in silence

“The Item spell you cast on my arrows?” she asked finally as they continued to move along the fence.

“I did say Item is useful. There’s a spell for fire as well that I think you can learn with your skill, although easy spells don’t last long, and the others are beyond your reach at present. If they’re needed you will have to rely on my casting.”

“Yes, Master,” her voice was almost humble and he gave her a sharp glance.

“You,” he said, “are not to be trusted when you are meek.”

“I only thought that we should stop soon. I need more arrows from the foldbox.”

He looked at her, concerned. “How many in the quiver?”

“I began with twenty, there are six now.”

“Then we stop. Even these thorn bushes provide some shade. From now on, I want thirty arrows in the quiver at all times. If more can be safely held in the pack, place more there. How many do you carry in the foldbox?”

“I began with five hundred full arrows, there should be close to four hundred now and perhaps five hundred more arrow heads. ‘Shafts can be made, arrowheads must be carried,’ was the advice of my instructor.”

“Shafts can be made if there’s the right type of wood. When we can, we’ll replenish your supply. Perhaps a thousand mounted shafts will do.” She raised her eyebrows at the number but said nothing. Dried wellis meat had to satisfy them at noon when they stopped to deal with the arrows. As they ate, the ground began to shake and Brillar bolted to her feet.

“Down,” yelled Elden, grabbing her hand and pulling her to the ground beside him. Around them, under them, the land twisted and heaved. They could hear cracking sounds near them and slid a bit to one side as the ground beside them tilted downwards. When it was finally over, Elden moved cautiously to his knees to survey what had happened, then pulled her upward. She was unsteady as she rose to kneel beside him.

“What?” she asked shakily.

“A tremblor they call it or a quaking,” Elden replied, “not that I’ve been near one before. Now I understand the stories I’ve heard.” A smaller tremblor sent them to the ground again but it was over in seconds. They rose a second time, standing to look around.

The landscape had changed. It was still scrub and dry but there were holes in the earth and areas where the ground had been uplifted sharply. In the direction they had been traveling a huge fissure had opened in the earth. It extended through the thorn brush behind them and out of sight to the south. One side of the fissure stood like a wall, the other tilted downward.

“Our way southwest is blocked. We’ll need to go back to the east,” Elden said surveying the damage. “Let’s hope this tremblor has shaken out the mana pool.” He stopped.

“Thunder?” she asked. The feeling in the ground was not a new tremblor.

“Irex, look there,” he pointed south and west. “There must be thousands of them. Look at them.”

The irex, larger than cattle and much more dangerous, had been stampeded by the tremblor and were now rushing eastward headlong at and over the fissure in the earth some distance from them. Still, they could hear bellows and squeals in the mad rush as some that tried to jump the breach in the earth missed their steps and fell to their deaths. Dust from the herd reached them and the smell of the animals.

“They wander in herds so there must be water behind them to the west or there wouldn’t be so many. The quaking must have been worse to the west for them to be running so madly.”

The rush of animals went on for at least five minutes then trickled to just a few animals. Finally they vanished to the east, and Elden moved off toward the area they had vacated urging Brillar along.

“We don’t dare take one from the herd, but there are many that died as they missed the jump. ’Ware the surroundings as this much meat will draw wolves and scavengers.” He covered the ground quickly and reached a calf that had died of a broken neck in its jump. A few quick cuts and Elden removed a hind leg from the animal as Brillar stretched her sight to the surroundings.

“Dire wolves from the south,” she warned as he finished the cut. Elden hefted the meat and rushed them back to the torn hedge.

“And from the west, although I don’t know if they can cross the gash; and things from the sky.” Elden stopped long enough to wash the blood from the raw meat and speak a cleansing spell then hurried them along the thorns to the east. He was grinning.

“Fresh meat tonight and, if we are safe enough, perhaps a stew,” he said as they moved.

When they reached the site where they had found the sprites, there was nothing to be seen.

“The tremblor must have shifted the mana pool. It should be safe enough for us to camp here,” Elden decided setting down his burden and beginning to remove the meat. With a sigh, Brillar began her ‘apprentice task’ of gathering firewood and preparing the camp. She took a small kettle out of the foldbox and filled it with water. Spotting some of the plants with tubers, she dug, washed and sliced them into the kettle. Elden seemed deep in thought.

“Is there a problem?” she asked busy with the fire

“We can’t eat this much meat before it spoils. There’s a spell that will preserve it, but I can’t bring it to memory. Not the same spell I wanted for drying the wellis….”

“Rest and eat first? Perhaps you’ll be able to remember the spell in the morning. Could you teach me the spells for my arrows while we wait for the kettle?”

The lesson was not an easy one to master and it was hours before frost appeared on an arrow, only to disappear quickly. Spells had to be learned in levels with skill building on skill.

“This will take some time,” she said finally.

“Imagine doing nothing but this all day and nearly every day for three years,” Elden grinned, “that’s how I learned.”

“Before I even think about it, I will need food and the stew, poor as it is, is ready.” Bowls and spoons came out for the stew which was very satisfying. Some of the meat was put on spits to roast slowly during the night. Both gathered what firewood could be found and stacked it high. Elden set a Ward before they slept.

“The scent of roasting meat may draw something to us in spite of the dead irex. Be ready.”

As the sun dropped, the night grew chilly and they wrapped in blankets to sleep. An alert from the Ward brought her suddenly awake near midnight. Elden had already sent a fire bolt at what threatened as she nocked an arrow.

“An old wolf from the smell of it,” Elden said. “Probably too old to keep up with the pack and too stubborn to die. They’re scavengers and I sent a warning bolt to tell this one to scavenge the irex.”

“And now?” She stared into the night.

“It will probably avoid us. Go back to sleep.”

She did, but slept only lightly until dawn. She woke to find him looking pleased.

“The spell came to me in the night. The meat is preserved and will keep for at least a week I think. There is another spell for longer use, but it still won’t come to me. ‘What is seldom used is soon lost,’ Verian always told me. Like the bow, magic must be practiced.”

They settled the camp and began the day.

“If the map I saw at the Brotherhood is correct, the mountains in the east are the greatest although there are others.” She looked at him happily. “Where there are mountains,” he said sternly, “there is increased danger. Blood kites, great cats, harpies, rock falls; the dire wolves will still be with us. We will move with caution, not with haste. For now, we will continue at the edge of these thorn bushes.”

Whenever they stopped for a meal or a night, Brillar continued her Item lessons. The frost and fire now stayed with the arrowheads long enough to be useful. Twice during the day they spotted small herds of irex because the large herd had fragmented to graze. Once they waited for two days when a large group of irex decided that there was good grass around the thorn hedge and others grazed to the south. Two days of Item spells were useful. They kept far-sight alert for anything unusual.

The hedge went slightly uphill in their direction of travel. Once, it bent north and split, one section going to the north and one east.

“I think I was wrong about the brush following a natural stream. It seems that a watercourse must have been dug at some point or the hedging would follow one track.”

“There is water nearby though,” she replied. “Perhaps fresh?” Elden nodded and they walked toward the water sign cautiously then stopped short.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Tell me what you see.”

“I can see something; its body is sunken in the water near a rock. The pool seems shallow but I think it’s deeper than it looks. What is it?”

Elden just shook his head. “I have never seen or heard of anything like it but I sense its waiting. Look how green the grass is at the side of the pool. A trap, I think, for the hungry and unwary. Whatever it is, it must be an ambush hunter, one that waits for prey that comes close and then takes it with a lunge. Well, we’re not unwary. It will have to wait for something else.” They returned to the hedge to move eastward.

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