Orb and Arrow, Book I: Exploration

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***10 ***

It was only a day later when he stopped in mid-morning.

“Rovers near the hedge and on this side.” He sighed. “We’ll have to move to the south and around them.”

She reached out in the direction of the Rovers. “Elden wait. There’s something familiar here and see them? They’re wary but not angry.”

“Bored with my company and lessons,” he asked with a smile.

“A little closer?” she pleaded.

Another quarter mile and she stopped, reaching, then, “Widowanlis?” He stared at her, waiting, “She was the healer with the Rovers. I spent a lot of time with her. Closer please?”

They moved cautiously along the hedge. “Can you see them?” Brillar asked anxiously.

“Perhaps five or six families, children,” he replied.

A few more paces and Brillar brightened. “Widowanlis, Norris and Obis and their children. Others I think I know.”

“Slowly, apprentice,” he cautioned. “We’ll approach to where they can see us and light a fire. If someone comes out, we’ll see.”

They topped a small rise, gathered some thorn twigs and lit the fire. A child, playing near a tent, tugged at a man’s leg and pointed. There was a slight commotion in the camp, then the man walked out to greet them, stopping downslope of the fire.

“Obis?” Brillar called out. She was answered by a wave. The man turned and she heard him shout, “The healer!” excitedly.

Without waiting for Elden’s word, Brillar strode down the hill as the woman she knew as Widowanlis rushed from the camp waving. The two women embraced as Elden joined them and clasped Obis’ arm.

“Well met,” said Obis, “well met. Come, join us.”

The women were already heading to the camp and they followed. There were five families gathered there.

“I am no longer Widowanlis,” Brillar was being told, “we have decided that women should keep their names.” She took Brillar to a man standing quietly with the girl she remembered. “This is my husband, Forge and I am Wanla,” she said proudly.

“Welcome healer. We have a lot to thank you for,” said Forge.

Wanla took her by the hand to introduce her to all the families. Sarif and Jerrin and their daughter, Kylin, who had been the ‘pleasure woman’ Brillar had dragged to the women’s fire, were there as well as Obis and Norrel with Pral, Ralla and their younger children. Now she was introduced to Inlee and Lanna whose four year old Minly she had examined in the Rover camp, plus Cham and Arda, whose infant daughter, Orali clung to her mother.

“How did this all happen,” Brillar asked.

Wanla sobered. “That is a tale for telling later. You’ll stay with us? At least for the night?”

Brillar exchanged a glance with Elden who nodded.

“We’ll stay.” Wanla embraced her.

Obis and Forge had taken Elden aside. Obis began, “The camp is a hasty one. We left hurriedly after you were threatened. Sarl intended Brillar for the pleasure tent as punishment for what she told the women. We didn’t join them and were glad when you got her away.” Elden nodded grimly, knowing Brillar would have killed with her bow then her knife any who tried to take her. For a second, he wondered if any Life spells could have other purposes.

“That spell you used,” said Forge laughing, “had most unconscious until mid-afternoon. Then they staggered around like they were drunk when they roused. It was dusk when they were sober enough to think. By then, some of us were decided.”

Sarif approached them. “A word?” and they nodded.

“We left the others with only the food we could carry easily and not much of that. If the mage could help us in a hunt?”

Elden nodded, “That I’ll do and soon. There are scattered herds of irex to the west and we can take several. If we find a small group I can call them from a distance and weaken any who charge so they can be safely killed. But for tonight,” he knelt and opened his pack which was full of meat. “Brillar carries some as well,” he said. “There should be enough for everyone and we can hunt in the morning.”

The men were much more at ease seeing what was being offered them. They joined the others.

“Norrel found a small pool with no danger and the water is fresh. A spring from the hills perhaps,” and she waved toward it then turned back to the small group of children she was amusing. She had taken out an arrow and was turning it cold with one spell then making it flame with a second. “You said I should practice,” she said, answering his scowl.

The afternoon went quickly, meat was prepared and some tubers put into the fire to roast. When all were finished and the children put to rest, the man and women sat together at the fire. Finally, Elden said quietly, “You have a tale to tell?”

All looked at Forge to begin and he put his arm around Wanla.

“When those who fell recovered, they held a council. I had not joined them to take you so I was not asked to sit with them.”

Wanla spoke up. “They came for me. Sarl said that I had spent time with you, too much time, and that I could no longer be trusted. They tried to drag me from my tent.” She stopped and tears ran down her cheeks. Forge took up the story. “Her gran’ther, you helped him with herbs, got up from his bed and tried to beat the men off. The old man got in a few solid hits before someone pushed him to the ground. He didn’t move.” He cradled his wife. “One of the men, who had more sense or kindness, spoke up for Wanla and the men released her so she could care for him but he was lost.”

Wanla straightened. “After that, they left me alone. Forge came to me that night.” She patted his knee. “He was so brave to do that. He said that he wanted me, but that there could be no place for us with the clan.” Her eyes were bright. “He asked me if there might be others that would join with us to leave the clan. In the morning, the elders took my gran’ther to the resting place for the dead. While they were gone I went to Norrel and Obis. They were willing. Sarif and Jerrin I was sure of after you brought Kylin to the fire. Inlee and Lanna I knew disliked the way men looked at their daughter and her only a child. Cham and Arda came to me when they saw me speaking quietly to others.”

Cham took up the story. “Arda had been planned for another, an older man, but he died in a hunt. I went to Sarl with a bribe, three spearheads that I had traded pelts for. I had heard such things were done. Sarl,” there was disgust in his voice, “readily agreed to the match. I gave another gift as well, to keep him to his word, a fine irex pelt from an older animal that I took alone on a hunt.”

Arda spoke up shyly. “I had watched Cham. I wanted the match.” She ducked her head unused to speaking up in the presence of so many.

“I will not keep silent,” said Jerrin, “I will speak my mind and the truth. Kylin was given to a fine young man only six years her elder and we were happy but we had also paid a bribe. We agree to it, Sarif and I.”

Sarif shook his head looking at his wife pleadingly.

“We have left them and their ways. I will tell the truth now for all to hear.” He hung his head.

“We paid a bribe that we agreed to after many long discussions. Sarl’s wife was dead. There was no woman in the pleasure tent. Sarl wanted me and so the bribe was decided on. I was the bribe.” There were startled gasps and movement in the group around the fire. “I will finish my tale,” Jerrin said strongly.

“I was the bribe. I went to Sarl’s tent alone at night. If he would promise our daughter to Resh, I would come again twice and once after they were wed. It is not a proud thing I did but I did it to save my daughter. Then Resh was brought back dead just a few weeks after their marriage and my daughter,” she shivered and began to rock to and fro, tears running down her cheeks, “my daughter was dragged screaming to the pleasure tent. And there was nothing I could do,” Jerrin collapsed weeping and rocking in the firelight.

Sarif gathered his wife in his arms. “I was a coward that day,” he started.

“No, no never a coward, just bound by might,” Obis spoke up, “bound by laws made by a few for everyone.”

Sarif stood, pulling Jerrin to her feet. “I will take my wife away now.” She leaned against him as they went.

Everyone at the fire sat stunned by what had been said. No one had anything more to say. Everyone left silently for their tents while Brillar and Elden gathered blankets, set a Ward and stretched out by the fire. Soft muffled sobs came from her.

“They’re freed now. They wished to be freed, had waited to be freed,” he said into the night, quieting her with words and then with soothing spells. From the other blanket there was a soft laugh.

“You have a lot to learn about soothing spells,” she said, “but for the words, Master, my thanks.”

Breakfast at the camp was cheerful even though it was only cold meat and tubers. The men were making ready for what they hoped would be a short and profitable hunt and the women were striking the tents and packing so they could be close when the hunt was over and they were needed. Brillar was happily getting ready to join the hunt when Elden bent close.

“I wonder if it’s wise?” he said. She looked at the hunters. Only two carried bows, the other three had spears. Undeterred, she went over to them.

“Would the archers care to test themselves against a woman,” she asked. Behind her, Elden shook his head.

“Pick your target,” said Cham unslinging his bow.

“That piece of thorn? A spot of black on it?” she replied pointing.

Cham nocked an arrow, took a breath and let fly. His arrow hit above the black. He bowed to her and she nocked an arrow. It thudded into the branch just below his.

Inlee, stared a moment, then said, “The rest will need protection as they move. I can hit an irex, but that twig?”

“Thank you, master Inlee,” Brillar said politely “for I often shoot at twigs, not having the courage to hunt irex.”

Her good-natured reply had everyone smiling.

“How do you do it,” Elden whispered in her ear.

“Most men are susceptible to flattery,” she whispered back, and they set off on the hunt.

The Rovers moved out at a trot with Elden and Brillar behind. The men moved surely over ground that would have taken the pair half a day to cover. Elden reached out and directed their hunt toward a small group of irex. In minutes, the men in front of them suddenly fell flat at the top of a small rise. Elden and Brillar followed suit. In front of them and downhill was a herd of twenty or more of the animals they were looking for. As one, all heads turned to Elden.

“I can call out the ones you want,” he said and there was some discussion. The Rovers were unused to the presence of a mage who could ‘call out’ an animal.

“Cows with calves I think should be left with the herd,” Cham offered. “There are four of them. For hide, the larger of the yearlings? That prime bull is nearly twice the size of the others and his hide could nearly make a tent but he would be tough.”

“The yearlings first then,” Brillar put in, “their absence will be less felt.” When heads turned toward her, she just shrugged. “I’ve not hunted irex, but most game animals are the same.”

Elden put his mind to one of the yearlings that was already separate from the herd. They all moved backward slightly. The calling took only a few minutes, then the yearling moved around the hill and stood looking stupidly around him. Two bows twanged as one and he fell before he could make a sound.

Two men hurried to the butchering as Elden called out another animal which was quickly dispatched. A quiet discussion was held and it was decided to pack the meat in hides and carry what they could back toward the earlier camp. More hunting would wait for the next day. Before they started, Elden cast a strengthening spell on each individual. They lifted heavy packs of meat with ease.

A few miles away they met Inlee coming west with their families. The women immediately began to put up the tents and the older children, Pral and Kylin included, began to cut branches for drying frames. Drying and smoking the meat would take several days and they planned to take another yearling in the morning.

Another day was spent hunting for the new small clan but Elden could see that Brillar was chaffing at the camp activities. The clan would have to stay where it was for some time drying meat and preparing hides. They needed to be off although their decision caused distress especially among the women and children.

When the morning came for them to be off, Wanla stood and spoke for everyone, calling them true friends and asking them to return some day. “We know there are no promises in the Wild but we will hope to see you sometime again.”

Elden and Brillar moved off again to the east and still along the fence moving steadily but with no hurry. In the late afternoon, Elden stopped them again. “Ahead, what can you see?” he asked.

“More Rovers I think?” she answered him, “but no darkness…”

“Your time with the camp seems to have made a greater impression than we realized. I can see more families and you’re right, no darkness in them. Just caution.”

“We should tell them where the others are,” she began and was rewarded with a smile.

“That was my thought,” he replied.

The camp was a cautious half hour away. Again they stopped and lit a small fire and were greeted.

“Well met, healer,” came the call and they moved toward the group. The families, Brillar was quick to recognize, were made of those whose women had sat beside her at the women’s fire and asked questions. They stood and waited for the tale. Finally, one of the men, Qala, spoke up.

“When Obis, Forge and the others left, Sarl decided to tighten his grip on the rest of us. As punishment for all those who had been corrupted, earlier promises of marriage were broken. He demanded that all unwed girls be brought to the men’s fire and examined. Girls as young a five had to be taken by their fathers. My daughter is five years old. The children were made to drop their clothing and were examined for flaws in their arms and legs. Unwed young men were paired with some of the girls. Sarl made the pairings. He made one other change something I think to bind the older men to him. Those men whose wives were barren or could no longer bear children could now have a second woman at their fire. He said that this was true in other camps and would now be the practice of the clan. He bound some of the older girls to his friends and gave others those women who were widowed.”

“Sarl said all the bindings were now sealed and the girls would be wed as they came of age,” a woman said angrily. “Five years old!”

“There was worse,” said an older woman. “I am Solni, “she said, proudly, “such my husband has always called me when we were in private.” Her husband came up behind her and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I have seven children who have lived and four are with us. After the pairings were made, each joined man was told to bring his wife into the circle. Some had to be dragged, some were screaming. Those who screamed, Sarl slapped. They stopped quickly.”

Her husband looked at her proudly. “Solni came into the circle with a straight back and a level gaze for everyone.” She smiled back at him then her face tightened.

“The archer had escaped them, Sarl said, but she had spread a lot of discontent and caused a breaking of the clan. Since she was gone, and to remind the women of their place, all women would be punished. He had canes beside him and handed them to our husbands. Those with elderly women were told to seat their wives behind them but everyone had to watch the punishment. Widowed women, those useful to the clan, weavers, potters and those who could sew, had to stay and be punished. Each man was to give his wife five strokes.” Her voice was voice tight. “Our clothing was stripped from our backs. Sarl took one of the weavers and stripped her back. It seemed to me that he took pleasure in beating her, in hearing her scream.”

Brillar sank to her knees, her hands over her face and began to rock in grief. “If I had known I would cause such suffering in the Wild I would never have come.”

“No…no,” Solni was beside her. “It was necessary to tell you everything and the weaver is here with us.” Brillar leaned against Solni whose arms went around her, comforting.

Elden moved the Qala off. “There’s more?”

Qala nodded. “Most of us, I think, struck lightly. Inside, I wept as I struck and wept again in our tent as I washed Solni’s back. She was fortunate though. Two of the men, they are with us with their families, struck too lightly and Sarl took notice. He shoved their men aside and began the punishment again.” He dropped his voice, shaking his head. “I will always hear the screams” Elden put a hand to the man’s shoulder and used what spells he knew to calm him. “We gathered what we could carry on drag sleds and left at night worried what Sarl would do if he found more leaving. But now, if the healer will attend the women?”

Elden looked toward Brillar. She was on her feet and had pulled Solni’s shirt up to see her back. He could see the anger in her face. A few words and the pair went to the tents to deal with all the injuries the women had suffered.

“The others?” Elden’s attention was pulled back to Qala. “Have you seen where the others went? We want join them if they’ll have us.”

“They’re to the west and camped. We hunted with them and it will take days for them to deal with the meat and skins. If you go west along the fence you’ll find them easily.” Qala went to spread the news to the others.

Elden walked out a little way from the camp and found a small safe place to sit alone and watch the sky. He was nearly as upset as his apprentice. To calm himself, he let his mind drift.

“When,” he thought, “have I been alone since I took on this troublesome apprentice? Perhaps on a ride with Jez? I hope he is safe in a barn with Bright near him. She’ll soon be in foal by him if he is allowed near her or if he can break a hole in the wall between them.” He took a stick and began to draw arcane words in the sandy soil. “Alone? When was I last alone? Jez was always company of a sort. Laurenfell and its town were full of people. When have I wanted to be alone since I took on this apprentice?” He looked back at the camp. “So much courage and so much softness. Why would I want to be alone?” He sat for some time, silent and thoughtful.

“Master?” her voice quietly interrupted and he straightened. He could feel her stretching out with soothing.

“Apprentice,” he answered and stood, dusting himself off with a quick spell.

“They’ve all been attended and all are able to travel. Qala’s sent off a runner to let the others know more are coming if they’ll be accepted. He should reach the camp tonight and be back tomorrow.”

“Well done.”

“They want us to stay with them for the night.”

Elden took a deep breath. “A fine idea. I’m sure you’ve had a tiring afternoon.” In fact, the day was getting late and a fire had been started at the camp.

“They have little so I gave them the irex meat from my pack for we have plenty and smoked wellis tucked away.”

The camp that night was subdued. The women whose backs had been deeply lashed were still stiff, but a good rest, free from pain and healing in the morning would care for that.

Around the fire, the Rovers talked about their leaving. “Only four of our children are with us” Solni began. “Our eldest boy here is sixteen. After he witnessed the punishment, he told his father he was leaving the clan alone if need be.” She looked at him proudly and he flushed.

“I was told that night that I would marry when one of the girls when she was of age. That will be three years. In three years she may change, but I don’t like her ways. And I never went to the pleasure tent.” He ducked his head and there was good-natured chuckling around the fire.

“Ah,” thought Brillar, “here is one who can help Kylin heal.”

“His brother is fourteen and was sent as runner to the other camp. He was also promised that night but would have to wait for ten years for a bride. Most of the older girls were promised to much older men. Sarl stood and said that since his wife was dead, he would take the eldest to him at once. She and her family is with us. Our son’s wife is near birthing and unable to travel. They may join us.” A sharp glance from Brillar and she responded, “No, she was too close to her time for the ‘punishment.’ But our eldest daughter; she was punished. I think she would have come with us because she has been joined for five years and has no children but there was no chance.” Solni leaned against her husband.

“Her husband,” he scowled, “it a brutish man and a friend of Sarl. So many times I have seen what he did to her and have been able to do nothing but send the healer to attend to her. She had spirit as a child and when she was wed but it’s gone now. The night the women were punished, her husband seemed to take pleasure in it, striking her to the ground bleeding, then dragging her away. He’ll soon have a new woman at his fire, that was Sarl’s promise. I may be able to go back by stealth and get her away.” He dropped his head.

Brillar, shaken by what they had all suffered, stood suddenly, took a blanket, and left them.

Elden rose silently waving them to stay seated and went after her.

“I want no company,” she said darkly as he approached. She gathered the blanket around her. Elden took the Ward from his belt pouch, put it down and settled in for the night.

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