*** 2 ***
Two days passed and they saw no more orcs. Elden pointed out nests of blood kites above them on the second morning and they took cover at once.
“We need to clear them or make them cautious or they’ll plague our way. Be ready with arrows. The plan,” he went on seeing her puzzled look, “is to burn individual nests making them protective of their eggs and chicks. You can see each nest is occupied.” The nests, some of them three feet tall and as wide, clung to the cliff face above them. She saw at least one adult bird on each nest when she peeked upward. Looking straight above them, she could see that other kites were already circling them.
“So I am to fire as they attack and you are to make them even more interested in us than they are already?” She pointed with her bow. “Such an interesting plan,” she added wryly. “Begin!”
She fired almost straight up at the birds as he stood and flamed a low nest, then fired again as he sent out a wall of flame at clustered nests. A bird fell with an arrow through a wing as she sent another arrow at a bird that had swooped in low. This time the arrow was true. More flame crackled behind her and she loosed another arrow. From behind her, she felt a bird strike her head and turned to fire at it. As it fell, she was struck again and loosed another arrow. Fire cracked as a dome of flame formed above them.
“You’re hurt,” Elden shouted.
“Too many at once,” she shouted back over the sounds of the flaming dome he had cast to protect them, shaking blood from her eyes.
“Only a few more nests” came his shout, “and they should withdraw. Ready?”
“Ready!” As the dome faded, the birds continued to circle in the sky but none dove at them; they were growing wary of her bow. His fire bolts disintigrated nests above them. She sent two more arrows at the birds but they were calling and retreating toward burning nests. Now he sent walls of flame at the retreating birds, killing many, as her arrows began to fall short.
Finally, Elden turned as she sat back heavily already chanting spells of self-healing he had insisted she learn on their long trip to West Riversgate. As he rested on his heels and watched, the bleeding stopped and long stripes in her skull sealed although he saw her wince in pain more than once. He nodded, satisfied, then cast a cleansing spell to clear away blood as she drew in mana.
“So, now we know how to fight blood kites,” he said, satisfied with the result.
Brillar pressed her hand to her hair. “A painful lesson is one well learned,” but she was smiling. “If you think we’re safe, I’ll restock from the foldbox.”
When she finished Elden stood and held out a hand. She took it and he pulled her to her feet.
They took a few moments to recover what arrows and shafts they could from the dead birds and then they turned again to the northwest.
The following day, they found no sign of orcs and saw danger only once.
“A solitary hunter,” Elden said as he halted them. “A great cat. Unlikely it will bother us,” but he had them halt.
“I see it. Taking its ease?” She could feel the cat on a sunny ledge.
“Likely it’s killed and eaten recently and will have no interest in us. There is another problem.” He sat and pulled her down beside him.
“First a solitary orc, likely a scout. Then nothing. Then blood kites blocking our way and now a solitary cat,” he was silent, waiting.
“We’re going in the wrong direction,” she said firmly.
“I agree. Mark the length of far-sight and we’ll climb to it then go south and east.”
“Three wasted days,” he heard her mutter as they climbed and could only agree silently.
When they turned, they were moving away from the solitary cat and above the blood kites. Their view over the scrublands was remarkable, but neither had an interest in what was far away and unimportant to them. Their only thought was to an ǣlfi and the time they had lost in their search. It took them only two days to come out above where the dead orc had lain. Far-sight showed them little below them but his bones.
“Now we go slowly. We are no good to the child if we die when we find him,” he stated, and was acknowledged with a nod.
That night, Brillar showed him an unknown skill. He would allow no fire, so she opened the foldbox and removed herbs of different kinds. She smashed them between two stones then added strips of raw meat, folding them over with her hands then pounding them lightly, soundlessly, until they were well mixed with the herbs.
“Half an hour and the herbs will cook them not with heat, although there will be some, but by seeping into the flesh.” He shook his head. “Wait and see then.” She began the process with other strips of meat, “Easy to do as much as I can now while we’re waiting.”
For the second making, she added some dried fruit to the mix. All he could do was watch and wait, wondering what other new skills she might have. When he ate, he had to admit that meat prepared this way was better than the thin raw strips he had envisioned as a meal.
“You may,” he said as he finished, “have skills worth your keep,” and saw her grin at him in the growing darkness.
The next morning they took a cold breakfast, shivering in the mountain air. Both had taken cloaks from packs to wear during the day as well as using them with blankets at night. They had gone less than a quarter mile when Elden stopped them.
“Water ahead, fresh and pure from the mountains above us and we need water.”
Elden kept the pace slow, suggesting there might be things nearby that could sense them. They were almost to the stream when Elden yelled, “Back!”
Then a shouted “Undead” and he loosed a ring of flame that crackled outward.
“Nothing behind us,” she shouted and he responded, “Side,” as another spell sprang from his hands. As she whirled to his side, she cringed, sickened and afraid for the first time as she looked at animated skeletons that were rising in front of them, bones clacking. Some carried clubs, most spears. More fire shot out in waves as she closed her eyes against the sight and smell, but her bow was at the ready. More fire, then, “Refresh!” and she let fly with an arrow. It appeared to go right through the skeleton, which came on, only falling at a third arrow when it was nearly on them. Then there was fire again fanning out in front of them. Shaking, she took out three arrows and cast an Item spell on them. She was relieved when they burst into flame. At his next shout, she was able to take down three skeletons with three arrows. Two more flame spells, and all were down.
They sagged in relief and went quickly through a field strewn with bones. Brillar was stepping carefully, repulsed by them. The stream they had wanted to reach was only a dozen paces away and they crossed it before Elden stooped to drink from it as she reached out for more trouble.
They filled flasks hastily and headed for an outcropping of rock near the water.
Brillar was shaken. “They just rose up from the ground? Our approach must have triggered them and they just rose up? And so many.”
“You were quick with the Item spell on the arrows. I’d heard that fire was best on undead but never had a chance to try it before this. There was no sign, nothing, they were just suddenly there.”
“I wonder if they could have been set there on purpose. If there may be more near this stream above or below or near any water or food.”
He could only shake his head.
“Since we seem to be safe for the moment and the water is fresh, we should replenish what we carry in the foldboxes, but one at a time.” Each slipped to the water as the other watched.
“A solitary orc, now undead. We seem to have come in the right direction.” He was thoughtful. From what he remembered of stories he’d heard, undead could be stopped by a fire spell but it took a true fire to burn the bones to ash.
“The K’ish can order them?” For some reason, the skeletons filled her with dread. She could face the living, she could face flesh and blood, but undead? She was filled with disgust and spoke a brief spell of cleansing.
“K’ish are potion makers. I suppose he might have negotiated with the orcs, but the undead? Who can speak with the dead and ask for their aid or direct them to stand between travelers and water. What could he offer them in return if someone could speak to them? Orcs perhaps, but what do undead want or need,” he shook his head wondering if the other stories he had heard were true, stories of the Savic.
“Where are they found usually, the undead?” She splashed cold water on her face trying to dispel her unease.
“Graveyards, so I’ve heard and sometimes battlefields if the dead were left unburied.”
“If we strike them down, then what? Are they quiet then?” The idea of their reanimation was revolting.
“Some people say that if they are struck a second time after their original deaths, they melt away like mist, but we saw no mist rise and we stepped over bones. Others say that the bones of each seek their fellow bones until they re-form and are able to attack again if disturbed”
Brillar was thoughtful. Then she stood and loosed an arrow at where they had met the skeletons. Around the arrow, four rose up and she could hear their bones rattle together. They stood only a moment then fell again to the ground He gaped at her as she sat down, speechless.
“It was something we needed to know,” she said nauseated by the idea of them. “It seemed to me that a single arrow wouldn’t disturb them too much.”
“A warning next time you’re going to do something so rash?” was all he could manage to say.
“It might be a good idea if I loose an arrow now and then if you think we are coming into danger?” He looked at her sharply, seeing loathing in her expression before nodding agreement thoughtfully.
Now they began to move very slowly, often moving around large boulders. Three more times that day she sent an arrow ahead and they moved around two new spawns of undead. Toward dusk, Elden shouted, “Cover!” and they sprang in different directions as rocks pounded down where they had stood.
Lying behind a boulder, he muttered to himself, “At dusk, the worst time for either of us to see,” then shouted, “All well?” and heard her solid answer as rocks pounded the ground near him and struck the boulder where he was hidden.
“Can you see them?” he shouted.
“I glimpsed one, when he stood to throw,” she called, rolling sideways to avoid more spattering dirt and rock.
“I saw none. I’ll stand and draw them, be ready!”
“Ready,” was her shout.
Elden stood, sent out a bolt and dove back behind his boulder as her bow sang.
“A hit I think,” he heard her shout. There was a loud crashing as an unusually large rock struck his hiding space, making it shudder.
“Go,” she called and he stood, shooting something like a fist toward their targets then diving for a different boulder.
“Whatever you sent struck one at least and he’s down. I’ll move this time and you strike, ready?”
“Go,” he shouted and she stood, yelling, and dove for a boulder closer to the orcs.
His fist spell shattered rock above them and it rained down pulling more rock with it in a small avalanche. The body of an orc fell with it, part of her arrow still visible.
“How many more,” she yelled over the noise.
“Two at least,” and he dove for another boulder then stood and fired as two orcs missed their throws.
To his right, he could see Brillar scramble to another site. Rocks thudded in her direction. It was becoming too dark to make out the orcs as they threw their rocks. He stood and sent lightning crackling at them outlining them for her to see. His spell hit one who bellowed and crumpled while an arrow took the last. Cautious, they moved toward the last orcs and he heard her bow. He scrambled over fallen rock to reach her.
“You said not to leave even an enemy suffering. That one,” she pointed to a lightning scored orc, “still lived.”
“They were well protected here,” Elden said as he looked around him. “A wall of sorts and piles of rocks the right size for attacking strangers. I wonder if these will be missed or if they were to stay here for some time.”
“Here,” she said. “They had food and water.” An entire stag lay outside the enclosure and several casks, one with a tap. She knelt and opened it dipping her fingers in the flow. Bringing the liquid to her lips, she smelled it and licked her fingers.
“Wine! A bit raw, but for orcs, perhaps raw is best, I see no cooking fire.”
“The stag is untouched. This group hasn’t eaten here. This must be a new place for them,” Elden remarked. “Help me roll the bodies out and we can stay here tonight.”
“Elden, what about the K’ish? If he’s nearby, will he see that he’s being attacked?”
“The Order confines itself to potions I’m told. Even if he has some far-sight it will be blocked by stone as ours is blocked.”
“And if an orc escapes us and returns to him?” She looked around her into the growing darkness.
Elden was grim. “It’s best that no orc escapes us.” They settled in for the night. Brillar prepared more of the meat then unbraided her hair, taking a comb from the foldbox. At his curious look, she said, “I can clean it with a spell but it was becoming ragged. Hair and bow strings are a bad mix.” She re-braided it, tucked the comb away then let the braid hang free.
They set off slowly in the morning well aware that far-sight wasn’t any help at sighting undead. Coming around a large heap of rock, they stepped right into a small group of skeletons, although they were quickly dispatched with fire. They were able to spot one group of orcs by the noise they made.
“I’d heard they are quarrelsome,” Elden said in a whisper. “Let’s hope the rest are the same.”
They continued southeast avoiding what they could sense or see when Brillar motioned him to stop and crouched.
“Can you smell it,” she whispered. He frowned at her. “The scent of flowers, here where there are no flowers anywhere.”
Elden tested the air and turned to her with a sense of wonder.
“Flowers and a scent of spring!” he whispered, joy on his face. Then he bowed his head. “So much pain,” he whispered.
“The ǣlfi!” There were tears in her eyes as the child’s anguish struck her. She started to stand and was pulled down.
“Not here. We have to descend, and release the Summoning charm.” They went backwards the way they had come knowing it was clear and began to descend. Once again she stopped them, smelling flowers. Both reached out with far-sight, getting an idea of a small valley and water. When they had descended several hundred feet they began to move slightly southeast, stopping only when they heard the harsh laugh of an orc ahead of them. Back again over their track until neither could find any danger and they stopped wedging themselves between two large boulders.
“We may have some time to wait,” Elden said with a slight smile as he took out the Summoner. Holding it in his hand, he tapped it three times and sat back startled. The Summoner buzzed slightly as it rose from his hand, circled them, and whizzed off into the sky. “So fast,” he breathed.
“It was like an arrow from a bow,” she said wonderingly, sitting beside him, “let’s hope they aren’t too many days from us.” They were far enough from the child that they couldn’t feel his pain any longer, but they knew it was there, knew he was suffering.