*** 1 ***
Fourteen years later . . .
A young woman came out of the forest track and stopped, still sheltered by the trees, to survey the land ahead. She had come several miles through the woods on the Riven Road that ran through them and had enjoyed the cool darkness under the trees. Now she gave a small sigh as she looked down the track to the crossroad. The area was wide and deep. From the grass and flowers, she could see that these fields had been fallowed for at least six months. A good sign. Game was scarce in the forests and it would be easier to find a meal in the open area ahead of her, perhaps even some tubers to roast in a small fire. Her mouth began to water.
She took a step into the open and stopped, remembering her training. Reaching out with far-sight, she looked for echoes of darkness and found none. “Move to near the limit of sight, then reach out again,” the Sisterhood had taught her. At the time, she had found the lessons tiresome but now, at two and twenty, her years of walk-about, even in the settled lands, had taught her their wisdom.
The crossroad was only a dozen paces beyond her but her path lay directly ahead. As there was no sign of current traffic, Brillar stepped into the open and continued on her way. She was dressed for the road. Sturdy wellisboots, soft leggings of poda hide, and a light tunic. Her aresh wood shortbow as always over her shoulder and quiver at her side. Her cloak and other necessities were in the foldbox at her belt. “No need for them yet,” she thought, running fingers along the braid of dark red-brown hair at her shoulder.
Amazingly, the sign at the crossroad was well-maintained. Eafel to the left, Ikenlo to the right, and Foringil ahead through the next woods and beyond. ‘A few carts and some horses,’ she thought as a breeze rippled the green grasses and flowers. An easy walk in the direction she needed to travel. She took a few steps toward Foringil and stopped to finger some droppings near a cart track. ‘Still a bit warm, perhaps two hours.’ Horsemen and carters stopped early to make camp and let the horses feed. ‘I may reach them tonight.’
She picked up her pace, easy to do on this wide road. Traffic among the three towns here and the further Denwis behind her must be as steady as the innkeeper had told her when he came out to the road to bid her goodbye and thank her for the healing she had performed in the village. “Was good of ye to stay a while as we have no healer of our own,” he had thanked her, then became cautious. “Nae bandits be oft’n on these roads,” he had said with his deep brogue. “We be a peaceful folk for the most, and the sheriff keeps good watch. Bad for business, bandits be.” He had looked at her with some concern. “Still, a woman alone. . .”
At his caution, Brillar had grinned and in a smooth movement plucked an arrow from her hip quiver, dropped to her knee and let fly. The fluid motion was over in the blink of an eye and the arrow lodged in a tree stump across from the inn.
Staring, the innkeeper looked to the arrow and back to its mistress and her bow. Brillar stood and clapped him on the shoulder as he stood dumbfounded, before she went to stump to retrieve her arrow. She had pulled lightly and the arrow was easy to remove.
“Forgi’ me lass. I think you equal to this road, or any.” He scratched his head. “A fine shot, there, a fine shot,” he added as she crossed back to him.
“Thank you good host,” she had returned, shaking his rough hand, “and a fine day to you.” The inn stood at the edge of the forest road and was soon behind her lost among the trees. ‘A fine day for a walk through the woods,’ she had thought as she entered the forest. Far-sight had shown her no danger there.
Now she stood at the crossroad and scanned the fields. In the distance, a cwel’s head popped up above the grasses. ‘Too long for my bow but where there’s one, there are others.’ Cwel, the flop-eared root grubbers were good eating and where cwel dined there could be roots and tubers for her as well, although some of their diet was inedible for her.
She had lingered long enough. The sun was warm and the sky held no hint of rain. The track was wide and dry. It was a good day for walking and her stride ate up the distance easily. A few paces later, an unwary cwel raised its head, tuber hanging from its jaw, an easy target. With the same ease and grace that had amazed the innkeeper, Brill had an arrow loosed and the cwel was downed.
As she picked up her kill, Brillar spotted some of the tubers she had been hoping for. Taking out her belt knife, she quickly extracted them from the rich soil. She sniffed them, admiring their deep earthy scent, and, shaking off some of the soil, stowed them in a belt pouch. Then she turned her attention to the cwel, deftly cleaning and skinning it, wrapping it in its pelt and tying it at her waist. She returned to the road.
‘I dine well tonight,’ she thought and lengthened her stride to make up some time thinking back to the inn. The innkeeper’s wife had made a fine savory stew rich and well-simmered last night and sent her off with a breakfast of eggs, fresh bread, and churned butter. Brillar often traveled on trail rations, today she had been lucky. While there was plenty of large game around, killing a deer for one person was a waste and might deprive a family of food. She preferred to hunt small game when alone. “Kill as you must for food,” was her father’s early lesson to her and her siblings. “There must be food on the table or your mother will howl at me.” They had all laughed at that. Theirs was a rich farm.”
Thoughts of those days took her to the forest edge and she reached out into the twilight. ‘Two men, horses, a cart, something else, something dark?’ she strained a bit. ‘Another animal?’ She knew that carters sometimes had strange animals with them using them to amuse and attract town folk so it was easier to sell their wares. ‘Seems safe enough.’
The air under the trees was a bit chilly, but she decided not to bring out her cloak until she had taken the measure of what lay ahead. Cwel over a fire with tubers was fine, but perhaps the men had a stew pot, carters often did, and they could add the meat. ‘If,’ she remembered, ‘I am welcome at their fire.’
About a half mile into the woods, she could smell their fire and the heavy scent of horses and kept on. At fifty paces, she could see the fire off to the right in what appeared to be as small clearing off the road. Thirty paces more and she called the standard greeting, “Ho, travelers,” and waited for a response.
There was some undefined movement near the fire, a rustling, then, “The traveler is welcome,” came the response.
Relaxing a bit, Brillar walked forward. A lone man, hatted and wrapped in a cloak, sat on a log near the fire. What appeared to be a cwel roasted on a spit over it. “Welcome,” he said again, and gestured to a second log. “Sit, sit, the night can be damp.”
Brillar’s senses tingled just as a hoarse croak came from the right. “B’ware.”
She leaped to the left, instantly fitting an arrow to her bow as a large man carrying knife and rope jumped from behind a tree near where she had stood. Missing his quarry, he stumbled and fell to one knee.
“Damn you, Trog,” shouted the first man, leaping to his feet and pulling the sword he had hidden under his cloak. The steel flashed in the firelight. He took a step toward Brillar.
“Drop the sword or die there,” came her steady voice, steadier than she felt. No bandits on the road? So much for that advice.
“Wot, a lass?” He raised the sword in threat and took another step, his last before he fell forward, her arrow lodged in his chest.
Another arrow was in her bow at once. “Your choice, Trog. Stand and let me see you.” The big man rose slowly, wary of her bow.
“Drop the rope and knife.” He did so. “Better drop the belt as well, just to be sure.” She gestured slightly with the bow.
“If I drops me belt, me pants will fall,” he whined. Although he had some size to him, he sounded like a child.
“Then they’ll fall. Or do you care to join your friend.” Now there was steel in Brillar’s voice. “One death here should be enough.”
Trog untied his belt slowly. His hide pants, that were indeed tied up by the belt around his shirt, slid to the ground leaving him in his longshirt.
“Now put out your hands, step to the log and kneel.”
Trog did as he was told and she moved to his belt. It was well worn with no buckle, just leather straps to tie it around the waist.
Brillar slung her bow and slid out her knife quickly warning, “Mind you, my knife is as fast as my bow,” as she knelt to examine the belt. He nodded warily. The pouches held a few coins and some trail rations. Evidently the knife was his only weapon and she tucked it into her belt then kicked the belt over to him, keeping the purse.
“We can’t have you standing there in such an undignified state. Tie up your belt then sit down.”
Brillar moved to the dead man. He was better dressed than Trog. A true belt with buckle, a belt knife, solid brown boots and his blue shirt was of good cloth, not homespun.
“My friend, he was,” said Trog. “Named Pilik.” He didn’t move from his place.
She nodded, keeping one eye on Trog and one on the dead man. She rolled him over, removed the broken part of her arrow with its distinctive fletching and threw it on the fire. She tugged his belt from him.
“A heavy purse, this,” she said, looking at Trog who hung his head. “So he was your friend but all you have is coppers while he has,” she dumped the contents on the man’s belly, “silver and, yes, some gold in with his coppers. Perhaps he was not the best of friends?”
Trog shook his head and seemed on the edge of tears. “Good enough.”
Brillar picked up the gold coins and some of the silver and set them aside, the rest she put back into Trog’s purse and tossed it to him. Pilik’s cloak she threw to one side of the fire; the sword and Pilik’s knife went into the woods.
“You’ll need a story. You were out gathering firewood. You heard your friend yell for help but when you got closer you saw three men and your friend was already dead. You were afraid to any further. You waited until the men rode off then you searched the camp but you were afraid the men would be back. You carried the body to the open ground – that is what you are going to do – and buried him with that broken shovel. You will do that too. It will be too dark to go on so you will go to sleep. In the morning, you will stumble toward Denwis. Do they know you in Denwis?”
“I’ve a cousin there.” He was fingering the heavy purse. He had never had silvers.
“Then that will give you good reason. So, do you understand what you’re to do?”
She had Trog repeat it although she had her suspicions that, with Pilik dead and silver in his pouch, Trog would say little to anyone. As he was told, he picked up Pilik’s body and a broken handled shovel the men had been using to soften the ground for sleeping and headed toward the fields. ‘Most likely,’ she thought, ‘he will stop several times. All should go well.’ Then she remembered the hoarse warning and turned toward the cart.
What she found made her wish she hadn’t been so lenient with Trog. There was a man, cut, bruised, half-clothed, and half-starved, tied to a post on the cart. The odor said he hadn’t seen water in some time. Flies settled on him, were twitched off and returned. Even in the dim light, she could see the worst of it, a dimlock collar partly sunk in his flesh.
She stood back, shuddering; there had been lessons on dimlock lore when she was a student. A dimlock collar, made in mocking imitation of a great chain of office, was used to keep a mage from casting a spell or reaching out for mana. Its medallions were raised disks connected by short links, each disk active with a dark spell. With its sinister power it made the wearer separate from mana and the world around him. A dimlock was used to bind, to punish, to transport a mage whose deeds were so horrible that only execution awaited him. Still, standing there, reaching out with all her power, Brillar found none of the evil that was said to radiate from such a mage even when trapped by a dimlock. Nothing came from the man but anguish, grief, pain and behind it….Behind it, Light? Dim, diffused, a weak shadow only. She made her decision.
First things first. The rough cart was two wheeled, a style used by common traders. Moving forward, Brillar cut through the leather thongs that held the man, grabbing at him with her other arm as he slumped toward the ground. Lowering him gently, she took out her flask and held it to his lips tipping his head up so he could drink. He gulped gratefully.
“Than . . . thank . . .” The voice was parched, weary, frightened.
“I should thank you, mage, for your warning. It must have cost you some strength.”
From under dirty matted hair, quizzical brown eyes met hers. “The dimlock collar has only one use. I can try to remove it but it won’t be pleasant. Pilik had no key.”
He reached feebly for the flask. “Yes, drink first. I hear a spring nearby and there’s a jug on the cart. I’ll get enough water to clean some of these wounds.” Better to use water for cleaning and save her strength for whatever was to come. If the dimlock had been used justly, she might have to strike quickly to avoid being overcome. What did she know of the dimlock besides its use? A key needed to unlock it? She had some skill with locks and smiled, remembering how easy it had become to sneak into locked doors and cabinets at the farm. Unlocking this thing, she thought, might be easy, but removing it? Each of the medallions was sunk into his flesh and they would have to be removed one by one. The spells on them would resist their removal if the lock was opened without the key. She wondered how long he had been secured.
Brillar propped him against the wheel and took the jug for water. Returning, she found he had emptied the flask and refilled it from the jug. Checking in the cart, she found a cup, took it to the fire and filled it with water.
“I need more light. Can you lean on me as far as the fire?” A nod was the answer.
The fire was only a few paces away but Brillar almost lost her grip on him twice, he was so slippery with blood and fluids. She settled him gently on Pilik’s cloak folding its edges over him.
“Rest a moment while I prepare.” Again, he nodded.
Brillar moved out of the man’s view and pressed her fingers to the lock on the foldbox. Her mother had made it with all her skill and, although it looked common enough, it was far from ordinary. As it responded to her touch, the box opened and opened again, folding outward with a faint glow. Brillar took several types of herbs and powders, cloth, a pick, and a small knife, plus other things she thought she needed. Responding to her gestures the box refolded and became ordinary again. She unwrapped the meat from the cwel skin and laid it near the fire to cook slowly. The skin she cut into pieces. If the lore she had studied was correct, she would have to keep the links of the dimlock from touching his skin again and keep it way from hers as well.
At the fire, the man had closed his eyes. She could see he wasn’t sleeping, could feel him gathering his strength for what she had to do. She sat beside him and wiped his face with a damp cloth. “Are you ready?” Again a nod. “I have to turn you…” but he was already rolling onto his left shoulder, exposing the lock on the collar. Like the collar itself, the lock was a dull grey.
“We begin,” she murmured. She sprinkled a bit of powder on the lock and he stiffened. “Yenwar, heneth,” she whispered and inserted the pick into the lock, easing it in, turning it gently, twisting, until the lock opened. The simplest task was done and the lock was nestled on part of the cwel skin.
“The lock is open but the collar has embedded itself. Each medallion holds a spell that the key would have released and each will have to be dealt with. Are you strong enough to continue?” She saw him take a deep breath and exhale. “Then we go on.”
The thin blade was now in one hand while the other held a cwel skin to the collar knowing it would burn if she touched it and renew his pain if it touched him. She dusted the dimlock with powdered herbs then inserted the blade at the edge of the first medallion and began to push it slowly under the metal. He stiffened at once and a tremor passed through his body. “Be steady,” she put a hand on his shoulder briefly. She pushed the knife further and the first medallion came free dangling from the link that held it to the lock. Link and medallion were tucked in with the lock. “Not as deep as I feared,” she murmured, “a good sign.”
One by one, Brillar loosened the progressively larger medallions of the dimlock collar cutting and tearing flesh as she did so. There were only two near the lock but each time one was removed, the man shuddered, the tremor each time slightly more violent. Blood seeped from each wound. When she reached his shoulder, Brillar rolled the mage onto his back and stopped. She cast a light spell, then a stronger one to deal with his pain but they didn’t seem to be effective; she gave him more water, drank some herself and washed her bloody hands. Remembering the food she carried, she shoved the tubers into the ashes of the fire, adjusted the spit and the meat Pilik had roasting, and then added more wood. The smell of roasting meat distracted her only a moment.
Brillar took up her delicate work again. Around them, the forest had darkened, but Sight and firelight were enough. Link by link, the chain came free and medallions rested on the cwel skin. With each removal, the man’s tremors grew stronger.
“I’m at the center pendant.” She made sure the medallions were well rolled up and tied in the cwel skin. “Rest a while, then I’ll need to roll you to your right side.” A hand grabbed her wrist. “I need rest as well. This is not an archer’s skill.” His hold relaxed and she took a moment to cut some meat from the roast, chew and swallow hastily then washed her hands.
“Ready?” In answer, he rolled to his right. “Very well then.” She sprinkled more herbs on the links, the medallions and slid the knife under the first, as always, feeling his tremor as she removed it and slid it onto another part of the cwel skin. Again she rolled him to his back as she reached the shoulder; then continued her bloody work. She took a moment to wash the flesh as she removed these medallions, sickened by the damage they done, and dusted them with powdered herbs.
As she removed the remainder of the medallions, his breathing became light and fast, the tremors longer. It was well into the night when she reached the pendent, the last and most powerful part of the dimlock. The rest were well secured.
Brillar stopped. Taking some herbs from their pouch, she crushed them between her palms. The air around them seemed to freshen, the fire to brighten. She dropped the herbs in the cup at the fire. As she had hoped, they swirled and turned orange in the warm water. She picked the cup up gingerly. Turning, she saw his eyes were open and staring.
“You’ll need to drink this,” but his hand was already reaching for the cup. “No, you may spill it.” She held the cup to his lips and he drank deeply then lay back down.
“The pendant will be the worst. You know that. Take a minute for the herbs to do their work.”
“Yes,” came his hoarse words, “you’ve done well thus far.” The words were almost condescending even though, once the collar had been locked, he could not have removed it even touched it with a hand.
“Many thanks,” she muttered to herself, a bit vexed, “perhaps this knife should slip.”
“Ready?” she said aloud. She could see him steel himself for what would come. Then he nodded. She had to admire the courage behind the simple nod.
Letting the cwel skins and their deadly contents hang well-wrapped on his chest, Brillar scattered more herbs on the pendant. His body shuddered as her knife slid under the pendant and he gasped in pain, the first sound he had made as she cut away the dimlock. Her dispel for pain, cast quickly as he gasped, seemed to make no difference to him.
This time, the blade needed to go deep and deeper still. With each new cut, his shuddering grew worse and she had to wait for it to subside before she could go on. Fresh blood reddened the area around the medallion, running across thin ribs. She slid the blade to the left cutting around the edge of the pendant. His breath came in short gasps. She cut through the last of the flesh and prized the pendant out cradling it on a hastily snatch piece of the cwel skin before it could touch him again.
Her patient seized, back arched in agony as the last of the dimlock came free, a reaction to his release from its dark spells. He thrashed arms and legs violently nearly throwing himself into the fire. Brillar threw herself on his legs, holding them until the seizure eased. As suddenly as it had come, the fit left him. His body relaxed, sagged, all its strength drained.
Brillar moved to check his heart and saw his pulse beat weakly in his neck. ’Not dead then,” she said aloud, exhaling sharply. She took out more herbs, added them to fresh water and began to wash her patient cleaning away the blood and wiping away accumulated dirt from his imprisonment. Exhausted, she had no strength to cast other spells on him and didn’t want to risk the strength healing would cost him. She opened the foldbox. The entire dimlock she wrapped more tightly in the cwel skin, retying it with more strips of leather from the box, and stowing it safely away. Now she removed her cloak, blankets and some herbs for the morning. Looking to her patient she found him still quiet, and covered him with a blanket. She stopped to eat some more of the cwel and a hot tuber. Trog had piled branches nearby and she added wood to the fire.
A nicker from one of the horses caught her attention and she went to where they were tethered. “I see I’m to draw water for you as well,” she told them and took their empty buckets to the spring. “Too dark for more, friends,” she told them and went back to the fire.
Now, kneeling by him near the fire, she took time to inspect her patient.
‘Near twice my age. That was to be expected. No one skilled enough to warrant a dimlock could be young. Still, he seems strong and must have been healthy. A good face and he’s un-greyed.’ Brillar’s thoughts began to wander. What she had done, the hours it had taken, had been more tiring than a dozen archery competitions. She wrapped herself in the cloak, leaned against a log and drifted into a light sleep.