M. R. Mathias
Through the Wildwood
On an old barrel keg
in the shade I sat
with a pint of watered ale
and a skinny old cat.
Vanx Malic swallowed the last bit of mulled wine from the goblet the duchess handed him. He was as hard as Wildermont steel and she was purring loudly. Her hands were roaming his tan, shirtless chest with increasing desperation. Her lithe body was barely covered by a sheer gown that was stretched so tightly around her that her huge, dark nipples threatened to burst through the fabric. Vanx wiped the grease from the hearty slab of roast boar he’d just eaten on his sleeve, and then he clamped his hand on the curve of her ass. Even with only a trio of lavender-scented candles burning in the small but opulent chamber, the air had grown hot and steamy. The sweet, musky smell of her sex permeated the room. He was eager to taste her. Vanx hoped the innkeeper could hold his lips shut as tightly as he held his purse. His fleeting concern over the duke’s wrath was quickly wiped away as the hot, tickling breath of the man’s wife found his ear.
“You filled your belly, Vanx Malic,” the duchess whispered. The warmth of her words heated his blood. “Now I want you to fill me.” More purring as her hand slid around the bulge in his leather britches. “Now get up and fill me!” her voice grew suddenly harder, the purring sound more of a growl. She squeezed his member so hard it ached.
“Get up, Vanx!” she yelled. “Get up, you filthy dog, and fill me up!”
Vanx blinked open his eyes and saw the menacing maw of a haulkatten in his face. Startled, he scrambled backward to get away from its toothy feline grin. The chains that bound his legs and wrists quickly pulled taut and the driver’s whip snapped across his shoulder. The searing pain served to wipe away the dream in which he’d been lost. He nearly pissed himself. Even from half a hundred miles away the Duchess of Highlake’s enchantments had a healthy hold on his mind. Every time he slept, she was there. He hadn’t seen her in weeks, save for through the shuttered cell door of Duke Martin’s dungeon, and still she haunted his every idle thought. She was the loveliest of bed partners, talented, with a huge, round-
“CRACK!” The whip sent her away from his head again.
“I said fill up my skins you fargin’ dog!” Amden Gore, the big, dark-skinned, foul-breathed slave driver ordered. He was a personal friend of Duke Martin’s and showed Vanx little mercy with his lashes. Only the fact that Amden could get a healthy purse for a well-built young male kept him from driving Vanx to his death.
The haulkatten the slaver was riding twisted its head back down to growl at Vanx. It showed yellow teeth set in jaws that could remove an arm or a leg with a single snap.
Wincing from the sting of the new stripes on his skin, Vanx scowled at the draft horse-sized cat and gathered up the water skins he’d been using for a pillow. He’d been sent ahead of the caravan to fill them and had fallen asleep at the stream’s edge. He was exhausted, as were the rest of the caravan’s members. The long trek out of the mountains had been a week of skirting cliff-sided trails, and then two days and a night of nonstop downhill stumbling. Those riding the backs of the heavily laden haulkattens weren’t so bad off, but the three slaves and Vanx, along with the half-dozen other foot travelers, were all at the point of collapse.
There were also eight caravan guards, every one of them a heavily-armored, overweight slob. They were led by a man called Captain Moyle. Vanx had no choice but to respect the captain because he continually used his dullard men in such a way that they actually protected the group.
The guards were all on horseback and earlier in the day those horses reached their limits. Now, after coming down through the last of the higher hills on foot, leading their mounts, the guards had exhausted themselves, too.
Captain Moyle called a halt and the group began to set up camp not far from where Amden Gore was harassing Vanx. Vanx noticed that the sun had moved over to the far side of the horizon. He must have slept a good while, not enough to completely revive his mind and body from the last few days of travel, but enough to feel better.
Of Amden’s small herd of slaves, he was the one who was being worked the most. Well, maybe Matty, the heavy-breasted, one-handed pickpocket was working a bit harder in the haulers’ tents at night. After failing at her first choice of trades, and losing an appendage, she was now earning favor and coin with her body.
The other two slaves, an old drunkard who’d run over a wealthy merchant’s son with his wagon, and a younger man who’d attacked a woman who refused his advances, were both too thin to be of much use for anything. The Duke of Highlake had literally worked them to the bone. Useless now, he’d given them and the one-handed whore to Amden to sell at the market in Andwyn.
Vanx couldn’t be outright killed for sleeping with the duke’s wife; the progressive new King of Parydon had passed laws against using the chopping block, save for the punishment of the most heinous crimes. To the duke’s disgrace, his wife had admitted openly to not only being willing, but to actually encouraging the week of nocturnal rendezvous she and Vanx enjoyed.
Vanx was an accomplished bard and had been employed at the inn. Since he was no vagabond rapist he could only be charged with adultery. He was put in chains immediately. The duke had planned to keep Vanx around and work him to death, but through a family connection, the duchess made a healthy bid on his ownership. The duke found out about his wife’s deceit and decided that he wanted Vanx out of his sight, or more accurately out of his wife’s sight. He sold Vanx to Amden for next to nothing. Obviously Amden hoped to fatten his purse at the slave market, and knew he had to restrain himself when punishing Vanx. Vanx knew this, too, and continually pushed his luck, thus, the afternoon nap.
Vanx was no fool; far from it. He was young and looked even younger by human standards. As far as he knew, no one realized that he wasn’t completely human, so the fact that he had lived for fifty-two years was lost on almost everyone he met. In truth, he was half-Zythian and half-human. The normally pointed ears and almond-shaped eyes of his mother’s line were softened by the human influence of his father. He had the look of a young man in his early twenties. His shoulder-length shock of dirty blond hair, his brilliant sea-green eyes, and his rugged, yet symmetrical, face served to intrigue nearly every human woman he met. His tall, well-muscled build was another reason they flocked to him. In the two short years he’d been away from the Isle of Zyth, where he was born and raised by his mother’s people, his appearance caused him no small amount of grief.
Vanx filled the skins, as ordered, and then studied the layout of the camp on his way back into it. The captain was having his men set up on the high sides of the narrow ravine they were now blocking. The high side of the camp was most likely to be attacked by rock trolls, or the ever-territorial hill giants. The low side of the camp was where the slaves were pitching their tattered shelter. Vanx knew that if caravan bandits came, they would come from the low side. The haulers and their big, ore-laden haulkattens, the horses, and the foot travelers were all setting up camp in between. They would be relatively safe, surrounded by living and natural barriers on all sides.
Vanx smiled, despite his pain. It was a perfect setup for his escape.
If he managed to get away undetected, which he was fairly certain he could do, he knew he had to beat the caravan guards to Waterdown Outpost. That part would be easy if he got away clean and had most of the night as a head start. If his escape was discovered, though, he knew he couldn’t outrun Amden’s haulkattens.
If he made it to Waterdown he had two choices, and though he hadn’t decided which way he would go from there, he knew that he would set a false trail on the way he didn’t choose. He had done some things with the haulkattens that might help his chances if he was chased, but one could never be sure about such things. Once Amden and the caravan reached Waterdown, word of a slave’s escape would travel down the river from outpost to outpost, then by rider to Andwyn and by ferry to Dabbldwyn. Words could move faster than Vanx could travel to either place. Realizing this, he was reconsidering going to Waterdown at all, but to bypass the Kingdomguard Outpost meant traveling to the wild lands south of the river, or through the slightly tamer homesteads and orchard farms that were regularly patrolled by the Parydon Kingdomguard. If he went south, he would try to steal a haulkatten. If he went north to Andwyn, by way of the homestead lands, only a horse would do. Maybe he could-
“CRACK!” the whip snapped far too close to his left ear, bringing him out of his thoughts.
“Put the water skins there, dog,” Amden Gore commanded from beside his big feline mount. “Then go downwind and dig us a shit pit. You know where the shovel is.”
Grumbling, and shuffling in his chains, Vanx did as he was told. He purposely found a place that was rocky and started digging. After a few moments he meandered back into the camp, drooping his shoulders as if he were still as tired as the others. “Too rocky,” he said in explanation at Amden’s glaring look. “I need the pick.”
“Get it. You’d better be done before the sun gets down, you fargin scum,” the slaver barked. “I’ll lash the skin from your adulterous hide before I waste a drop of lamp oil on your labors.”
“I’m far too valuable for you to lash, you fat, stupid bastard,” Vanx barked, then immediately cursed himself for not holding his tongue.
“CRACK!” the whip snapped across his chest. His roughspun jerkin was laid open, as was his skin. It felt like a red-hot piece of iron was laid there. Amden was rearing back for a second lash when one of the foot travelers, a young girl in a hooded cloak, spoke up.
Vanx had noticed, during the days of stumbling downhill, how she went out of her way to try to conceal her curvy figure with plain, unattractive garb. She never let her hood down for more than a moment. This intrigued him, but his present troubles had been caused by a similar sort of mental meandering, and until now, he’d kept his curiosity at bay.
“Enough,” she said in a mildly commanding tone. What surprised Vanx the most was that Amden obeyed her. The slaver stood seething, his narrowed eyes piercing Vanx, his whip dangling from a grip that clenched and relaxed then clenched again.
“Do your work,” the girl snapped from under the hood. Vanx got his first glimpse of the lower part of her face and recognized her immediately. It was Princess Gallarael, the fiery-hearted daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Highlake.
What is she doing on this trek? Vanx wondered. And with such a piss poor lot of guardsmen to protect her. It makes no sense.
He scanned the group of foot travelers as he unstrapped the pickaxe from Amden’s tool bundle. Two hooded men, whom he’d mistaken for monks or priests, were clearly more than what they seemed. It prickled his skin that he hadn’t noticed them before now. The bulge of sword hilts, and the hard lines of leather armor pieces worn under the hooded robes, became more obvious to his keen eyes. Counting Captain Moyle, that was only three capable guards. Not enough for a trip out of the treacherous mountains through wild and unforgiving terrain with a princess.
He pondered all of this while he went off to strike his chains with the pick. He’d have done it sooner, but it was smarter to suffer the whip and travel all the way out of the mountains with the group.
Why is she here? He kept wondering. If she had business in Andwyn, surely her father would have sent a more formidable escort. He had to know that the three caravan bandits in his dungeon were only the tail-tip of a larger serpent. By the way they bragged about their comrades, Vanx was surprised that this group hadn’t been attacked yet. According to the man who had been locked in the Highlake dungeon cell next to his there were no less than a hundred men hiding out here in the hills, all waiting for a lot of haulers, with guards just like the ones Captain Moyle commanded.
The sound of the pick hitting the chain links was worrisome. It was no easy chore getting through the leg irons. While he tried awkwardly to split his wrist chains, someone grunted and cursed behind him. He froze in terror, expecting Amden’s whip to split his hide, but all he heard was a long sigh. One of the haulers was taking a well-needed piss. Vanx didn’t know a man could piss that long.
Something occurred to Vanx while he waited. Captain Moyle had called this halt far too soon. Another hour of travel would have brought the group down to the outer orchards where the guards patrolled. There was no way the captain would have called the halt if he knew Princess Gallarael was among them. He suddenly understood why Duke Martin sold him to Amden so cheaply. This caravan was going to be ambushed just so he would be murdered.
Vanx whistled. It was all he could do to contain his anxiety as he went about breaking apart the chain between his wrists. The sun was already setting, and neither Gallarael, nor her guards, had any idea what sort of danger they were in.
That white haired witch
in her icy northern hole
is the reason there’s no warmth
in the Bitterland Hold.
Captain Moyle looked down the twisting trail and wondered what was taking so long. Duke Martin’s mercenaries were supposed to attack at dusk. He glanced back over his shoulder at the blazing fire in the center of the camp. The smell of the haulers’ stew was savory enough to draw a clan of rock trolls down out of the higher hills. Moyle hoped the duke’s men would arrive soon and kill the slaver and his bunch. He wanted this over.
Who could blame the duke for wanting vengeance? Moyle thought. He knew he wouldn’t have waited this long to kill a man who bedded his wife. The way the duchess humiliated the duke after being caught, Moyle figured she would soon fall from her window, or choke on a piece of fishbone, if not just disappear altogether.
Moyle patted the dust off of his blue uniform and thought back to the previous night when he had slowed the caravan’s descent long enough for the mercenaries to pass them on a lower trail. He was sure they’d gotten by. Hell, they should be coming up the road at them like a pack of bandits any moment.
Moyle wondered if they were just waiting for full darkness so they wouldn’t be recognized. It wouldn’t do for word of the feigned bandit attack to be linked back to the Duke of Highlake. The duke was already on shaky ground with Parydon royalty. After six years at his post, a safe trade route into, and out of, the mountains hadn’t been established. The Highlake Stronghold was secure. The duke had worked the kingdom’s prisoners to supreme effect while building an imposing wall around the entire Highlake Valley, but the trolls and giants hadn’t been beaten back in any meaningful way.
The giants and trolls foolish enough to venture close to the barrier usually only lived long enough to warn their fellows away from the spear launchers and longbows of the Wall Guard. The duke’s inability… no, Captain Moyle decided, inability was the wrong word. The duke was able, and if given enough slaves and soldiers he could easily secure the passage. It was the duke’s lack of enthusiasm, or maybe his downright lack of respect for King Oakarm’s wishes, that kept the passage from being turned into a prosperous avenue of commerce.
At the moment, the passage was only prosperous for the duke and his cronies. The remote location of the ore-rich valley where the stronghold stood made traversing it next to impossible, and made it more than a little inconvenient for the kingdom to impose its will. Duke Martin exploited this fact, and the orders he was given sometimes left Captain Moyle a little unsettled.
Slowing a typical caravan so that bandits could attack was one thing. The stolen goods always found their way back to Highlake and the bandits who were sometimes captured ended up slaving on the wall. Captain Moyle’s pocket was lined with quality coins. Very few lives were lost and the thieves usually only made away with a small portion of cargo before being beaten back. This fiasco was an entirely different matter. He was about to be party to the outright murder of four slaves, not to mention anyone who got in the way of the slaughter.
Amden would fight fiercely to protect his property, and the lard-assed guards would try to fight as well. Moyle’s head was about to be on the line for the duke. Now the anticipation of the attack had him wishing he had declined to participate. When this was done, he would either become one of Duke Martin’s most trusted men, or a total liability.
Gallarael couldn’t believe her mother had sent her on this horrid journey to buy the pretty slave man back from the marketers in Andwyn. The guards, the slave driver, and even the two skinny slaves had been leering at her the whole way out of the mountains. What lechers, she thought. She could understand them ogling if she were dressed in her normal fashion, but in a roughspun smock, with her dirty face under the hood no less, they should not have been attracted to her. At least none of them had badgered her or given her grief. Thankfully, the one-handed whore was keeping them satisfied. Gallarael thought about flipping her hood back and ordering Captain Moyle to take his men back to the stronghold. She would relish the look on his smug face when he realized he was in the company of his liege’s daughter. The sharp remarks he had made over her lagging pace the day before would cause his bowels to ice over. Had he known who she was, he would have offered her his mount and trotted along beside her like some hungry dog.
“Where has your prize gotten off too?” Amden asked Gallarael quietly. “I have not seen him since he returned from digging the shit p… Since he returned from digging the latrine, my lady.”
“Shhhhh,” she hissed. “No ‘my ladies’ out here, fool.” She looked around the camp. The half-moon didn’t go far toward illuminating the space, and the dying fire served only to throw shadows about like skittering spirits. “I don’t see him, either.” She stood. “We wouldn’t even have to be out here in the wild if you had done what my mother asked you to.”
“The orders of a duke outweigh the secret requests of a duchess.” He stood beside her and looked around. “I’m already disobeying your father’s orders by conspiring with you and your mother. It could cost me my freedom.”
“This is my mother’s scheme, slaver.” She spoke from under her hood. “Make no mistake about it.” She had to struggle to keep her voice down. From somewhere at the high side of the camp a long, loud snore sputtered away and then resumed its rhythm.
“If it’s your mother’s dealing, why did you stop me from whipping the cur bastard earlier?”
She said the first thing that came to mind, but she knew that she’d stopped the whip because she didn’t want to see such a beautiful man scarred. “Because it’s cruel.”
“Cruel?” Amden laughed. “Cruel is the way your mother disgraced your father over him. She should have nev-” His words were cut off as an arrow struck him in the head.
It looked to Gallarael as if the shaft had pierced the man’s skull, but Amden cursed and ducked away, grabbing at it. Gallarael screamed, bringing her two personal guards out of their slumber and to the ready. In a pair of heartbeats she was pinned beneath one of them while the other took up a defensive position over them and called out into the night.
“Cease your attack!” he yelled. “Do you dare bring harm upon Princess Gallarael, the daughter of the Duke of Highlake? The king’s own-” The man stumbled back and tumbled over Gallarael and whoever was holding her down. An arrow was sticking out of his chest. Frothy bubbles of blood hissed and sputtered as he inhaled.
Captain Moyle heard the man’s proclamation and recognized the voice as that of Sterven Trent, the head of the duchess’s personal guard attachment. He knew he was in a serious mess now. Sterven’s presence only proved that Princess Gallarael was among them. The girl had to be protected at all costs. It wouldn’t matter to Duke Martin if every member of the caravan was killed as long as Gallarael was spared. He realized, as an arrow sped past his ear, humming like an angry hornet, that the attack on them was coming from everywhere, not just near where the slaves were encamped. Moyle suddenly feared that the duke hadn’t intended for any of them to survive, not even him. Still, the urge to protect the princess overrode his instinctual desire to flee and survive. He started toward the campfire where he had last seen the robed woman he now knew was the princess. The grunts and yells of men being murdered in their half-sleep filled the night. Ahead of him, Amden Gore was on his knees with an arrow protruding out of his temple. The man’s face and shoulder were covered in blood. One of the travelers lay twitching in a sprawl nearby as his life’s blood pulsed out.
Another arrow went whizzing past and Moyle crouched low so that he could huddle in the shadows.
“Gallarael,” he hissed. “It’s Captain Moyle. Tell me where you are and I will-” His voice was drowned out by the high-pitched, keening howl of a troll. A chorus of barking cries replied to their alpha. A horse whinnied, then screamed in terror, the sound ending in a sickening wet rip. One of the haulkats roared out, then another. The loud, ferocious sound drowned out everything else. The foot travelers, haulers, and the few caravan guards who were still alive all bungled about in chaos.
Captain Moyle looked toward the campfire just in time to see a head-sized rock smash into Amden Gore’s shoulder. The man was knocked into the fire and a swarm of firefly sparks went twirling up, lighting the campsite in an eerie orange glow.
A man the captain didn’t know, one of the bandits, he presumed, staggered and fell into the erratic light. One of his arms was a ruin of meat dangling from a protruding piece of shattered bone. From behind the man, the shadowy form of a rock troll scrabbled out of the darkness on all fours. It snatched him by the ankle, and dragged him screaming back into the night.
Captain Moyle darted toward the group of travelers by the fire. One of them was trying to get out from under the corpse draped over him. Amden Gore’s clothes were flaming now, and the sizzling smell of roasting meat was drawing the trolls closer to the fire.
In a flare of fiery light from the renewed blaze, Moyle saw a disheveled fan of golden hair at the bottom of the pile, just as a pair of fleeing horses leapt the heap and knocked him to the ground. A trio of howling trolls followed right behind the animals. Luckily, the captain had tumbled into the half-opened flap of one of the traveler’s tents. A young blacksmith’s apprentice, a boy not yet old enough to grow a beard, huddled in teary-eyed terror over his dead master. He gave a yelp and pushed himself into the corner of the canvas shelter.
“Shhhhh,” Moyle hissed with an index finger pressed to his lips. Seeing that it wasn’t a bandit or a troll coming for him, the boy heaved a sigh of relief. Moyle forced a reassuring smile and peeped back out where he had seen Gallarael’s golden locks splayed across the dirt. A cold shiver ran down his spine as something big and covered in fur stepped down just inches from his face. After it moved on, he swallowed his heart back down into his body. Where Gallarael had lain, under a pile of robed travelers, a single arrow-riddled body remained.
In the long silence that followed the attack, only the sound of Amden Gore’s fat sizzling on the fire, and the sickening noise of the trolls ripping and munching the flesh of the others, was left to fill the cloying night.
They came on clever ships of wood,
those that called themselves men.
They spread like mice through fertile fields
and overtook the land.
After striking apart his wrist chain, then doing the same with the length of chain that ran between his ankle shackles, Vanx used some pieces of baling wire he’d pilfered to reattach the links. To the naked eye it appeared that he was still bound wrist to wrist, and ankle to ankle. No one, not even Amden Gore, gave him a second look when he shuffled back into the camp and strapped the pick and shovel onto the slaver’s pack-frame. Before Amden had a chance to give him new orders, Vanx unloaded a heavy sack of fish meal and started dispensing it among the haulkattens. One of the beasts in particular, a younger male, received a double issue of the ripe-smelling food. The animal knew it was getting special treatment, and after each feeding Vanx had taken the time to scratch the young feline behind its ears and speak kindly to it. Once, when Amden’s formidable yet aging beast growled in protest of Vanx’s affection, the younger cat warned it away with a low, rumbling nudge. The event confirmed Vanx’s hope that the young katten would be agreeable toward him when the need arrived.
As the sun was disappearing beyond the mountaintops and the sky was growing dim, Vanx rearranged the packs on the young cat’s pack-frame. It was common practice to unburden the kattens after they had eaten. With the animals it was always water first, then food, then rest.
The haulers didn’t seem to mind Vanx doing their work. Some days they chided him, others they helped, but this night they were too busy making their meal and arguing over who would get Matty’s attentions first. Vanx was actually taking food and supplies from the other pack-frames and swapping them with the heavier chunks of ore with which his katten had been laden. If he had to venture into the Wilds, or backtrack into the mountains for a time, he and his mount wouldn’t run short of provisions, while those chasing him would.
Knowing that Gallarael was among the travelers, and that Captain Moyle had stopped them so that they could be ambushed, gave Vanx cause for concern. He hadn’t fallen in love with the crafty Duchess of Highlake, nor did the affairs of her daughter concern him, but he had a feeling that Gallarael was there on his account. She was acting on behalf of her mother, no doubt, and this compelled him to at least warn her of what was soon to happen. The only problem with this was the fact that, when Vanx decided to get close enough to her to speak, he saw with his uncannily sharp Zythian eyes a pair of rock trolls climbing around in the shadows. What was worse was that the trolls were stalking the bandits who he saw were about to attack the caravan.
Vanx had the urge to charge the haulkatten into the heart of the camp, scoop Gallarael up and whisk her away to safety, but Amden Gore was talking with her. As Vanx removed the wire holding his chains together and climbed atop the young haulkatten, Gallarael and the slaver both stood and began searching the camp. He wondered if they were searching for him, or if they were aware that the trolls were closing in? The answer became a moot concern when Amden pitched forward and Gallarael screamed. After that, the encampment was reduced to chaos.
One of Gallarael’s guards tackled her while the other stood over them and started spewing out words that Vanx couldn’t quite make out over the keening of a troll. The fool was quickly pierced with an arrow. Vanx winced as the shaft sunk deep and was strangely satisfied with his earlier assessment that the guards were wearing leather armor instead of fine chain under their robes. The thought reminded him that he wasn’t wearing any armor at all. He didn’t even have a weapon. He urged the young haulkatten out of the camp and found the rocky crag he’d spied earlier. He half expected to be given away by the guard Captain Moyle had posted there. Instead, he found the guard face down, rasping for breath, with a deep sword wound across his back.
Vanx felt no mercy for the guardsmen. If the man had been alert and doing his duty, he wouldn’t be dying in a puddle of his own blood. Vanx slid down off the haulkatten and gave the nervous animal a reassuring pat on the flank. The dying guard’s armor was far too big for Vanx, but there was a decent-looking bow with half a quiver of arrows, and a bone-handled dagger. Vanx wasted no time rolling the man over and arming himself. He pulled the man’s belt off, buckled it, and put it over his head and shoulder bandolier style. If he survived, he would have to make a new hole, for the belt was nearly long enough to wrap his waist twice.
As he climbed back up into the haulkatten’s saddle he thought he heard Gallarael scream again. The sound could have been a man’s dying call or a lusty battle howl from a troll, though. Either way, it sounded enough like Gallarael that he abandoned his intentions of just leaving the scene. He wanted to go, but couldn’t find the cold detachment it would take to leave her to her fate. With a huff of disgust at himself for being so weak, he heeled his katten around and headed back into the fray.
It wasn’t hard to find her. She was still struggling to get herself out from under her protector’s corpse. The cooking body of the whip-happy slaver smelled oddly like a feast. His clothes were on fire now, lighting the area like a beacon. To Vanx’s dismay he saw that there were two guards on top of Gallarael. One heaved the corpse away and both he and Gallarael stood at the same time.
Obviously thinking that he could just commandeer the haulkatten from Vanx, the guard drew his sword. Vanx met his gaze down the shaft of a drawn arrow, freezing the guard in a state of determined confusion.
“Climb up behind me, Gallarael,” Vanx commanded softly. “There are trolls about.” To punctuate the statement, a troll was suddenly running at them. In the span of a heartbeat, Vanx loosed the arrow he had drawn, hit the beast right in its heart, and drew another arrow.
“You’ll save Trevin, too,” she said with pleading eyes. “He’s a good man.”
“A good man pointing a sword at me.” Vanx suddenly lifted his aim again and loosed an arrow that passed a finger’s breadth above the guard’s head. Behind them, a troll crashed to the ground and howled out in pain. The guard tried to seize the moment and charged. The young haulkatten moved its big head in the way in an attempt to protect its rider, but it was unnecessary; Vanx already had another arrow nocked and aimed.
“Stop it, Trev.” Gallarael stepped up to the soldier. “Your blade, please.”
Apparently the trolls had gotten hold of the bandit archers; even so, Vanx had no desire to stay there. A glance at Gallarael’s pleading expression broke him. A moment later the young haulkatten was carrying him, Trevin, and Gallarael into the darkness surrounding the lower foothills.
Captain Moyle caught a glimpse of them as they faded into the dancing shadows thrown by Amden Gore’s sizzling body. Moyle was smart enough to stay put, though. He knew that the trolls were still feeding on the numerous corpses but would stop to kill him if they saw him. In his day he had seen the aftermaths of many a troll attack. If he and the apprentice boy stayed still in the tent, the trolls would most likely eat their fill and move on. He hoped he could track down a horse or a haulkatten when the sun came up. The important thing was that Gallarael was still alive. Once he found a mount, he could track down the slave who had nabbed her, kill him, and gain all the favor the duke could muster. As the night wore on he even entertained hopes of winning Gallarael’s heart in the process.
“What’s happening?” the sniffling young man asked. “Are they coming for us?”
“Shut it,” Moyle hissed through clenched teeth. He had forgotten about the boy. “Sit still and keep your mouth shut or we’ll both be troll shit by the morning.” Moyle decided then and there that he might have to kill the lad. Once he saw the corpses of the duke’s bandits, he would be a liability. He would wait until they found one of the escaped animals, though. Four eyes looking for a scared horse or a skittish haulkatten would be better than just two. The boy sniffled loudly, then sobbed. Moyle turned and with the back of his hand smacked him across the face.
“What’s your name?” Moyle whispered.
“Darbon,” the adolescent whimpered.
“If you make another sound, Darbon, I will kill you where you sit.”
Matty and one of Captain Moyle’s guards had been off behind the picketed horses when the trolls came. Half naked and rolling in the rocky shrubs, they hadn’t even noticed the attack until a stalking troll crept right past them. The guard, Gregon, quickly lost his interest in the one-handed whore, but only for the moment. After the sounds of battle erupted and the trolls began to howl, he took Matty and two of the horses and fled. He had to take the extra horse because Matty was in leg chains and couldn’t straddle a saddle. He threw her over the second horse like a sack of grain and led the animal east down the bandit trail, not the well-traveled road. As soon as they had some distance between themselves and the massacre, he turned them south right into the wilderness. Gregon hoped to find a place to camp and spend a few days alone with the whore. He would grow bored of her, kill her and then cut himself. He would tell the Duke that he narrowly escaped the attack. Hell, he thought. He might even be able to get some stripes on his sleeve. When he got back to Highlake, he would be a bloodied veteran.
“You’re-a fargin-bastard-” Matty grunted between the horses bouncing steps. “This-fargin-hurts.”
“Hush woman,” Gregon said. “We’re not out of harm’s way yet. I’ll break your chains as soon as I can.”
A few moments later a low, rumbling growl confirmed his assessment. The sound came from not far behind them and served to give Matty the will to bite her tongue no matter how uncomfortable she was. It also served to hasten Gregon’s pace as they twisted and turned out into uncharted territory.
Vanx hissed to quiet the argument going on between Trevin and Gallarael. It turned out that the two of them were secret lovers. Vanx had the urge to tell the young guard an old saying that kept repeating in his mind: Like mother like daughter, but he held his tongue.
He heard something not far ahead of them: voices. Thinking that it might be more of Duke Martin’s bandits, he left the trail, heading north toward Andwyn. This seemed to lift the spirits of his two passengers. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that it was only a false trail he was creating. In a few minutes they were going to backtrack south into the Wilds.
I picked a special flower
to make my Molly purr
but right after she kissed me
she said two coppers sir.
Gallarael jerked awake. The moon was low in the sky and the sounds of the night-the chirps, hisses and resounding croaks, wafted on the cool, late-spring breeze. The smooth, rolling gait of the haulkatten rocked her body gently back against Trevin. Reflexively, he tightened his arms around her waist in a reassuring hug. This caused her to smile and she leaned into him as the memory of her situation came to her.
“I feel like I’ve slept the night away and yet the moon has barely risen,” she observed in a whisper.
“It’s almost dawn, my lady,” Trevin replied hesitantly. “The slave switched us back the other direction several hours ago.”
“Shhh!” Vanx hissed from his place in front of her in the hauler’s saddle. “You’ll wake the night beasts.”
“It’s night, fool,” Gallarael snapped back at Vanx. “They should already be awake.” The realization of the truth of her own statement caused her to lower her voice as she continued. “Are we in the Wilds then?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
“Yup,” Vanx answered. “And heading directly for Dyntalla so we can catch a ship to Parydon Isle.”
“Parydon?” She scrunched up her face trying to figure out why. Trevin started in with the answer after putting her hood back over her head.
“We have to hide your hair, my lady, for it shines like gold in the moonlight.”
Vanx snorted at the smitten guard’s words.
“Those men that attacked, they were your father’s men,” said Trevin. “Vanx says that they were sent to kill him for what he and your — your mother did to the duke’s honor.”
“Those were trolls that attacked,” Gallarael said defensively. She knew she’d seen a troll. “My father doesn’t command mountain creatures.”
“Trolls don’t use bows, girl,” Vanx chuckled over his shoulder. “The bandits sent to murder me were careless. They were followed right into our camp by the bloodthirsty fiends.” The emphasis he put on the word murder wasn’t lost on her. “The bandits killed Amden and the rest of the slaves before the trolls descended on the mess.”
“Oh, the poor captain, and Sterven Trent,” Gallarael leaned deeper into Trevin. “He was a good man, one of mother’s favorites.”
Trevin resisted saying the first thing that came to his mind, as did Vanx. Trevin saw that it was a struggle for the slave to hold his tongue. Then Vanx turned and spoke to Gallarael kindly.
“Your father meant to have them all murdered, and poor Captain Moyle was part of the plot.” Vanx lifted his fierce, sea-green eyes to meet Trevin’s, and then he met hers again. “When we get to Parydon you will set this all straight, Gallarael. I’ll not spend the rest of my life avoiding kingdom lands or hiding like a thief. I did nothing wrong but fall prey to the wrong woman’s advances.”
“How can you ask me to speak against my own father?” Gallarael looked back to Trevin for help. He winced, and for the first time began to see Vanx’s side of it. He too had once been in the duchess’s sights, but was saved by Gallarael’s affections. Had Gallarael not told her mother of her feelings, he would have become another notch in the duchess’s bedpost.
“He’s not your real father,” Trevin reminded. “Monster was the word you used, if my memory serves.”
Gallarael slumped in the saddle. Duke Martin wasn’t her true father, but he didn’t know it. Her mother claimed that her real father was someone far more important than the power-drunk Duke of Highlake. Still, Humbrick Martin loved her, and thought she was a child of his own loins. He treated her with more love and affection than any princess of the kingdom could have asked for, but he was a hard and vile monster to those beneath him. Her heart and mind were spinning, knowing that she might have to accuse him of trying to murder the caravan folk just to kill Vanx. To add to the confusion, she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her trollop of a mother would be delighted by it all. She didn’t understand why her mother despised the duke so openly. It was clear that she felt no love for him.
A thought occurred to her and she voiced her concern.
“How do you know that Captain Moyle was involved in all of this?” She was asking Vanx, but Trevin answered.
“I’m not so sure as our friend here.”
Vanx then explained how Captain Moyle had called the halt just an hour or so away from patrolled territory. He then gave his opinion of the caravan guards and of the choice of slaves the duke had gifted to Amden Gore, not to mention the unexpectedness of his generosity.
“If that is so, about where we made camp, then why didn’t Amden or any of the other haulers object when we stopped?” Gallarael asked.
Vanx chuckled. “They were too busy worrying about getting a turn with Matty.”
It was dawn by the time Vanx finished explaining. The young haulkatten was exhausted, as were he and Trevin. After the animal was fed a generous issue of fish meal, and unloaded, a bit of dried meat was shared amongst them. Gallarael offered to keep watch while the two men napped. Vanx was leery of Trevin, afraid that he and the girl might subdue him while he was disadvantaged. To Vanx’s surprise, Trevin sensed his unease. The man gave his solemn word that he would do his best to help clear Vanx’s name. It was enough to ease his concerns and he fell into a deep sleep as soon as he lay back and closed his eyes.
As the sun crept into the sky, burning the morning mist away, Gregon ruined his dagger busting apart Matty’s leg chains. He refused to even attempt to get her shackles off. Matty knew that their presence marked her as property. Now that she had the chance to make a run at full freedom, she wasn’t about to let some lust-craved oaf ruin it. At the moment, she was trying to talk him into going back to the camp to see if they could find the slaver’s corpse and pilfer the key.
“While we’re there we can loot the corpses, or I could just kill you now and move on.”
“But, Gregon, if we get these things off of my ankles it won’t be so hard for me to do that thing you like so much.” She purred and licked her slightly parted lips with half-lidded eyes. Her heavy breasts were on full display and she squeezed her arms at her sides, making them swell.
The oaf cursed under his breath, but she knew she had him.
“We’ll go back and pilfer the lot of them bodies, wench,” Gregon snarled. “But I’m keeping the coin. I’ll use that slaver’s tools to get them shackles off your legs if we don’t find the key.” Gregon smiled a broken yellow grin. “After that, your pretty mouth better be keepin’ the promises that came out of it. If’n it don’t, I’ll bust it up.”
Captain Moyle didn’t wait for the mist to clear before sending Darbon out to search for a horse. The boy did as he was told, but only until he was out of the captain’s sight and lost in the foggy dawn. After that, Darbon ran blindly away from the camp and the mean old captain who meant him harm. Around a cut of rocky crags, and down a lush green, gently sloping hill, he ran. Through a thicket of thorny growth and past a gurgling brook, never seeing more than a dozen feet in front of him, he ran, and ran, and ran. Then he heard a noise behind him. Turning in mid-stride to see what it was, he found himself being pursued by one of the giant haulkattens. It pounced just as Darbon stumbled. The boy screamed, and then hot breath and clawed paws engulfed him as if he were no more than a baby rat to a castle mouser.
Captain Moyle found a horse and, after hearing the boy scream, figured him for dead. He’d probably fallen into a ravine, or gotten bitten by a snake. It didn’t matter, though. The fool boy wouldn’t survive in these parts alone, not for more than a few hours anyway.
The captain went back to the camp and took the time to load up a fat pack of rations, several water skins and a pair of fully stuffed quivers to go with his longbow. He waited there, thinking how much like a feast boar the slaver’s corpse smelled, until finally the sun burned the mist away.
Hearing nothing more from the boy, he hurried out of the camp to follow the haulkatten’s trail. Oddly, only a few hundred yards from the camp, he came across a fresh set of horse tracks. Upon further investigation he found that two horses had veered off to the south. The tracks were deep and defined enough that he felt certain the horses were ridden. Some of Duke Martin’s bandits maybe? Or a pair of fat bastard guards who deserted in the heat of battle? Whoever they were, they were witnesses to Duke Martin’s charade. With a sigh of frustration he marked in his mind where the tracks left the main trail. Finding Gallarael and returning her safely to her father had to be his priority. Tying up Duke Martin’s loose ends could be handled later. If it was a pair of the duke’s bandits, which it most likely was, then this trail really didn’t matter. Gallarael hadn’t left on a horse.
He doubted anyone other than the bandits would have left the trail for the Wilds. The homesteaded lands to the north were the safer route to take. As if to reinforce his thoughts, he came across one of the trails the haulkattens had made leaving the camp going north. With a self-satisfied grin, he heeled his horse into a trot, and told himself that the chase had begun.
Not long after, Gregon and Matty plodded back up the trail into the camp. The sun’s warmth was ripening the corpses, and things were starting to buzz and flap about in a frenzy of carrion delight. Crows and fat green flies leapt from their feasts in noisy clouds, and big, thick-skinned buzzards screeched and opened their wings, hoping to scare away whatever it was that had come to threaten their meal. Matty leaned forward and heaved up a gutful of bile when she saw what lay under the hungry birds: half of a man here, an arm, shoulder and head there, and a half-eaten horse between them.
She could tell that Gregon had to hold down his gorge, too. He went about shooing the buzzards away so he could roll the bodies and loot their pouches. Matty went to a dead haulkatten’s pack frame and starting searching it. Most of the supplies had been ransacked. She did find a small sack of coins tucked next to a head-sized piece of iron ore, but she had to leave the prize when Gregon came stomping up behind her.
“The key,” he chuckled. “The slaver kept it with his coppers. I found him and his pouch charred to a crisp. Hell, wench, his arse was still sizzling in the coals.” He wiped some gore from his hands on a jerkin he had picked up. “I hope you’re ready to hold up your end of the bargain.”
Matty kept herself from vomiting again while Gregon knelt down behind her and unfastened the steel-banded clasps. She took in a deep breath and a thought struck her like a bolt of lightning. The last thing she wanted at that moment was his filthy sex. She was sickened, but thrilled as the first binding fell away. She bent down. Using the nub of her wrist and her good hand she hefted a chunk of ore, turned, and slammed it down into Gregon’s upturned grin with all she had. The only thing scarier than the way the piece of stone tore into the man’s flesh and bone, was the way that he stood, roared, and backhanded her right off of her feet. She tried to get up and run, but he was on her like a pouncing lion. Without hesitation, he rolled her onto her back and put his hands around her neck.
She felt her throat being crushed and fought futilely to breathe. Blood ran from his broken nose and mouth in thick streams. One of his eyes looked off to the side, while the other glared murder at her.
She beat at him with her fist and her stumped wrist, but it was no use. Blackness and the need to draw breath slowly overwhelmed her. In a last-ditch effort to break his grasp she twisted and flailed, but it was too late. Her air-starved body had grown too weak to resist. Oddly, the last thing she saw before blackness consumed her was a huge shadow falling across her and her killer. After that, there was nothing.
Far to the east they trace their lines
from Harthgar and Dakahn.
They’ve pinkened skin and dullard eyes
but their will is iron hard.
“Can’t we go around?” Gallarael asked as they finished off an afternoon meal of dried beef and started packing up their gear. The past two days they’d seen nothing but rolling foothills marked with small copses of elm, oak and pine. Every so often, huge outcroppings of grey stone seemed to grow out of the earth like jagged boils on emerald skin. Not too far ahead of them, they could see the dark tree line of the Wildwood.
“If you want to be out here for another turn of the moon or more we could go around,” Vanx replied with a shake of his head. He had to admit the stretch of forested valley that spread out below them did look daunting. To go around it would take weeks.
“My da once told me that no one ever comes back out of the Wildwood to tell what’s in it.” This from Trevin, and though he said the words jokingly, his expression told Vanx that he was afraid.
Vanx gave the dark forest another look and grinned. He’d left the island of Zyth to explore the world beyond. He was on a quest of enlightenment, a ritual that all young Zythian men undertook as they came of age. Most Zythians traveled by ship to the distant lands of Harthgar and Zarn where their race has deep-rooted cities and safe havens. Most humans, including Parydonians, had a mistrust of Zyths. Only the fact that Vanx didn’t look Zythian allowed him to roam Parydon without having to suffer the racism and underlying ill will of men.
There was no open hatred between the races or their kingdoms, and both traveled freely in the other’s realms, but the undercurrent of the times made for many a tense situation. The Zyths disliked the way the human population multiplied and spread like a plague. The humans were ever jealous of the Zythians’ crafting skills and long lives. Still, they’d managed to get along without warring with each other; but this, Vanx had been taught, was only because the humans hadn’t yet tried to settle on the Isle of Zyth.
Vanx chuckled out loud as the words of one of his old lesson masters came to him. “Humans will take root in any place that will allow them, save for those places they fear they cannot prevail.” The only three pieces of land that Vanx knew in the whole world where men hadn’t settled were Zyth, Dragon’s Island, and the Great Fire Sands. Even the Wilds couldn’t keep the persistent humans at bay forever. Already the well-protected walled cities of Dabbldwyn and their destination, Dyntalla, were booming along the coast of this untamed part of the world. The Wildwood, though, and the heart of the Wilds, still held enough unknown dangers to strike fear in the hearts of men. It would be a very long time before the roots of the humans’ so-called progress had a good hold here. Vanx had never ventured through the Wildwood, but over the years many of his people had; partly because humans were still afraid to go there, but primarily because there are herbs, roots, and animals in the gloomy forest that are sacred to his people’s customs, and used in the casting of many Zythian spells.
Those Zyths who went and sought the sacred items came home telling stories of stunted, black-scaled dragon spawn called wyvern that could reduce one to pieces with their dagger-sharp teeth and acidy saliva, and of wood trolls and the green-skinned ogres that hunted them both. They spoke of living trees that stalked the forest on bark-covered legs, and of wolves as big as haulkattens.
Vanx saw the tusk of a wild boar one Zythian had returned with. It was a curve as long as a child’s arm and as hard as quality steel. Vanx laughed as he climbed onto their haulkatten. If half of the tales he heard were true, then Gallarael and Trevin were right to fear the Wildwood. It never occurred to Vanx that maybe he should fear it, too.
“We’ll ride ‘til sunset,” Vanx said as he strapped down the gear the other two handed him. “We’ll get close, but I think that we can wait until morning to enter the forest.”
Vanx unstrapped a pair of bows and handed one to Trevin after he and Gallarael were situated. “String it, and keep a good eye on our rear. We wouldn’t want a big old ogre running up on us unchecked.”
Gallarael gasped. She gave Trevin an uneasy glance. “Do you think-” Her words trailed off at the intense look on her lover’s face.
“We’ll be all right, Gal.” It was clear the reassurance in his voice was forced, but he said it as he tested the draw on the bow and took the quiver of arrows Vanx was handing him.
“How long will we be in the Wildwood?” Gallarael asked Vanx, not trying at all to conceal her nervousness.
“Four, maybe five days.” Vanx heeled the haulkatten toward the dark green line ahead of them, jerking them into motion. “Then another three to the Dyntalla wall, if we make it through.”
“If we make-” Gallarael’s words were cut off this time by Vanx’s laughter.
Vanx’s laughter was cut off by the sharp-knuckled fist she slammed into his kidney from behind.
Trevin gave him a look and Vanx decided that he’d teased them enough. The group was silent as the haulkatten’s smooth gait carried them closer and closer to the dreaded Wildwood.
Captain Moyle was still on the hunt. He followed Vanx’s cleverly winding trail on the north side of the main passage for more than half a day. He finally realized he had been duped when he passed a marker he’d seen a few hours earlier, only from a different direction. By the time he made it back to the main trail and found where his prey had crossed into the Wilds, he’d wasted an entire day. Ever determined to catch his quarry and save Gallarael from the slave who took her, he traveled on through the night. Eventually he had to go on foot and lead his horse using the light of an oil lantern to see the trail he followed.
After a few twists of his ankle, and a near tumble into a dark crevice that had been formed over the eons by trickling water, he decided to stop before he got himself killed.
He didn’t build a fire, even though it would serve to keep the predators at bay. He wanted one, if only to keep the chill of the spring night from his bones. Instead, he hung the lantern in some scrub brush some twenty paces away and rolled out his blanket close to his picketed horse. He didn’t plan on sleeping long. Years of military training and field experience made him a light sleeper. The slightest snuffle of the horse would wake him. He kept his sword lying at his side and a strung bow within reach, then lay back and closed his eyes.
The captain dreamt of war and glory and the cheers of a welcoming crowd as he led his men proudly back from battle. Gallarael was there cheering for him. Then his dream shifted to a hot, sweaty affair where skin stuck to skin, and a fan of golden hair fell in his face while his young lover moaned on top of him.
The dream quickly vanished as he woke with a start. He opened his eyes in time to see a shadow cut through the glowing fog that settled over the area. The shadow meant that someone or something was between him and the dully glowing lantern.
A glance at his horse showed that it was afraid. It stood stock still with muscles taut, save for the nervous quivering of its flanks and its heavy intake of breath. Had its reins not been tied to the scrub, it would have bolted long ago.
“MUAALG!” A wet throaty sound came from nearby. “Muaalg,” it sounded again.
Still lying on his back, the Captain eased his blade from under the blanket and made sure the roughspun wool wouldn’t catch if he had to make a sudden move. He was about to bring himself to his feet when the shadow fell across him again.
The horse whinnied in fright behind him. The sound sent Captain Moyle’s heart to pounding, and no doubt drew the attention of the beast that was investigating the lantern light.
Moyle rolled to his feet to keep from getting hoofed in the face by his terrified horse. Once he was up he patted the animal on the rump, meaning to reassure it, but it flinched, snorted, and stamped its hooves on the ground.
The shadowy figure voiced a series of strange noises that sounded oddly like a man trying to speak with food in his mouth. Moyle contemplated what it could be through his fear as the shadow loomed and swelled. Whatever it was, it was coming slowly for the horse.
“Mwo… mwo viss aut deer,” the thing sounded as it came in closer, silhouetted in a misty glow.
Moyle’s level of fear dropped slightly because he understood then. Who, who is out here, the thing had asked. He was just about to chance a response when a hideous-faced humanoid creature charged at his horse with a howl. Instinctually, he lunged a lightning-quick thrust into the beast’s side. His blade bit deeply and as he yanked it back, he heard the telltale sigh of an emptying lung.
He’d seen the trophy heads of felled ogres brought back to the gates at Highlake for the duke’s reward. What he’d just killed was far too small to be an ogre. As malformed and ugly as the thing had been, he knew it was no troll either. Its head wasn’t much larger than a man’s.
The thing had fallen into a gasping heap right in the captain’s blankets, and the horse wasn’t very pleased about it. It fought its tether and stomped, still shivering and snorting nervously. Still, the shadows and mist hid the beast’s features.
Whatever it was, he was worried that there might be more of them about. The only creature he could think it might be was a young giant, and if that’s what it was there would be many more members of its tribe around. For a long time, Moyle huddled in the foggy shadows listening to the wet breathing of his victim fade away. The thickness of the mist dampened any sound that might come from afar. Even the occasional nicker of his horse seemed to come from a distance. After a good while, the first light of the sun tinted the sky with a streak of coppery illumination. The breaking of dawn gave him the confidence he needed to retrieve his lantern so that he could get a better look at what he’d just killed. Even before he rolled the form over he knew what it was. The buckled leather boots on the corpse’s feet were the same issue as his own, and the mismatched pieces of armor had all came from the armory at Highlake Stronghold. The face, though, was another matter.
One eye was missing from its socket, and the man’s jaw had swollen to twice its normal size so that it looked like he had tomatoes stuffed in his cheeks. A trio of furrows ran across the man’s head and down across his nose and temple making it look like the swelling had burst his skin apart. “Gregor, Gregon… Greg something,” the captain spat. He put away his sword, pulled out his dagger and cut Duke Martin’s insignia from the man’s breast. “One less loose end to tie.”
Not even bothering to take the coins from his belt, Captain Moyle left him for the carrion. He fed his horse some oats and then took a chunk of cheese and dried meat for himself.
It took longer than he hoped for the sun to burn the cottony blanket from the earth, but once he was underway he made good time. The haulkatten he was after was carrying two or three people and a fair load of supplies on its back. Its paw marks were easy to find, and were close enough together to let the captain know that the creature was traveling at a pace that could be overtaken.
“Two days at the most,” he figured as he hurried out of the rocky crags into the rolling foothills of the Wilds. “Two days.”
A bolt of lace I brought her
and a ballad I did verse.
My love professed, I should have guessed
she ran off with my purse.
When the companions entered the Wildwood it was midmorning. None of them knew they were being watched. Several sets of eyes from several different vantage points saw them slowly disappear into the mist that still clung to the trees. Some of those eyes followed hesitantly, others hungrily, and some of the followers were being followed themselves.
Vanx decided that the forest wasn’t as bad as he’d heard. The trees were widely spaced, enough for relatively easy travel. After a while, though, Vanx figured that maybe the tales of thick growth and the grotesque trunks of imposing old tangle trees hadn’t been exaggerated enough.
The group was forced to dismount, then choose a path through the humid, overgrown mess. The sounds of a normal forest thriving in late spring glory were there-whistling birds, chirping tree jumpers, and a loud, thumping groan that erupted occasionally. That particular sound reminded Vanx of the woodpeckers back home, only this sounded like a bird with a beak made of iron was hammering on a stone wall instead of a tree trunk. After every outburst of the deep, clacking tattoo, the rest of the forest stilled for a few heartbeats. Then slowly, the hum of the insects and the whistle of the birds would resume.
The flora was abundant and varied; thorny clusters of bright yellow flowers hosted a plethora of busy insects. A glittery, silver-green butterfly fluttered from the lavender-petaled bloom of a ropy vine which twisted its way up and around through the limbs of one of the old tangle trees.
Vanx watched as Gallarael flushed with embarrassment. She was looking at a fleshy pink flower that strongly resembled a woman’s genitalia. Bright crimson splotches specked some of the blooms as if someone had slung a bloody sword across them.
Obviously curious, the girl tromped through the undergrowth and grabbed the stalk on which the flowers grew. With a tentative grin she pulled the flower to her face to smell it. The plant suddenly squirmed in her hand, causing her to yelp and jump back. When she tried to let go of the stalk it wouldn’t separate from her palm. Vanx was flooded with alarm. The flower twisted over on its stem as if it were a snake and latched onto her wrist. Gallarael screamed.
“It’s biting me, Trevin! It hurts!”
Trevin already had his sword out and was using it to hack a trail toward her. He looked calm as he charged over and cleaved the thick stem in two. He and Vanx both were startled to the point of nearly fouling their britches when a loud roar erupted.
A score of the flowers shook and danced away crazily. Vanx saw that they were growing from the back of a strange, turtle-like creature as it scuttled off.
Since it was no longer attached, the gripping bite of the flower relaxed. Gallarael pulled the thing from her wrist and examined the wound. A trio of puncture holes were leaking blood and an ochre fluid. Vanx knew immediately that it was venom. Purple bruises were already starting to form, and her flesh was streaking red up her arm.
Vanx snatched the collar lacing out of the calfskin hauler’s shirt he was wearing as he raced over. He tied it tightly around Gallarael’s upper arm while he racked his brain trying to recall the herb lore Master Karzen had drilled into his brain a dozen years ago. Trevin took his lover’s wrist in his hand and cut deep crosses over each hole. He began milking the blood and poison from her body as if her arm were a teat. This was far more serious than the bite of a trail snake, Vanx knew, but getting some of the poison out of her body could not hurt.
“Good, Trev,” Vanx voiced his approval as some of the knowledge he needed came back to him. “Stay with her. We need grutta spore and palin root.”
Trevin grunted and gave a nod that he’d heard, then overcame his fear and sucked a mouthful of the thick-looking poison from her arm.
Vanx looked at Gallarael before he charged off, and regretted doing so. Her eyes were rolled up in her head, and she was hanging limply in Trevin’s grasp. Her cheeks were cherry red, and rivulets of sweat ran freely down her face as if water were being trickled over her head. The bitten arm was already swollen to twice its normal size. She had very little time left.
Vanx stepped away from them and called on his Zythian goddess for aid. It wasn’t so much the fact that he needed Gallarael’s testimony to clear his name as it was the fact that he’d grown to like her fiery personality, and the fierce loyalty she had for her common-born lover, that caused him to do so. Besides that, the girl was only in this situation because her mother had sent her to help him.
It was no small thing to call on the Goddess. She had smiled upon the Zythian race so much during their creation that to ask her for more bordered on blasphemy. This wasn’t a request for himself, though. Vanx didn’t hesitate to voice his need in the prayer he mumbled as he stalked away into the deeper Wildwood.
His goddess must have heard him, for he’d only made it twenty paces before he stumbled and fell into a patch of mushrooms growing at the base of an ancient oak tree which had somehow managed to keep the tangle of the rest of the forest at bay. Grutta spore. Vanx’s realization came with a snap of surprise. He gathered up a few of the reddish-purple caps and got to his feet. Looking around, he realized that the elder oak wasn’t part of the Wildwood at all. He was standing in a hazy patch of forested glade that was open, lush, and free of undergrowth. After a moment, he shook off the wonder he was feeling and tried to focus his mind on the task at hand.
“Palin root,” he said, thinking of Gallarael and her horrible dilemma. He started pacing around the edge of the glade looking for the five-tined leaf of the palin plant and its tiny white flowerings. As he did this, the instructive words of Master Karzin came to him:
“Boil two parts palin root to one part of grutta spore in a small pot of water.” Even in memory, the old Zythian’s singsong voice was roughened by his vast age. “Once the concoction cools, the one affected should drink the resulting tea until it’s gone. While the affected is doing this, brew another dose for them to sip while the initial mixture works at the toxins in the body. This potion will only work on the most common of bites and stings. More complex poisons require more complex remedies.”
Vanx hoped this would work. He hoped that he could find some of the elusive palin root that he needed to make the stuff. He wasn’t sure that the potion would even work on a human. At the moment, though, none of that mattered. He had to find the palin plant and dig up its root before he could even find his way back to the Wildwood and brew the tea to test it.
Vanx searched everywhere in the glade, but never let the old oak from his sight. He’d heard of Zythians getting lost during happenings such as this one. Gallarael didn’t have time for that. He was just about to panic when a pair of blood-red butterflies fluttered in his face. After a moment it became obvious that they were trying to lead him. Vanx didn’t hesitate to follow.
Trevin was sucking only blood from her wrist now. His mouth felt hot and raw from all the venom he’d extracted. He was starting to feel feverish himself, but he didn’t care. Gallarael’s color was getting closer to normal again, but her skin was still hot to the touch. For a while she’d glowed cherry.
Trevin would die for her, he knew. He loved Gallarael that much. That is why he didn’t even pause to acknowledge the fact that Captain Moyle was hacking his way into the area. Trevin spat a wad of cottony saliva from his mouth and bent down to suck more fluid from her wrist. Vanx’s haulkatten let out a rumbling growl, but Trevin didn’t look up.
“What are you doing to her?” Captain Moyle asked harshly as he yanked his bow from the saddle and nocked an arrow.
“Where’s the escaped slave?”
Trevin spat the contents from his mouth. A trickle of blood ran down his stubbled chin. He tried to focus on the captain, but felt himself getting dizzy.
“You!” Trevin accused, pointing above and beside the captain. “You led us into a trap. It’s your-it’s your fault.” The last words came out in a drunken slur.
Captain Moyle took a single step and booted Trevin away from Gallarael. “I asked you where the slave was, man. Answer me! That’s an order!” The captain’s eyes skittered around nervously. From his knees, Trevin fumbled around at the ground for his sword but only managed to stumble.
“You’re not my captain,” he managed as darkness swirled around the edges of his foggy mind. “You-you’re a murderer.”
“Ah, lad, I had hoped you’d see it differently.” Moyle drew back the arrow he had ready and aimed it at Trevin’s chest. “Now I’ve no choice but to kill you too,” he said as he let the razor-tipped shaft fly.
Just then, Vanx stepped into view, seemingly out of nowhere. Captain Moyle was so shocked by the slave’s appearance that his arrow went high and caught Trevin in the shoulder instead of the heart. Trevin’s pain-filled yelp drew Vanx’s attention to the situation just as the captain brought another arrow up to bear.
“If you kill me, Gallarael dies,” Vanx said calmly. “She’s been poisoned and I have the makings of a remedy. You’ll not be able to return to Highlake without her.” Vanx snarled smugly at the man before him. “The duchess will have you quartered, and your head piked on ogre row.”
The captain licked his lips and glanced at Gallarael’s arm and sweat-slick skin. “What does an adulterous songsmith know about healing a poisoned girl? I think you’re lying.”
“She’s running out of time, fool,” Vanx sighed. “The duke didn’t want you to kill his daughter. He wanted you to kill me.” Searching his mind for an idea, or a plan of action that might actually work, Vanx drew a blank.
“Let me heal her and the boy,” said Vanx. “After that you can do what you want with me.”
Trevin moaned and struggled to sit up. He yanked at the shaft protruding from his shoulder and yelped out as the pain hit.
“Do what you must for Gallarael, slave,” Moyle snapped. “But Trevin Lispan will die with you when it’s done.”
“I’ll do as you say, captain.” Vanx went to his haulkatten to get a pot for the herbs he’d gathered, and the tinderbox to start a fire. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t hold his tongue as he continued. He regretted each word even as he spoke it. “Gallarael and Trevin are lovers, and she already knows of your treachery. She will have your head faster than her mother will for all of this.” Vanx forced a chuckle. “If Duke Martin doesn’t remove it himself for botching his plan.”
“I guess that means I have to kill the lot of you and make it look like the trolls did the bloody work.”
By the icy sound of the captain’s voice, and the way the man so calmly sighted Vanx’s heart down the length of his arrow shaft, Vanx had no doubt that he was about to die.
Like roots they spread and dug in deep
they built a kingdom strong.
And if the short-lived take hold here
we’ll all be but a song.
The arrow flew and all Vanx could do was throw his arms up to block it. The herbs he was carrying went everywhere. There was a loud “ping!” then a sharp pain bit into his chest over his heart. At the same time the deep, rumbling growl of Amden Gore’s haulkat came from the forest not too far away. If Captain Moyle had others with him, Vanx knew that Gallarael and Trevin were done. Then he wondered why he wasn’t already dead. He fell to his knees and looked down to see Captain Moyle’s arrow sticking through the cooking pot he’d been carrying. Its tip was buried in his chest, but mostly visible. There was pain, then the relieved shock of somehow cheating death. Still, the emotion that consumed him was panic. How could he brew Gallarael’s remedy in a pot with a hole in its bottom?
Remembering that a murderer was trying to kill him, he looked up and rolled to the side. The wild-eyed captain was drawing back another shaft. Scrabbling away, the thorny undergrowth bit into Vanx’s loose-fitting garb. It threatened to snag him still as he struggled to get clear of the coming arrow.
Had Captain Moyle possessed the ultra-keen senses of a Zyth he might have sensed the slaver’s haulkatten rapidly approaching. Moyle was only human, though; a human consumed with murderous rage. His hope of returning to Highlake as a hero was ruined. He would fare better if he killed these three. He could catch a ship to Coldport or Oradyn and change his name. If he went back and pilfered the purses of the corpses at the destroyed camp, there would surely be enough left after buying passage that he could make a new start.
The simple fact that these limited choices were being forced upon him was making his blood boil. He stalked closer to the struggling slave. He wouldn’t let his shot get fouled this time. He would spit the adulterous dog right through his heart.
Vanx pushed the cooking pot away. The arrow tip came out of him and he felt a warm trickle of blood as it ran down his ribs. The thorny underbrush had him stuck, but he wasn’t about to give up. Kicking and rolling, he did all he could to tear himself free, but he only managed to tangle himself further. He could see the hate in the captain’s eyes as he came storming closer. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to save Gallarael and it looked like Trevin needed the remedy as well. The thought burned his brain. It might already be too late for them. It wasn’t looking too good for him, either.
Vanx couldn’t move his legs, and only one of his arms was free of the gripping growth. He had no weapon, and just a punctured pot to defend himself with. The Captain’s arrow was now only a few feet away from his chest. He tried to put the pot between him and the arrow tip, but the thorns held his sleeve short and kept him from getting it where it needed to be.
“Die, slave.” Moyle raised the bow and sighted with a sneer.
With a sigh of sorrowful resignation, Vanx closed his eyes and waited for the shaft to pierce him.
He heard the thrum of a loosing bow string and his body tightened reflexively. The sound, though, had come from a good distance away. Then he heard a thumping gurgle over him. He picked up another, closer, bow string loosing and the angry hum of an arrow whizzing past.
He opened his eyes, wondering what sort of luck might have saved him this time, and what he saw was as relieving as it was baffling.
With his free hand Captain Moyle clutched at a bloody arrow that was jutting out of his throat. The captain’s eyes registered, that his shaft had missed Vanx and, even though he looked to be choking on his own blood, he drew another from the quiver at his hip and nocked it.
Vanx was helpless but showed no fear. He could see and hear Amden Gore’s angry haulkatten growling as it bounded up and swiped Moyle to the ground with a razor-sharp claw.
Vanx was amazed that it was the one-handed whore, Matty, commanding the slaver’s beast. She looked as if she’d been beaten half to death. Her face and neck were a misshapen welt of blue and purple, but she was grinning with delight. She couldn’t have fired the arrow that saved him, he realized, and the half-dozen questions that came to his mind were answered when one of the young men from the caravan came trotting up holding a bow.
It was the blacksmith’s apprentice.
“You owe me now, Vanxy,” Matty said in a hoarse croak with a devilish lick of her lips.
Vanx could only imagine how she would demand her payment, but he had other things to worry about at the moment. “Get me up! Gallarael and Trevin are poisoned, they need our help.”
Darbon, the apprentice boy, dropped his bow next to the bloody heap that had been Captain Moyle and began tugging Vanx’s clothing from the thorns.
“Who poisoned the poor lass out here?” Matty asked with mock concern.
“She was bitten,” Vanx said. “Tell me you have a good pot in your packs, woman. The girl is the only proof that the duke tried to have us killed. She’s the only advocate for your freedom and I need a pot to boil some herbs for her.”
“We need no advocate,” Matty chuckled roughly, brandishing a bundle of loosely tied parchments from her perch in the saddle. “I found our papers of ownership in Amden Gore’s pack.”
“They’ll do me no good, woman!” Vanx roared as the boy freed his upper body. He sat up and glared at Matty. “I nailed the duke’s wife. The tale is probably to Harthgar by now. As long as the duke’s treachery goes unknown, he’ll have a price on my head.” Tearing his last leg free with an audible rip of cloth, he found his feet. “A pot, Matty. I need a pot.”
“We’ve a pot for your noble tart.” Matty licked her lips again. “But now that’s two favors you owe me, pretty man.”
Vanx knew that Matty, bathed and in decent clothes, wasn’t so bad to look upon. For a woman her age, she still had the curves and tight skin of a woman half as old. Vanx had seen her in her full marketable glory at the Golden Griffin Inn a few months ago when he arrived at Highlake. He’d come to see the legendary pristine waters of the valley’s namesake and sport fish for the elusive garpike with a fishing bow like his elders had in ages past. He played his loot and sang the old ballads of human legend at the inn to sustain himself. Matty had entertained his thoughts several times on the slower nights. Looking as she did now, used, filthy, and bruised to the very core, her attempt to look seductive sent a shiver of revulsion up his spine.
Darbon tried not to feel jealous of the man he’d just saved, but he did. Matty had brought him into manhood the previous night and he was fighting to stay the possessive feelings he was suddenly feeling. He snatched up the tinderbox from the pile of herbs Vanx had dropped and hurriedly went about making a fire. If Gallarael was Vanx’s tart, he figured that saving her would keep Vanx away from Matty. Even as the thoughts struck him, he felt foolish for having them. He knew in his heart what Matty was. He had seen her, day in and day out, tending to the haulers’ desires.
Last night, as she used her mouth to bring him up, she even told him she was only repaying him for saving her from Gregon’s deadly choke hold. He started to tell her that it was actually the haulkat that had saved her, but what she was doing, and what she did with her body when she crawled atop him later, made him forget all but the glory of the moment.
Darbon could tell that Vanx was appreciative of his help. It showed in the way in which he spoke to and treated him. He’d been treated roughly his entire life, as most poor apprentices were. He’d been ordered about and called names, berated at every turn. He found he liked being treated like an equal and decided that he liked Vanx’s company as much, if not more than, Matty’s. It wasn’t long before Vanx finished brewing his remedy and was instructing him on how to help administer it.
“She doesn’t look so good,” Matty said as Vanx poured a sip of the remedy into Gallarael’s mouth.
“You’ve not seen yourself recently, then,” Vanx chuckled. “As dreadful as she looks, she still looks a bit better than you at the moment.”
Matty’s purple-and-blue head darkened a little bit and she stalked off to where Darbon had tethered the animals. Darbon wanted to laugh at her, but couldn’t seem to find the mirth. Matty was right. Gallarael looked so pale and sickly that death might be a comfort for her.
Trevin, on the other hand, was responding well to the foul-smelling liquid Darbon was helping him drink. Trevin even spoke a few crazy sentences, and in a moment of clarity asked about Gallarael’s condition. Vanx lied to him and said that she was doing better, but only to keep Trevin from worrying. After a while, Matty startled Vanx by kneeling beside Gallarael. She took the girl’s swollen arm and began applying a salve. With one hand missing, the task looked laborious, but Matty went about it with concentrated patience.
“It’s cactus juice,” she said quietly. “It will help her skin shrink back nicely if the swelling ever goes down.”
“Gal,” Trevin moaned and sat up with a struggle. “Gal?”
“Drink,” Darbon said, shoving another cupful of Vanx’s brew in his face.
“By all the gods of earth and man, Vanx,” the dazed young guard mumbled. “If she dies, I’ll hang the Duke of Highlake with his own guts.”
“Aye,” Vanx agreed. “And I’ll help hoist him to the rafters.” He reached over and patted Trevin on his uninjured shoulder. “But she’s not dead yet, Trev.”
“Tell me true, friend.” Trevin’s eyes were clearer. “Will she make it?”
“We need to get her to Dyntalla as quickly as we can,” Vanx told him, with no sugar coating this time. “The brew seems to have halted the progression of the poison’s work, but unlike you, she’s not coming around.”
A tear rolled down Trevin’s face. When he tried wiping it away, his hand missed his cheek. Then he crumpled back into his half-conscious daze.
Matty took the cup from Vanx’s hand. “Go brew another pot, then get some rest. Darby and I will tend them for a while.”
Vanx nodded. He let out a sigh of frustration and eased Gallarael’s head from his lap to Matty’s. After he brewed some more of the remedy he would close his eyes and rest, but somehow he knew he wouldn’t find slumber.
From the open sea the black needle grew
and pointed toward the midnight sky.
But nothing else did the Sea Spire do
as a million years passed by.
The next day, going was slow. It sapped all of Vanx’s and Darbon’s energy taking turns hacking their path through the dense and unforgiving Wildwood. The only thing positive was that Trevin felt better. He was still feverish, but managed to keep Gallarael’s half-conscious, sweltering body seated atop the haulkatten. Matty rode the older haulkatten behind them, and whichever of the two healthy men wasn’t cutting the trail rode Captain Moyle’s horse at the rear with an arrow nocked.
Late in the afternoon the forest stopped thwarting their presence and opened a little bit. The tangled underbrush gave way to patches of berry bushes and thick green grass. The ugly twisted trunks and limbs of the tangle trees yielded to oaks, elms, and pine.
It amazed Vanx. A moment before he’d felt as if he were underground. Now, bright shafts of mote-filled sunlight cut through the gloom at frequent intervals, and patches of clear blue sky could be seen.
The pace quickened. Darby rode with Matty, guarding their rear, and Vanx lead the way on Moyle’s horse. Sometime before dusk they came across a trickling stream which had pooled against a beaver dam. In the middle of the pool stood an old pecan tree; it looked like an island tower surrounded by scores of little boats formed from the leaves and hulls floating on the surface. It sort of resembled how Vanx pictured the place called the Sea Spire; only the Sea Spire was a towering needle-like projection of black stone which jutted up out of the ocean for no reason any Zyth or human could say. Master Ogzon, who’d seen it firsthand, had described it in his lore lessons. The sight of the tree island and the memories it evoked reminded Vanx that he still had many places to see, and that he might be getting too caught up in the affairs of humankind. After all, he would still be youthful in heart and appearance long after Gallarael and Trevin died of old age.
A complaint spoken by Matty to Darbon in a rather harsh tone brought Vanx back to the moment.
“We’ll make camp here,” he said to the others.
“Go farther, or let’s backtrack a ways,” Trevin said. His voice was crisp and clear, as was his complexion. It looked to Vanx like the day of resting and riding had brought him back to form. Gallarael’s condition, though, hadn’t changed. She still looked hot to the touch and was as limp as a rag doll.
“Why not here?” Darbon asked before Matty could start in on him again.
“The pool will draw creatures throughout the night. They, in turn, will draw predators.” Trevin caught Vanx’s eyes with a serious look. “We can fill our skins and wash off the dust, but camping this close to water hole isn’t wise.”
“Aye,” Vanx agreed as he booted over a dried-up carcass that at first appeared to be nothing more than a moss-covered rock. Only bones, gristle, and a few persistent silver-green beetles remained underneath the brittle hide.
“We will need to gather wood before the sun sets,” Trevin added. His voice betrayed the concern he was feeling. “She needs more of your brew, man.”
“I’d hate to be out here in the dark,” said Darbon.
“I’ll fill the skins then,” Matty growled. “Let’s get on with it. The sooner I’m in my blanket, the sooner my bones will stop screaming.”
Trevin helped Darbon and Vanx gather up some wood, then they walked the animals a quarter of a mile past the pool and made camp in a small clearing. The open area was surrounded by high-branched hardwood trees, which allowed them a good line of sight.
The fire was blazing. Vanx split up the last of the herbs so that after this pot there would still be enough to brew another diluted one. Darbon went about tying off the animals. He gave the horse enough tether for it to graze, then poured a generous pile of fishmeal for the haulkats. Trevin made a pallet for Gallarael and quietly laid her in it while Matty asked for privacy and went back to the pool to bathe.
After getting Gallarael to swallow a cupful of Vanx’s brew, Trevin let her rest and paced around uneasily. “We’ve got to hurry Vanx,” he said. “She’s hot enough to thaw all the ice on Bitterpeak.”
“Even if we galloped night and day it would take maybe three full days to get to Dyntalla.” Vanx frowned. “I don’t know what more we can do.”
Trevin let out a long, slow sigh and glanced around the camp. “We’ll need two sentries at a time watching this night.” He strode around the campfire until it was exactly between him and Vanx. “Next time, we set the fire off to a side. One pair of eyes can’t see what’s coming beyond this blaze, and I’d rather have the fire roaring than not.”
Vanx started to say that he could see well beyond the fire with or without its light, but caught himself. He was fairly certain that knowing that he was half Zythian wouldn’t change the way his companions felt about him, but he wasn’t ready to take that chance. Too many of his people had returned from their travels through the realms of men with sad and pathetic tales of jealousy and hatred toward his kind. What always irritated him most about the stories was that he was as much human as he was Zythian. By all rights, he should hate himself for one half being envious of the other. He chuckled at the absurdity of it all and wished he had a lute with which to play a song. Music had a way of clearing his mind and easing his troubles.
The sky was dark now and the pinpricks of a multitude of stars filled the night sky. Over the crackling of the fire, a lone owl hooted every now and again. The constant hum and chirp of the crickets and cicadas was lost in the mix. Then there was the crackling of dry deadfall and the sound of footsteps coming in from the forest. Everyone was expecting Matty’s return, so none of them gave the approaching sound a serious thought, at least not until a small, doggish creature, about half the size of a man, barged into the firelight. It was ugly, with gnarled bones and greenish-black skin. Seeing the humans at the fire, the creature flared open bright amber eyes and hissed through a mouth full of sharp, yellowed teeth. With the quickness of a wild animal, it darted back into the forest.
“What in all the nine hells was that?” Trevin asked as he fumbled for his sword.
“I don’t know,” said Darbon with a voice full of concern. “But it went toward Matty.” He pulled the dagger from his belt and strode into the forest in the general direction of the pool. Trevin started to follow, but Vanx blocked his way.
“Stay with Gal,” Vanx said, and before Trevin could finish blinking, Vanx was gone.
Vanx could see as if it were a typical overcast day. He couldn’t so much make out the distinguishing colors of things as he could discern the textures of what his eyes took in. The rough bark of the trees contrasted with the silky blackness of open space. The uneven, yet relatively smooth forest floor appeared as a deeply shadowed carpet before him. He moved quickly and quietly, like a predatory animal seeking to flank its prey. In a matter of moments he could see Matty ahead standing thigh-deep in the pool, cupping water in her hands and letting it run down her glistening body. Her hair was wet and hung over most of her face, concealing her ugly bruises. The moonlight accentuated the swell of her breasts and the curve of her hips, causing Vanx to have to look away.
“Matty,” he said an urgent whisper. “Get out of there.”
“Hmmm,” she sounded with a seductive giggle. “I knew you’d come to your senses sooner or later, pretty man.”
“I’m not out here to dally with you, woman. There’s danger about and Darby has gone off in the dark to save you.”
“Darbon?” She glanced around, attempting to cover her body with her arms. “Where are you, Vanx? What’s going on?”
“I’m over…” Vanx was about to step into the open so that she could see him, but the strange beast darted out before he could take a step. Vanx decided that it was a Kobalt, a stunted sort of half-troll that was supposed to be semi-intelligent. The tales Vanx had heard said the creatures roamed in packs like wolves. This thought only served to increase his alarm, as Matty, who apparently thought the thing was him, went wading toward it.
The Kobalt froze at the sight of her. Vanx decided then and there that very few creatures, sentient or not, could keep from pausing at the sight of a well-rounded woman bathing naked in the moonlight. Her scream came as Vanx realized that he had no weapon with him.
“Matty!” Darbon’s voice called out from not far away. “Maaaaa-teeeee!” he yelled again. “Where are you?”
The Kobalt looked toward the sound and hesitated. Vanx used the moment to make a move. With deft swiftness he took two strides, scooped up a club-sized piece of deadfall and hurled it end over end at the creature.
Matty froze, trembling in knee-deep water, but when the chunk of dried oak hit the Kobalt and splintered, she screamed again. The Kobalt howled out too, as it pitched forward into the shallow water.
“Maaaaaatt-eeeeeee!” Darbon yelled again.
The Kobalt staggered to its feet.
“Over here, Darby. Hurry!” Matty yelled as she pushed herself back into the waist-deep water.
The Kobalt lurched away and disappeared into the trees. Vanx had concerns that it might rejoin its pack and come back for revenge, but in the late spring, a lone male of any species wandering around usually meant an alpha was culling out his pack.
After the Kobalt was gone, Vanx spoke from his place in the shadows. “That boy is smitten with you, Matty,” Vanx told her in a severe whisper. “He came to save you like a knight would a princess.”
Matty kept her arms over her breasts and moved to the shore where her clothes were piled. “Is he lost?” she asked, trying to cover herself.
Vanx cocked his ear and could hear Darbon’s footfalls closing in on the pool. “Call him again, Matty. He’s close.”
Before she did, she whispered a heartfelt thank you to Vanx. He heard her, but didn’t respond. He was already on his way back to camp to warn Trevin of what had happened.
A short while later, Matty and Darbon came back into the camp arm in arm. Matty, with her head on the young man’s shoulder and Darbon with a huge, satisfied grin on his face. Neither seemed to notice the leaves and twigs that were stuck to their clothes and in their disheveled hair.
“Get some sleep, Matty,” Vanx ordered. “You’ve got second watch with Trevin. Darbon, go get a bow.”
In a land across the sea
far beyond Harthgar and more.
There is a land of kings and queens
with an unforgiving shore.
The night passed uneventfully. Late the next day, as they hurried through the forest, Vanx felt as if there were eyes upon them. The day’s travel went well, even the crossing of a rough-flowing spring thaw river. The haulkattens, being feline, didn’t like getting wet, but Vanx and Darbon, along with Matty’s soothing voice, managed to coax them across.
While they were at the river, Trevin spent the time trying to cool Gallarael’s body with strips of cloth soaked in the frigid water. It was there that he voiced his extreme concern over the band Vanx had tied around her bitten arm.
“Vanx, I’m afraid,” Trevin said with tears pooling in his eyes. “What if taking it off of her makes it worse?”
“There is no worse, Trev,” Vanx said calmly. “I’ll do it so you’ll not have to live with the guilt if it goes bad, but she will lose the arm if we don’t let it get some blood.” Already Gallarael’s limb was pale and purple-green. Though it wasn’t as swollen as it had been on the first day, it was still twice the size of her other arm.
“I think I’d rather have a one-armed lover than a dead one with two.” Matty threw her two coppers in without being asked.
“Her arm needs to have blood flowing,” Vanx said plainly to them all. “If it doesn’t, then it will start to rot and infect her whole body. If there is any poison left in her, I’m sure it’s lost its potency.” Then, as if to punctuate the certainty of his statement, he leaned down and yanked at the knot.
“Ahhh!” Gallarael’s whole body shivered and she sighed loudly. After that she lay still, as still as stone. For a moment Vanx thought she’d died. In the silence, Trevin sniffled, and Darbon pulled Matty away before she could say something else inappropriate. In the few heartbeats of relative silence that followed, Vanx heard a branch snapping. The sound came from a distance, but it was on their side of the water flow. An icy tingle of alarm ran up his spine, but Gallarael muttered something, causing Trevin to rush close to her and start talking in comforting tones.
Throughout the rest of the evening Gallarael seemed no better, yet no worse, than before. With every mile they traveled her arm seemed to improve, but Vanx found no relief in it. His keen Zythian senses were telling him that they were being followed, or maybe hunted. Finally, after a late-day rest break, he told Trevin and the others of his suspicions. Not sure whether to follow Vanx’s instinct, or call him worrisome; the two men followed his lead and took up bows and quivers from the pack.
“I think you’re right,” Trevin whispered a short while later. “I thought I saw a flash of movement far off to the left.”
“Probably just a bird,” Matty chuckled at them. “Or a big squirrel.”
“Or another one of those peeping freaks we saw last night,” Darbon joked, causing Matty to harrumph to hide her fear.
“If it’s one of those things, Kobalts, I think they are called,” Vanx said in a quiet voice, “there will be more than just one of them this time.”
“What I saw was bigger and grey-colored,” said Trevin. “It was low to the ground like a big fox, or maybe a small wolf.”
“Wolf?” Matty asked, her voice now a sharp whisper and her eyes wide with concern.
“That’s what I said, woman,” Trevin shot back. Then to Vanx, “We should make camp soon so that there is enough daylight to set up some defenses.”
“Aye,” Vanx agreed. “You’re the military man among us, take the lead and mark our place.”
Trevin did so. He found a partial clearing that was barely big enough to contain their bedrolls. The animals were tethered and fed at the trail edge of the camp. Anyone following their tracks would come upon the animals before them.
“We’ll make no fire this night,” Trevin said. “We need one set of eyes up in yon tree, and another on the ground.” He pointed up at the tree. “The rope we set will clang the cups together if something comes from that way, and I don’t reckon that even the inhabitants of this fargin place would try to come over that tangle of blood thorn over there.” He paused and looked at Vanx. “Is there any more of your brew left?”
“I saved some of the last batch in a skin,” Vanx informed him. “There are enough of the herbs to brew another small pot. If we ration her intake, I think we can get her to Dyntalla alive.”
Trevin nodded. “Give Matty the skin.” He glanced up at the darkening sky through a small opening in the foliage. Taking up his bow and arrows, he started for the tree. “Matty will watch and tend Gallarael while I look out from above. Rest, Vanx, you’ve barely had any sleep. I’ve only seen your eyes closed twice since we left Highlake a week ago.”
“Aye,” Vanx agreed. He filled a cup for Gallarael from the skin and gave it to Matty. “Don’t be dallying with Darbon this night. He needs his rest,” he told her.
“I wore him out last night,” she said proudly and pointed at the young man’s bedroll. “Look.”
Darbon was already sound asleep.
Vanx gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder and found his own blankets. It took him only a few moments to find a deep, much-needed slumber.
Vanx dreamt of the Duchess of Highlake. She was smooth and round and full of wicked desire, but when she threw her hair out of her face and met his eyes, it was Gallarael he saw. She wasn’t lusting and intense like her mother was. She was dazed, with a cloudy film over her eyes. She did manage to raise her head and face him, though. Her gaze was vacant, her skin a jaundiced shade.
“I don’t want to die,” she croaked through cracked lips. “But if I do, take Trevin and run for your lives.” Her brows narrowed as if she were growing angry. “Promise me this, Zythian!” The skin of her face shrunk around her skull as if she were in a baker’s oven. Her cheeks and chin split open and sizzling flesh curled away from the bone. Her hair went up in a burst of flame and her eyes bulged, finally popping into dark, bloody spills of fluid. Through it all her jaw continued to move and her voice stayed firm. “Promise me Zythian, promise me you’ll take Trevin and run.”
Her visage was that of a red-eyed, gore-covered skull now, but the voice was still hers. “I died saving you! Promise me. You owe me as much. I saved you; you save Trevin.”
“I promise,” Vanx blurted out with a start. Trevin was shaking him awake.
“Shhh,” Trevin hissed in a whisper. “Wake up, man, but by the gods, be quiet about it.”
“Is Gallarael-” Vanx didn’t finish the question. He rolled to his hands and knees and crawled over to Gallarael’s side. To his great relief she was still alive, and for the first time since she was bitten, her skin was cool to the touch.
“She’s better,” Trevin grinned. “But we may not be.”
“What is it?”
“Those eyes of yours seem to see better in the night than mine, but I swear I can see a small fire a few miles behind us.” Trevin gave Vanx a look of deep concern, and then his eyes fell on Gallarael. “Matty said her fever broke a short while ago.”
“Appears so.” Vanx grabbed the bow and quiver from Trevin. He took a moment to clench his eyes shut and shivered off the ill feelings the dream had left him with. He looked up, and through the trees he saw the moon was already long past its zenith. “Why didn’t you wake me sooner?”
“The fire only appeared a short while ago, or maybe I only noticed it then. It’s a good ways off and I thought you needed the rest.”
Vanx nodded his thanks. “Let me go piss, and then we can go get a better look at what’s riled you.”
While Vanx relieved himself, the eerie memory of Gallarael’s dream voice crept back into his skull. Had she reached to him across the empty space? While many Zythians were clairvoyant to a small degree, very few, if any, humans could manage to project their thoughts without the aid of magic. He remembered eating some bread covered with spoiled butter once. The fever dreams had plagued him for two days and nights. His stomach roiled and he vomited profusely after eating it. Gallarael’s dream image was burning up. Did it represent her feeling her own fever breaking? She’d called him a Zythian too. Did she know? Did her mother suspect?
Lacing his britches up, he sensed more than heard movement in the darkness. His eyes sought the sensation, and then found for the briefest of moments a sight that stopped his heart cold. A wolf, poised to bound away — but it was no ordinary wolf. This wolf was saddled like a horse and one of the dark-skinned Kobalts sat in the rig glaring at him. Reflexively, he blinked and the image was gone. There wasn’t a wavering limb, or even a rustling leaf, to indicate if he had imagined the sight or not.
Trying not to alarm Trevin and the others, he eased toward the lookout tree. He stopped and grabbed a second quiver of arrows. Trevin was hunched over Gallarael and Matty was rousting Darbon for his turn. Vanx hurried his pace, and with no concern over his companions seeing his true Zythian grace in action, he literally ran up the tree trunk like a scrabbling squirrel. In less than a heartbeat he settled himself in the branches and started to scan the distance in search of the fire. What he saw, though, nearly caused him to tumble out of the tree.
Trevin’s fire was there, just where he estimated it to be, flickering like a tiny jewel in the night. What had Vanx grasping for reason was the three score other twinkles of firelight he could see. They were all around them, and just out of the range of human sight.
They were surrounded. Knowing this gave credence to his vision of the wolf-riding Kobalt. Vanx was certain that if they were aggressive, they would have attacked already. What wolf-riding Kobalts would do to a peaceful group of travelers was the question now. Be it good or bad, he had no doubt they would soon find the answer.
The king saw the wizard and the wizard did speak
“You might be a king, but your kingdom is weak.”
Wrong said the king, for I’ve a wizard too
now out of my castle with the sorry likes of you.
“She’s alive, my lady, but barely,” Orphas, the spiritual advisor to Duchess Gallarain, told her.
He was hunched over a melon-sized sphere that formed a flawless crystal, at a small, three-legged table in the middle of a dark, candlelit cellar. The room seemed like a cavern to Gallarain, and it smelled like hot steel. The amber glow of the crystal before Orphas shone upward onto his elderly face, giving him a sinister look. The sharp widow’s peak of his polished silver skull cap and his high-collared crimson robe lent to the eerie image. In truth, he was no spiritual advisor at all; he was a wizard, and so far, one of the most honorable men Gallarain Martin had ever met. She conveniently overlooked the fact that he dishonestly paraded around as her spiritual advisor and had been sent there by King Oakarm himself to spy on her husband. To her, those particulars made him seem even more wise and mysterious, like some scholarly well-traveled uncle figure. Why he had revealed his true identity was a mystery to her, but she was sure that it had a great deal to do with the fact that Gallarael was King Oakarm’s illegitimate daughter.
“Barely alive?” Gallarain gasped. “What do you mean?”
“She’s not conscious, my lady, but alive.” Orphas looked at her with sympathetic eyes. “Apparently she is in good hands, for her spirit is calm and at peace.”
Orphas took a deep breath and sighed. With a flick of his hand a pair of lanterns hanging from wall hooks flared to life. The room was crowded with tables loaded with vials, racks, and beakers, some containing colorful liquids, some with stoppers wired tightly shut. There were sagging shelves full of books and unthinkable things floating in jars of liquid. Only the wall with the old iron-banded door set in one side of it was empty, but it was scorched black with a dizzying set of arcane symbols drawn into the soot by a fingertip. A crude, man-sized archway had been drawn there among the ruins.
To Duchess Gallarain, the blackness looked impossibly darker inside the archway, as if it led into the sky of a moonless, starless night.
“Tell me what you overheard,” Orphas commanded in a soft voice. “And try not to worry. Trevin is surely with her, keeping her safe. If he weren’t, her spirit would be uneasy at best.” His confident tone and steady gaze settled her enough that she could remember what he wanted to know.
She pulled up a stool, gave a look of distaste at the thick coating of dust on its surface, but sat down anyway. With a groan of frustration she started speaking in a quick, furious clip.
“He had the caravan attacked to kill Vanx Malic. The man who returned somehow survived the ordeal and is accusing some men he recognized. He said trolls came down on them all and only a few survived.” She paused, but only long enough to draw a breath. “Now he’s sending his commander to make sure that the tale of his murderous plot stays secret. I–I — I was behind that old tapestry, the one hiding the narrow passage that opens up on that little cubby in the linen pantry. He didn’t know I overheard.” She looked down at hands that were wringing of their own accord. “It was all I could do to keep from storming out of my hiding place to tell him that he had killed his own daughter.”
“But she’s not his daughter,” Orphas said quietly. The look on his face was curious and distant. It was as if he were seeing something in his mind, or with his vacant eyes, that no one else could see.
His appearance distracted Gallarain to a moment of confused silence.
“Is there any possible way the duke might have learned that Gallarael wasn’t of his loins?” Orphas finally asked, as his eyes refocused.
“None!” Gallarain answered defensively. “The night I spent with Ravier Oakarm was the night before I married Humbrick. Humbrick was too eager to consummate our union to even notice that he wasn’t my first.”
“But her eyes, my lady, and her features? The duke’s lineage favors dark hair and dark eyes on the women’s side. Gallarael has neither, nor is she thin and willowy.”
“There’s no doubt she favors the women of my ancestry, but there’s nothing about her that resembles the king, or his sisters. The worst part is that Humbrick has designs to marry her to Prince Russet. They are brother and sister, Orphas; it cannot happen.”
“No, it can’t,” Orphas nodded his agreement. “But they, the king’s mother and sisters, all know that she is the king’s daughter. They would never allow it to happen. I doubt they would ever put her in jeopardy by letting the cat out of the sack, so to speak.”
“Father Orphas, Humbrick didn’t know that I sent her on my errand, I’m sure of it.” She was wringing her hands again. “He may be a monster and a fool, but he loves Gal.” She frowned. “It’s the only good quality he has.”
“Well, he has to be stopped from unwittingly ordering her death. The men he has been gathering are the sort who won’t care who she says she is if they come upon her on the trail.” He looked at the duchess, his eyes dire and serious. “You will come into the temple and stay among the acolytes until this has been rectified. When the duke is confronted, your life will probably be in danger.”
“Have you seen the way he glares at me now?” she blurted. “There’s already murder in his eyes.”
“Those dark desires will surely manifest themselves into action when he learns that you sent Gallarael to save the slave who caused him so much shame.”
A tear trailed down Duchess Gallarain’s cheek. “Oh, by the gods, I never meant for that man to come to so much grief. Now, Gallarael is hurt and in danger-and-and-and-” Suddenly her worry consumed her and she broke down.
Orphas conjured up a soft lace kerchief. He came around the table and gently pressed it into her hands. She buried her face in it and sniffled loudly. Even through her anxiety she could tell that the wizard chose his next words carefully.
“Humbrick Martin will surely come to an ill-fated end once the king learns about all his murderous deceit and how his hand has been so deeply involved in the robbery of caravans in the past. He is a traitor for taking the kingdom’s coin to fund soldiers to protect the passage, while funding bandits to pick it clean. The grief coming his way is not your fault, my dear.”
He went to pat her on the solider but she jerked around and looked at him as if he were mad. “I wasn’t talking about that idiot,” she snapped sharply. “I was talking about the grief I’ve brought on Vanx Malic. He is innocent, just a bard I seduced in a tavern. Now he’s been enslaved and murdered for naught but his desire for me.” She put her face in the kerchief and sobbed again. “And Gallarael, by the gods, what have I done?”
Orphas put his arm around her. She leaned into him, thankful for the gesture. After a long bit of snuffling she looked up at the wizard with pleading eyes.
“You’ll save Gallarael, won’t you?” she asked. “I care not for the fate of myself or my lout of a husband, but Gallarael must survive this.” More tears fell from her red-rimmed eyes. “Tell me you’ll save her, Orphas. Tell me.”
Master Wizard, posing as a priest or not, there was no way a gentleman could do anything else other than tell her that he would. Knowing this, she didn’t even listen for an answer.
“What is it, priest? I have no time for folly,” Duke Martin barked from his throne-like perch in the counsel hall. The duke’s sharp nose and closely spaced eyes contrasted with his round, chubby face. The man was built like a barrel keg with stilted legs, just tall enough to make him not seem fat. Orphas had the extreme displeasure of seeing the duke naked once in the bathing chambers the men of the stronghold shared. The duke was really an obese man with long, spindly limbs, like a four-legged spider, or an overly hairy troll.
“I have urgent information for you, my lord,” Orphas said, trying to appear nervous. It wasn’t that hard. Along with High Commander Aldine, and an advisor named Coll, who Orphas suspected of being a dabbler in the dark arts, the counsel hall contained a half-dozen hardened trackers. These were the men who lived and hunted outside the protective walls of the stronghold, men that only entered the gates to trade and carouse or claim the bounty for an ogre head they brought in. They would be gone for weeks on end out among the treacherous beasts of the wild. Orphas knew they were here because they were about to be contracted to hunt down and kill the witnesses to the duke’s treachery. He was pleased that he hadn’t arrived too late, but the news he bore was volatile at best. Pretending to be nervous wasn’t hard at all.
“Out with it then,” the duke barked. “What is this information that is so important you dare to demand an audience?”
“Uh, my lord, you may want to hear what I have to say in private,” Orphas said. “It is of a delicate nature.”
Duke Martin looked down at the priest and considered him. Remembering that he was a personal spiritual advisor to his wife, he chose to agree. He didn’t want to suffer any more embarrassment than he already had. His whore of a wife had all but ruined him. He couldn’t wait to come up with a way to rid himself of her without drawing suspicion or breaking his daughter’s heart.
Turning to Coll, who stood behind his chair, dressed in a black robe trimmed in scarlet, Duke Martin spoke a quiet command. Coll nodded and began urging the hunters out of the room with the promise of a hot meal and cool ale to keep them occupied. High Commander Aldine looked at the duke askance, awaiting a command.
Duke Martin saw this and let loose a sigh of contempt. Obviously the commander hadn’t gotten the hint for his need of privacy. “Commander, I want supplies ready for the- ah-.” He glanced at Orphas. “Ah- for the undertaking we were just speaking of. Round up animals, gear, and provender.” He paused to let the man nod his understanding, and then continued. “See to it personally. I will come down and inspect your work with the mountain man after I dine. Oh, and if you don’t mind, Commander, would you have one of your men place the head of that bandit who wandered in yesterday up on the gate.”
“As you command,” Commander Aldine said, letting a bit of contempt reflect in his own voice. The tone was lost on the duke, but Orphas heard it plainly.
As soon as the door closed behind the commander the duke let out a long, hissing breath of air. “What has my troll of a wife done now?”
“Your perception is to be admired, my lord,” Orphas said, somewhat mockingly. “She confessed to me just hours ago before seeking the safety of the temple’s inner sanctum.” Orphas scratched his chin and looked at the vaulted ceiling. He did this to make himself seem hesitant and unsure. “It seems she-uh-she-”
“Out with it, man. Speak,” the duke snapped. His face was reddening as Orphas went on.
“My lord, a woman’s confession is sacred to the discretion of her priests, but since you’ve ordered me to tell you, I cannot disobey.”
Orphas met the red-faced duke’s eyes and held them. “In secret, your wife sent your daughter away with the caravan that left this week past. Gallarael was to make sure a certain slave was purchased and freed once they arrived at the market.”
“You’re telling me Gallarael was on that caravan?”
“That’s what your wife told me.”
The duke let out a howl so loud and full of hatred that it chilled Orphas to the bone.
Old Master Wiggins
danced a fancy jig.
He tossed his hat out to the crowd
but found he’d lost his wig.
After seeing the strange wolf rider, the traveling grew tense. Vanx, Trevin, and Darbon kept arrows to their bow strings, leaving Matty to keep Gallarael in the haulkatten’s saddle. Vanx rode the horse at the lead. Trevin and Darbon shared the younger of the haulkattens at the rear. Trevin rode backward. It was awkward but served to keep him from having to crane his neck around trying to see what was behind them.
They went as quickly as they could travel through the forested terrain without wearing down the animals. Not quite relentless, the pace was constant, and the few breaks they took were quick and purposeful. They rested longer in the afternoon so that Matty could tend Gallarael’s personal needs. While they waited, Vanx scaled a tall red fur and scouted the way ahead and behind them.
There wasn’t much to see either way, save for the otherworldly scape of the treetops. A rolling sea of green peaked occasionally by a towering pine spread out endlessly around them, except for the dark, jagged peaks that still loomed up behind them to the northwest. There were a dozen birds wheeling and circling over a dark cut in the trees that might be a river basin up ahead. A thin grey cloud of fire smoke clung to the treetops a dozen miles behind, letting him know that they were most likely still being watched.
Vanx wondered why no move had been made to attack them. They were outnumbered. The watchers had been in close enough to examine their party during the day. Vanx not only saw them a few times, but he smelled the musk of the wolves the strange Kobalts rode.
None of it made any sense, he decided, as he made his way down from the treetop. He found no reason to turn back. Gallarael’s life might be dependent on them getting to Dyntalla swiftly. All they could do was be alert and ready to defend.
“I saw what might be a stream bed a few miles ahead of us,” Vanx told Trevin and Darbon before he leapt the last few feet to the ground. “We could fill our skins and wash off the dust then find a place to stop for the night.”
“Stop?” Darbon asked with confusion and fear showing plainly in his expression.
“If they wanted to take us, Darby, they could do so anytime they like.” Trevin gave a dry chuckle. “Why they haven’t yet is a mystery to me. We are at their mercy.”
Vanx nodded his agreement. “We need rest. The animals need rest. Maybe they are going to let us pass. Like Trevin said, they could take us if they wanted to. There’s no sense stumbling around in darkness.”
“Maybe we’re not a threat to them?” Trevin showed his agreement with Vanx. He gave Darbon a pat on the shoulder and went to help Matty get Gallarael back in the saddle.
The cut in the trees Vanx had seen was indeed a waterway. A stretch of sun-bleached grey rock with a fairly shallow, yet briskly flowing stream ran through the forest like a giant snake. They filled their skins and ate some dry meat. With Matty’s help, Trevin gave Gallarael’s body a good cleansing, and then they dressed her in some of the hauler’s loose-fitting garments. Matty washed the filth out of Gallarael’s other clothes, thus making the decision for all of them that a fire would be lit when they stopped for the night.
When they were finally mounted and moving again, the sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains. It was then that the strangest thing happened.
As they started through the stream, a trio of wolf-riding Kobalts appeared directly across from them. One of them was a bit larger than the other two. This one wore a bandolier-like sash of some reddish-brown-colored animal pelt across his upper body. He eased his wolf out of the tree line into the open and paused there. The Kobalt’s small, furred ears twitched and he sniffed cautiously at the companions. The low growl of the haulkatten rumbled behind Vanx and he silently hoped that the big cats would stay in line. He was sure that any wrong move could provoke an attack that would end all of their lives. His horse sensed his unease, and he felt it stomp and shudder beneath him.
The Kobalt wearing the sash pointed downstream and gave a harsh, barking grunt.
“There are more of them behind us, Vanx,” Trevin called from the rear. “A lot more of them.”
“I think they want us to go downstream,” Vanx called back. “What do you want us to do?”
“It’s your decision,” Trevin half laughed. “But what choice do we have?”
“Aye,” Vanx agreed and turned his horse in the direction the Kobalt was pointing. “Nice and slow, follow me. Keep those cats calm. Talk to them. Relax your bows, but keep them at hand,” Vanx instructed.
As they made their way down the streambed they saw that they were surrounded. Vanx felt like a sheep being herded to sheer.
After just a short bit of travel they came to what might have been a campsite not long ago. The Kobalts had seemingly dispersed. Vanx wondered if the Kobalts wanted them to camp there.
There was an open pack that had been rummaged through lying under a tree, and the blackened remains of a day’s-old fire in a ring of rocks that had been taken from the stream bed. The area had been trampled, as if a handful of men with horses had tromped around the site for a night, if not longer.
Vanx’s keen Zythian nose picked up a sickening scent. Its source was at least a mile away, as best as he could tell. Remembering the birds he saw circling earlier, he decided they might have been carrion marking the source of the stench. Curiously, he wondered why the smell of death wasn’t alarming him.
None of the wolf-riding Kobalts were to be seen now. Apparently this is where the ugly little creatures wanted them to be. The group that had camped in this clearing before them had obviously gone in the way the smell was coming from, but they hadn’t been in a hurry. The spacing of the tracks showed that they had ridden and walked away at a casual gait. There were five, maybe six horses and three sets of prints left by standard boot-clad feet.
Had they been herded this way too? Vanx doubted it, but the possibility lingered in his mind. Kobalts couldn’t know that he was half Zythian and had senses as keen, or even keener, than their own. They couldn’t know that he knew how many dozens of them were out there surrounding them, nor that he could smell the death that lingered not so far away.
“It’s full of pouches of herbs and powders,” Matty said. “Some rocks and some scrolls too.”
“What good would it do you, woman, if it was full of gold?” Trevin asked.
Matty turned with a snarl on her bruised face. “Maybe you could just live off your woman’s coin if she-if we survive all this.” Her angry tone lost some of its steam as she continued. “If I walk out of the Wildwood alive, all I got, is all I got.” She sighed, seeing that Trevin was no longer paying attention to her. Instead, he was getting Gallarael out of the saddle.
“There’s not much work for a girl with one hand,” she finished in a whisper.
Vanx bit his tongue for Darbon’s sake. The boy was obviously blind to Matty’s current occupation.
“Help me lay out her bedroll, Matty,” Trevin said through his struggle to get Gallarael down by himself. “Please,” he added when she hesitated. She let out another huff and went to help him.
By then Darbon had a kindling fire burning inside the ring of rocks and was adding pieces of deadfall to the blaze as he found them. Once the fire was raging and some extra wood was stacked, the boy began building something. Vanx was impressed when he realized it was a sort of rack they could use to dry Gallarael’s clothes.
Darbon almost spoke up for Matty, but the words she had chosen to defend herself hurt him so badly that he couldn’t speak. She’d said that if they got out of this mess, all she had was what she had. Where did that leave him? He knew that he could find work with a smith in any village or town; he was already well trained. Old Uncle Elbar had taught him all sorts of tricks of the trade. He could work lumber too, like his father had before he died. Remembering the loss of his uncle at the hands of the trolls made him sad. Matty’s comments only served to add to the lonely feelings that were suddenly assailing him. But still, when she saw the drying rack he had set up and smiled at him, he couldn’t help but smile back.
“After it gets dark we can sneak off to wash our clothes by the stream,” she whispered to him seductively.
“What about those things out there and their wolves?” Darbon asked, the true nature of her suggestion lost to him.
“You can bring your bow, if you’re afraid,” she said with a smirk that left him confused, but no longer dwelling on the loss of his loved ones.
While the others settled in and the sunlight faded from the sky, Vanx took one of the bows and disappeared into the forest. He had no problem shafting a fat rabbit and pinning a lazy pheasant to her nest. The latter was the better of the two kills because the bird was sitting on a trio of eggs, and Vanx loved eggs more than most any other food in the wild. He had intended to go on and scout what the source of the rotten scent was, but the promise of freshly scrambled eggs brought him back to the fire.
They ate like starving dogs. Even unconscious Gallarael reflexively gulped down the chunky broth Matty made from the rabbit meat.
While Darbon and Matty went to wash their clothes, Trevin and Vanx sat by the fire. They discussed the quality of the first warm meal they’d had in days and fought to keep from laughing at the sounds of Darbon and Matty’s passion. The two were only a score of paces beyond the firelight and every grunt and heavy breath carried through the night.
“He’s a naive fool,” Trevin commented quietly.
“It’s a matter of viewpoints,” Vanx replied.
“What do you mean?”
“We are here looking at the fire, and he is getting his wick wetted,” Vanx shrugged, letting his own high-browed grin punctuate the statement. “How could he be a fool?”
Trevin chuckled at the truth of it, but glanced at Gallarael. Vanx watched the mirth drain from his face. The girl’s arm was still swollen and the fang marks on her wrist looked like puckering sores. Otherwise, she looked like she was sleeping soundly.
“Either we will get her out of here and get her well, or we won’t,” Vanx said. He meant to be encouraging but the words didn’t come close to conveying his sentiment. Trevin must have caught the gist of the comment because he nodded silently.
Vanx retrieved the pack Matty had examined earlier and explored its contents in the firelight. Some of the pouches of herbs and powders contained substances that Vanx recognized. These were components used in the casting of spells. Some of them were the kind of ingredients needed to cast spells of the most potent nature. The scrolls confirmed that the bag belonged to a human wizard. The writings were incantations, directions, and recipes all written in Kingscript.
Kingscript was the written language of choice for the Parydon nobility because the wording and flow were too elaborate for the average citizen to grasp. Had it been a Zythian wizard’s pack, there would have been no scrolls. Vanx knew a few spells, of the most basic sort, but nothing substantial enough to even consider himself a dabbler.
His curiosity was now piqued to the point of restlessness, so he made a decision.
“When Matty and Darbon return, I am going to scout our surroundings.”
Trevin, seemingly lost in his brooding, only nodded and moved over to Gallarael’s side.
A battle they did fight
across the land and in the sky.
Against dragons and dark demons
By the thousands they did die.
It was full dark, with very little of the moon’s light filtering through the trees, but Vanx saw just fine. The odd, grisly scene he found was startling but not unexpected. There were three dead horses and five dead kingdom men, all of them starting into the process of being reclaimed by the earth. Most of the bodies had been looted of belt and pack. Only a broken bow and an almost empty quiver of arrows lay about. Not even a dagger remained, and some of the clothing and boots were missing as well.
The bodies were too far gone to tell what had killed them, but Vanx found a few sets of huge, deeply pressed footprints and had to assume an ogre had been around, either during the skirmish, or just after. The only thing that was discernible was that one of the horses fled the scene, possibly with a rider, and someone on foot had started away from the massacre and then vanished in his tracks. His first thought was that the disappearing tracks belonged to the wizardly owner of the pack they’d found earlier. Then another idea occurred to him. An ogre could have plucked a running man right off his feet and hurled him, or if the ogre were hungry enough, worse.
As Vanx surveyed the forest around the area he found only two stray arrows. He managed to startle off some hissing thing that had come to feed on the rot. He hadn’t even noticed the creature and had to spend a moment letting his thudding heart settle back in his chest before he continued. The beast’s presence completely surprised Vanx and he took that as a sign of warning. Other carrion feeders, both large and small, would come around before the night was over. Some were possibly lurking in the darkness this very moment. Wood trolls were sometimes drawn to a decaying carcass. A whole pack of trolls might come to this feast. Why hadn’t they already come? As Vanx asked himself the question, his nose picked up the musky scent of a wolf. He cursed himself for not bringing one of the bows with him this time. A scan of the trees around him revealed the shadowy form of the wolf and its Kobalt rider. When he caught a tiny glint of amber-yellow eyes, he froze.
There was only one of them. For a few heartbeats both were still, taking the other in. The Kobalt finally barked out a grunt and pointed in the direction the disappearing foot tracks led.
Vanx saw that this creature wasn’t the one with the bandolier sash. This Kobalt did have a dagger in its clawed hand, though. Before Vanx could take in any more details, the wolf bounded away, carrying its rider into the darkness.
Not sure what else to do, Vanx cautiously explored the forest in the direction the Kobalt had indicated. The tracks didn’t pick back up immediately, but after a short way he found an area of shrub and thicket that had been broken and trampled, as if a body had fallen from the trees and landed there. His assessment of an angry ogre hurling the fleeing man came back to him and he wondered if Zytha herself wasn’t guiding his perceptions this night.
From the trampled undergrowth a set of foot tracks led haphazardly through the forest. This person was either bewildered from injury or no experienced forester, for the trail Vanx followed led right through a thick patch of itch-ivy. Vanx circumvented the growth and found where the trail continued. Broken branches, kicked leaves, rubbed bark, and a well-munched apple core marked the way. Oddly, the trail eventually led right back to the stream bed. Vanx estimated that he was about a mile upstream from the campsite where his companions were resting.
He decided that the pack they’d found had been on this man’s back when he ventured into the camp. He also figured that if he looked close enough he would be able to see where the man left the camp the second time.
He was walking along the stream’s edge on the whitewashed rocks when he noticed a faint lavender glow emanating out of the trees. More curious than alarmed, he eased closer to the inexplicable phenomenon. As he drew nearer he picked up the faint smell of charred meat, and a clean ozone scent prickled at the hairs on the back of his neck. It was magic. He knew the sensation well. Master Bylizar, a scholar of the archaic arts back on the Isle of Zyth, had constantly reeked of the smell. It was potent here. Vanx was more careful as he crept in, but it turned out that the caution wasn’t necessary.
A glowing lavender dome rose out of the forest floor in an open space barely big enough to contain it. It was head high and appeared to be perfectly spherical, but only half of the globe rose above the earth. The thin-looking skin of the magical force was translucent. Lying still at the center of the protective field was a man.
He looked frail and thin in his wizard’s robe, and the boots he wore seemed to be far too large for his feet. There was an explosive splay of grey hair and beard poking out of the robe’s collar and neck, and the robe was hiked up at the legs and sleeves, revealing spindly limbs swollen and covered with a rash. Lying alongside the humming magical globe was the body of an ogre. Only this ogre had been charred to little more than ash.
Vanx decided right then not to touch the magical barrier that protected the wizard. Apparently the ogre had made that mistake and paid a heavy price for it. The beast had been charred to an ashy husk so quickly that not even a trace of grease or body fluids remained. When a body is burned so badly that it doesn’t even attract carrion or give off a scent, it could only have been burned by wizard’s fire or other magical means. Vanx found the tracks of another ogre, but these led away from the lavender dome in a widely-spaced pattern that Vanx envisioned as an ogre’s terrified run. It probably bolted away after seeing its companion’s life so violently taken away. Vanx didn’t sense any immediate threat in the area so he decided to attempt to communicate with the wizard.
“Ho there,” he said in a loud whisper. “Are you alive?”
Obviously the man was alive. His chest was rising and falling as if he were in a deep sleep, but still he didn’t stir.
“Wake up, man,” Vanx said a bit louder. There was no response.
Vanx stood there a little while pondering the situation, then he bent down and picked up a small stone. He tossed it at the wizard’s stomach area. When the object hit the glowing lavender field he ducked away and covered his face. Nothing happened to the stone as it passed through the shield and landed on the wizard’s belly, but still the man didn’t stir.
Vanx didn’t want to leave him there, but saw no other choice. The others would be worried about him. He had been gone for quite a while. He doubted any harm would come to the wizard; the man seemed to be better protected than he and his companions were.
As he made his way back down the stream bed he decided that the wizard was what the Kobalts wanted him to find, but why? Obviously the man would eventually die, or the power of his shield would exhaust itself, once again exposing him to the elements. Maybe they just wanted the glowing dome removed from their forest. Surely it bothered the strange little creatures. He doubted they understood the arcane nature of such a thing. If they did by chance have some magical ability, like being able to charm a wolf into being ridden, the trait was probably natural to them.
Why his thoughts had drifted to the Kobalts and their wolves from the unconscious wizard, Vanx wasn’t sure, but when his mind snapped back into place he was sure he had been affected by magic.
The magical dome’s shielding properties were more than they seemed, he guessed. It was a truly potent protection that not only shielded the physical body, but also misdirected the thoughts of those who came near so they would forget what they had seen altogether.
“HALT!” Trevin’s voice split the night, causing Vanx to drop into a defensive crouch. “Who is it?” he asked the darkness. “Vanx, is it you?”
If the situation were less dire, and the tension of knowing they were at the mercy of the Kobalts wasn’t weighing on him, Vanx might have had some sport with the young soldier. He could easily sneak around and creep up to tap him on the shoulder. As it was, Trevin was at the limits of his sanity with worry over Gallarael and the need to get her to Dyntalla.
“Don’t put an arrow in me, Trev,” Vanx called ahead. “I have far too much to tell you.”
“By the gods, Vanx,” Trevin sighed with relief. “You scared me. I expected you to return a while ago. We thought you were lost.”
“I found the owner of that pack and what’s left of his companions.” Vanx eased into view.
“What? Companions? Never mind that.” Trevin’s tone grew serious as his gaze finally found Vanx coming up the creek bed. “Gallarael’s fever has returned. I think it’s worse than before. We need more of your remedy. I–I-” His voice cracked and faltered, and Vanx could clearly see the tears pooling in his eyes. “I don’t know what to do, Vanx. What do we do?”
“I wish I knew,” Vanx mumbled under his breath. What he said out loud was, “Come, let’s have a look at her.”
Trevin was right, Gallarael’s fever was back. Vanx could tell before he even gained her side. She was brightly flushed and looked worse than she had after the initial bite, if that were possible.
Matty had Gallarael’s head cradled in her lap and a worried expression on her face. Darbon took a piece of cloth and a cup to the stream. The fire had burned down, so Trevin went about adding some deadfall while Vanx examined Gal. It didn’t look good. She was so feverish that heat radiated from her as if she were literally burning.
“We need to put her in the stream, and quickly,” Vanx proclaimed. He wasn’t sure that it would help, but he knew if her body didn’t cool down she would lose her mind or die from it.
As he and Trevin carried Gallarael to the water, Vanx decided that Gallarael’s best chance didn’t lie in Dyntalla anymore. It lay in the woods a half-mile away under a glowing shield. The wizard, if he was revivable, was obviously somewhat powerful. The kind of components in his pack and the complexity of the shield he had constructed around himself attested to his capabilities. Most wizards knew herb lore and throughout the history of the kingdoms they’d often served their lords as healers during battle. At least that’s what Vanx had been taught in the history books he’d read.
Gallarael was laid by the stream, instead of carried out into it. “We can’t just dunk her,” Vanx explained. “The shock of hot to cold could do more harm than good. Use the rags and the extra blankets to cool her off slowly.” He stood and looked up at the sky. The moon was behind the clouds, but he could tell that it was already sinking below the mountains. Dawn would be upon them soon.
Darbon watched helplessly, still clutching the cupful of water he’d come to fetch. Vanx saw him and was suddenly struck with an idea.
“Come on, Darby,” he said with a trace of hope in his voice. “And bring the cup with you.”
“Where are we going? How will we see?” the young apprentice asked as Vanx stalked upstream into the night. “It’s dark as pitch out here.”
“We’re going to fetch a wizard. Just follow me closely,” Vanx ordered. Then back over his shoulder he added, “And don’t spill the water from that cup.”
They hunt gray bears and ogres
and they kill them with bare hands.
You’d be better to slap the kings own face
than to cross a Highlake man.
A Highlake Mountain Man.
“They went into the Wildwood,” Kavin Karcher, a mountain of a man who was also known as Bear Fang, said with no emotion showing on his overly hairy face. He was a head taller than most men and smelled wild, like a boar or an ox. His hair and beard were unkempt and his dark eyes were as hard as iron. He wore clothes made of elk hide and shin-high lace-up boots. Beside the long dagger at his hip hung a one-handed crossbow, and his thick walking stick looked like it could easily be used as a club.
“No need to follow them in there,” Commander Aldean said with a sigh of regret. “No one has ever survived the Wildwood and lived to tell of it.”
“We’re talking about my daughter,” Duke Martin barked. “I don’t care if they walked into a dragon’s mouth. We will follow them until we find her.”
Since Duke Martin learned that Gallarael was among the caravan members he’d insisted on personally conducting the search for her.
“Duke Martin, I understand and respect your persistence, but it’s more likely that Gallarael is in the group the others are tracking.” Aldean let out a sigh to cover his unease. “Why would she travel away from civilization?” He looked to Coll, the duke’s dark-haired, black-clad advisor for support. The strange man seemed to be somewhere else in his mind and was no help.
“If your blood is too yellow to come with us, Commander, then you can return to the ambush site and wait on the others.” The duke glared at his one-time most trusted friend with contempt in his eyes. “Master Coll, Commander Karcher and I can continue just fine without you.”
The placing of his title before the treacherous trapper’s name wasn’t lost on Aldean, and what Coll was the master of, he had no idea.
Aldean was no coward, but to traipse off into the Wildwood following a trail that was probably made by escaped slaves or wounded haulers was suicidal.
“The two of them’s got boots on that were issued from your armory. Soldiers’ boots.” Bear Fang gave a chuckling grin toward Commander Aldean. “Three groups, like I said before. They’re all following each other at a distance. One set of boots in the first lot, the other with the horse. That’s probably the one that killed that fat dice cheat Gregon back yonder. The last group is the one I can’t figure. I can’t think of no reason for anyone to follow a lone soldier out into the Wildwood, but they done it.”
Duke Martin looked to Coll, who only shrugged. “How many do you think are in the first group?”
“That slave you’re after, I figure. He tried to bust his shackles on them rocks I showed you. Them other slaves you described, they couldn’t have made it this far. It’s hard to say, but either he took them boots off of a dead soldier, or there’s a soldier with him. Either way, there are three sets of footprints, and three places where bedrolls was laid out back at that campsite in the cut. One of them sets of prints be dainty. Them’s your girl’s, maybe.” Bear Fang hacked up and spat a thick wad of phlegm into the dirt. Then he took out a plug of tobacco and with jagged yellow-brown teeth bit off a chunk of it.
“See, Commander,” Duke Martin sneered at Aldean, “that adulterous bastard and maybe one of those bandits took Gallarael as hostage. I’d wager your month’s worth of coin that it’s Moyle on that horse following them. If he found out that Gallarael was traveling with the caravan then he is trying to keep her alive. He knows that is his first priority.”
The duke reached for Bear Fang’s tobacco plug and unceremoniously bit off his own cheekful of the stuff. “Maybe I’ll make Moyle my next commander,” he said around the brown wad of chew.
Commander Aldean had heard about the duke’s early days as a frontiersman and kingdom explorer, but he’d never seen the man actually in the field. They’d hunted elk and troll in the crags around Highlake Valley together, but the gumption Humbrick Martin was showing now was a stark contrast to his lazy lording lifestyle. The duke was being called out, Aldean knew. The man had no choice but to rise to the challenge. Though he detested Duke Martin’s ways, Aldean coveted his position as Commander of Highlake. He wouldn’t let that go to the likes of Bear Fang Karcher, or even Captain Moyle. Besides that, he had watched Gallarael grow from a curious girl into a beautiful young woman. As slim as the chances of her surviving this ordeal, his sense of chivalry was nagging at him to at least make the attempt to find her.
Trying to mask his uncertainty, he spurred his horse ahead of the other three men. “What are you waiting for then?” he called back. “If they’ve got Gallarael, then we have no time to waste gabbing.”
Bear Fang laughed aloud, and Duke Martin spoke around his mouthful of tobacco. “Yat’s da spirit.” After he spat the juice from his mouth he added, “You craven bastard.”
This got a laugh out of Coll, but his mirth vanished when Bear Fang spoke up.
“Only a fool isn’t afraid of the Wildwood.”
Duke Martin wasn’t worried. He had been in the Wildwood before and survived. In his youth, he and a small group of hunters, including Prince Paliver Oakarm, King Oakarm’s deceased brother, had been tracking wyvern in the foothills. Of course there was a hundred-man mounted escort following only a half-mile behind the party, but they didn’t arrive in time to save the prince from his fate. It was a shame, too, Duke Martin reflected. He and Paliver had a plan to kill Prince Ravier so that when King Maliver Oakarm died, Paliver would take the throne instead. Humbrick Martin was to be the High Lord of Parydon Isle and King Paliver Oakarm was to rule from the mainland city of Andwyn. Duke Martin would have lived better than the king himself had the wyvern not gotten hold of Prince Paliver. The day hadn’t been a total loss, though. By saving the prince’s body and slaying the beast that had killed him in a fantastic manner, Humbrick Martin guaranteed himself an eventual place among the nobility. A few years later, when Maliver Oakarm died, King Ravier took the throne and granted him the title Duke of Highlake.
To call it a gift was inaccurate. More like a curse. A punishment full of perks was what it turned out to be. A puny castle way up in the wild Highlake Valley, with barely a route for supplies to come and go, was what he was granted. He’d fortified the stronghold, built an easily defendable wall around most of the valley, which allowed protected access to the lake. He rid the passage up from Waterdon of legitimate bandits and replaced them with men who were more or less under his thumb. All in all, he’d put himself and his family in a position to rise even higher in the ranks of Parydon nobility. The problem now, though, was that Gallarael was the key to that ascension.
At this very moment Prince Russet Oakarm, King Ravier’s eldest son, was visiting Dyntalla. His ship would sail to Dabbldwyn in a few days, where he would cross the Waterdon River and then travel from outpost to outpost. After that he was to trek up to Highlake Stronghold. No doubt the Prince thought he was there to snoop for his father, but Humbrick Martin had been scheming for months to get the boy to come meet Gallarael. Now, Gallarain had made him into a laughing stock and sent their daughter into a hornets’ nest of his own making. He wasn’t one to worry about “what ifs” and he didn’t dwell on useless regret. He was a man of action; at least he had been most of his life. More recently, the mild opulence his title and holdings provided, along with the mundane duty that came with them, had softened him. Even though his daughter’s life was at stake, for the first time in years he felt alive and invigorated. It was the hunt itself that made his blood tingle. More than that, it was possibly the stakes themselves, and the location of the chase, that had him feeling so hungry. Either way, every passing moment the tree line of the notorious Wildwood loomed nearer to them, he grew more determined to catch his prey. His heart bled for Gallarael, and part of him was stricken by what was happening to her, but that only served to fuel his determination. He decided that he would follow her trail right into the dragon’s maw if that’s where it led. If he managed to save Gallarael in the process, then all the better. But he was no fool. He knew that there was little chance of her surviving this place or her captors. He knew there was a good chance all they would find were corpses.
A glance ahead of him at Commander Aldean’s back brought back his contempt a hundredfold. There was another whose chances of surviving the Wildwood were less than slim. He found that he didn’t care. He was certain that as long as he killed the man who had tarnished his honor, the man who now held his only loved one as a hostage, the man who had repeatedly bedded his wife, that he could die feeling avenged.
Early the next day the duke’s group came upon Captain Moyle’s body in a trampled area. The captain’s corpse had been ravaged by scavengers. It was a grisly scene. Duke Martin was thankful that the morning fog lingered among the tangle trees and the clinging undergrowth. For a long while, as Bear-fang inspected the scene, he felt fearful and empty. He was afraid that at any moment the tracker or Commander Aldean would call out that they had found Gallarael’s body.
Bear-fang Karcher told him that the three parties had converged here, and that one of the people now traveling as a group had been bitten by the fang-flower they’d found severed. It did little to settle his nerves. He had no way of knowing which member of the group had been bitten, but one look at the fleshy, pink-colored thing the commander retrieved from the scrub made him know in his heart that it was his daughter. He couldn’t imagine any other member of the caravan even noticing, much less trying to get close to the exotic-looking bloom.
Who was to say that Gallarael hadn’t been ravished by the bandits or eaten by the trolls too? The petite footprints they were following could be that whore’s just as easily as they could be his daughter’s.
He drew in a deep breath and the smell of Moyle’s decaying corpse filled his lungs. He started to dry heave, but caught a glimpse of Commander Aldean. That craven bastard was watching him. Swallowing back his bile, he let his contempt toward the commander steady his guts.
“We better get out the bows,” the duke said in a tone that brooked no argument. “Unless we want to end up like the captain.”
Bear-fang laughed and unhooked his crossbow from his belt. The man actually looked excited at the prospect of tracking the other group deeper into the Wildwood.
Coll spoke a few quick words and an arm-length rod of intricate wood flickered to existence in his hand. He held it as one might hold a sword.
Commander Aldean strung his bow and hung a quiver of arrows from his saddle horn. He had a grim look on his face, as if he were no longer afraid. Duke Martin clipped a quiver to his hip and strung his great hunting bow. His sword he strapped across his back so that the hilt jutted up over his left shoulder.
He decided that Gallarael was most likely lost to him; dead and gone from his life. Revenge was his motivator now. He decided that they were no longer searching for his daughter, but instead hunting the man who had brought so much shame upon him, the man who had caused all of this.
The wizard saw the king and the wizard did laugh
“You need me king, and the power of my staff.”
“Tis true,” said the king, my enemy has arrived.
“What might it take to have you fight from my side?”
The moment Darbon’s cupful of stream water splashed across his hairy face, the old wizard came awake. It was comical the way the bewildered mage sputtered and slapped at his mug, then began to defend himself by rolling into a brawler’s crouch. He even started to cast a spell.
“Hold there!” Vanx called through his mirth. To Vanx’s surprise, the skinny old man wasn’t injured, only disheveled. The wizard’s silver-grey hair was sticking out in all directions, and grass and twigs were caught up in the tangle. Darbon was crouched behind Vanx, apparently as afraid of the glowing purple orb as he was of the wild-looking man he had just awakened inside of it.
“Who are you?” the wizard asked with a nervous glance around the area beyond his protective shield. He patted at something under his robe to see if it was still there; a medallion, or a necklace maybe. “Did Garner send you?” He glanced at his outstretched arm and narrowed his owlish brows in irritation. As Vanx began to speak, the wizard gave the object hanging under his robe a squeeze. With a harrumph of satisfaction he then set to scratching his body like a flea-infested hound.
“My name is Vanx Malic,” Vanx chuckled. “Scratching that rash will only make it worse.”
“I know that,” the wizard snapped. “But I can’t help myself, it itches horribly.” Suddenly the old man rolled to his back, brought his legs up and began scratching at them. “I need some — what are they called?”
“Bramble berries,” Vanx offered. “As soon as the sun comes up I’ll fetch you some.” Vanx knew he could have found a bramble bush relatively quickly, even in the dark. He’d spotted several of them earlier while he trekked through the forest, but he wanted a bit of leverage over the wizard for the moment.
“A member of our party,” Vanx stepped aside leaving the huddled form of Darbon awash in lavender light. “… needs your assistance badly. She was bitten by a flower beast and its bite has rendered her unconscious and extremely fevered.”
“Ah.” The wizard kept scratching absently. “The venom of a fang flower will do that.” He stopped scratching long enough to pull at his beard while he contemplated something. “Nothing I can do to save her, lad.” He went back to scratching. “Vanx Malic, you say? That’s a strange name for a man. You’re not Parydonian, I assume. Now where’s Garner?”
“I don’t know a Garner,” Vanx said a little more harshly than he intended to. “If you want me to get those bramble berries for you, then you’ll at least have a look at Gallarael. I’ve found your pack of components, and I know exactly what you are.”
Darbon took a step back.
Vanx continued. “It’s obvious you’re a stranger to the forest or you would have already found some. Now what will it be?”
Just then, Darbon stumbled backward into the charred form of the ogre, creating a small swirling cloud of ash. In the lavender light thrown by the wizard’s orb, with Darbon swatting at the stuff, it looked like a swarm of flies had attacked the young man.
Vanx couldn’t help but guffaw at Darbon’s confusion.
“You said Gallarael,” the wizard finally spoke. His tone had grown serious and it brought Vanx’s attention back to bear.
“Yes,” Vanx answered. “Gallarael Martin, the daughter of Gallarain and the Duke of Highlake.”
“By all the gods of man and beast, what’s going on here?” the wizard said. “What is she doing in the Wildwood? Why didn’t you say it was her?” He stumbled to his feet and, with the snap of his fingers, dispelled the translucent shield from around him then created a small orb of harsh white light which appeared in one of his open palms.
“You’ll save her then?” Vanx asked as a wash of hope cascaded over him.
“There’s nothing I can do to save her, man,” the wizard repeated. “But maybe she can still be saved.”
“Who are you?” Darbon, who had recovered from his mishap, asked in open awe of the magic he was witnessing.
Vanx could tell that the wizard wanted to laugh when he saw the soot-blackened boy blinking curiously at his bright orb of illumination. The way the old man’s irritated expression softened, and the way the mirthful glow he’d almost felt faded away from him told Vanx just how dire Gallarael’s situation really was.
“My name is Quazar. I am of the Royal Order.” The wizard forced a smile. He started to say more but went into a fit of scratching that caused both Vanx and Darbon to grimace with sympathy.
With a glance around the now brightly illuminated area, Vanx spotted the telltale blue flowers of a bramble bush. He didn’t hesitate to traipse through the trees and break off a branch that held a dozen of the yellow and green berries. Their juice negated the effects of the itch-weed.
The fact that Quazar was of the Royal Order meant that he served the nobility of Parydon dutifully. Vanx decided he was no threat to the group. Even though the wizard would treat him differently as soon as he knew Vanx was considered a slave, he didn’t feel right letting the old man suffer a moment longer. He crushed some of the berries in his palms and showed the rash-covered man how to smear the juice and then rub in the pulp. He then led Quazar to the river where Gallarael lay half-in, half-out of the frigid water.
The next day Gallarael lay on her bedroll with her head cradled in Trevin’s lap, her fever held at bay by a spell. The sobbing young guardsman had held her throughout the night. After hearing Quazar’s proclamation he clearly didn’t want to let her go.
The sun was high and it was warm, almost hot. Vanx wasn’t sweating yet, but he was at that point. An insistent dragonfly kept stopping to hover just out of reach of where he sat. It would dart away when he would reach out for it. He wasn’t threatening with his motion, and he extended a finger, hoping to get the curious insect to land there.
“If we could get her to Dyntalla before the venom finishes liquefying her insides, then maybe the healers and I can put her under a spell that will restabulate her for a time,” the old man said after examining her. “If it works we might could hold her in a metaphysicated stabulation, but only for a time.”
After hearing what the poison was doing to his lover’s body, Trevin broke down. Vanx only half understood what he’d heard, but he wanted to know more. “What could be done for her after she is restabulated?” he asked, searching the old man for any sign that there was real hope for her. If the situation had been any less dire, Vanx might have laughed at the wizard. The bramble berry juice had stained his skin a jaundiced yellow. In the morning light Quazar looked worse than Gallarael.
As Quazar continued the shy dragonfly did land on Vanx’s finger, but only for a fleeting second. Then it was gone, zipping haphazardly off into the forest greenery.
“There is a substance, a rare and exotic liquid, that can yield an antidote for the fang flower venom.” Quazar spoke in a hushed tone, trying to keep the words from Trevin’s despairing ears. It seemed to Vanx that the wizard didn’t think the substance could be obtained in time to save her. Then Quazar made a rounding gesture over his abdomen and nodded toward Trevin. Vanx quickly checked that Trevin didn’t see. He was relieved that the young man’s head was buried in Gallarael’s hair. He was glad for it. He didn’t think Trevin needed to know that his lover was pregnant. He gestured with an index finger sliding across his throat and hoped the wizard understood that he meant for him to kill that line of conversation.
Quazar nodded so slightly that someone else might not have caught it. “This liquid cannot be obtained easily, and it must be extracted from its host on one of the two nights the moon of Aur and her star maidens align. That is the only way the essence of the dracatode can be maintained.”
“Then we can find this stuff if we can find the host? It will save her?” Vanx surmised loud enough for Trevin to hear. He knew his friend had been listening and was glad to give him a bit of hope.
“Finding the host isn’t the problem,” Quazar offered. “I’d wager I could tell you where dozens of them are dwelling this very moment.”
“Then what’s the problem?” This came from Matty, who was tending a pot of rabbit stew.
Darbon was asleep in a bundle of blankets. His clothes hung stiff and dried on the rack by the fire. Apparently the one-handed woman had helped the young apprentice wash the soot off his body and clothes. The satisfied smile on the bit of Darbon’s sleepy face that was visible told Vanx that all that washing had led to something else. He was thankful he’d slept through it.
“The parasitic dracatode is only found in the blood of one species. Surviving an encounter with one of these beasts has proven to be next to impossible.” Quazar shrugged at Matty and then at Vanx. “That is the problem.”
In unison, Vanx and Trevin asked the same question. “What is this beast?”
As if for dramatic effect, Quazar drew in a long, deep breath and sighed.
“I’m speaking of the great fire wyrm. There are dozens of them laired on Dragon Isle, but you’ll have to get the blood of a mature wyrm. The younger ones have no potency. One dragon there reigns over the rest. It’s a vial of that wyrm’s blood we’ll need to save her.”
“The blood of the great fire wyrm taken on one of the two nights of Aur? Is that all that will help her?” Trevin’s voice sounded incredulous.
Quasar nodded and the silence that followed was only broken when Matty half chuckled under her breath. “This should make you a grand ballad to sing, Vanxy.”
A few heartbeats later the forest came to life. Out of the shadows a bark- covered, tree-trunk leg stepped into the clearing. The trees seemed to part for the limbs and bulk of the terrifying tree-like beast’s form. From the other side of the camp a deep, bellowing sound erupted. Vanx knew that it was an ogre’s battle call. Another ogre yelled, then another, and another.
The living tree brought its other leg over the camp, nearly kicking Matty in the head. It was huge, thirty feet tall, and its legs were as big around as barrel kegs. Brightly colored leaves shivered and shook as the creature stopped, drew itself in, then opened up a knothole maw and returned the ogre’s call with an ear-grating shriek of its own.
Vanx rolled to his pack and snatched up his bow. Luckily it was still strung from his rabbit hunting foray early in the morning. He noticed that one of the haulkattens had pulled its tether and was bounding away. The other big katten had its hackles ruffled and was growling at something unseen in the forest. Vanx loosed the horse, giving it a slap on the rump. It went tearing away from the madness that was unfolding around him.
Vanx turned to see Quazar standing over Gallarael. He was clutching his pack tightly to his body with one arm, and with a kick of his boot he shoved Trevin away. After a few wild hand gestures that left his pack falling to his feet, a pristine lavender orb encapsulated them as it came sizzling into existence. The wizard fell to a collapsed heap next to the girl, but both of them, and the wizard’s components, were within the protective bounds of the magical field.
Darbon, who was as naked as his name day, was fighting to get free from a tangle of blankets. Matty stood over him looking as fierce as could be with a dagger in her hand, waving her stump arm around threateningly.
Trevin scrambled for a pack and came up with his longsword as a handful of the wolf-riding Kobalts bounded into the camp.
At first it wasn’t clear to any of the companions what was going on, but when one of the ogres came thrashing through the trees right at Matty it became clearer.
A trio of Kobalt arrows sprouted out of the ogre’s chest, but they did little to slow its momentum. With its fangs bared, and its filthy jagged claws reared back, the ten-foot-tall green beast dove for the woman just as Darbon gained his feet beside her.
Vanx could do nothing for them. It didn’t appear that Trevin could either, for another of the huge grey-green flesh-eaters was attacking the young guardsman before he could bring his sword to bear against it.
Vanx leapt to the back of the young haulkat. He had half a mind to just ride away and leave the humans to their fate. He was half Zythian after all, and these people had made him a slave. He owed them nothing.
He loosed an arrow at the ogre attacking Trevin. The young haulkatten nearly toppled Vanx from his seat when it charged at another ogre, and opened its guts with a razor claw. Holding on as best as he could with his legs, Vanx loosed arrow after arrow into the violent chaos. When he was down to the last shaft, he held it and let the haulkatten do the fighting. It was all Vanx could do at that point just to hold on.
Ogres are full of menace,
ogres are full of rage.
Once a man was fool enough
to put one in a cage.
Vanx let his last arrow fly at the howling ogre closing on him from the right. It was no easy shot. The young haulkat beneath him was tearing into the green-skinned hulk directly before them with a ferocious intensity. Still, Vanx’s arrow found its mark. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a massive arm-like limb of the tree beast swing down and bat the ogre attacking Matty and Darbon away from them. With a dagger raised high, Matty rushed in and attacked the bewildered ogre as soon as it hit the ground. Darbon threw Vanx a half-full quiver and then, snatching up a heavy stone, he joined her.
Vanx felt sorry for the boy. He’d had to fight naked himself once before behind an inn in Andwyn, after he’d leapt from his lover’s window. He’d won the skirmish, but would never forget how vulnerable he felt with his manhood exposed and at risk. It occurred to him, as he shifted to compensate for the haulkatten’s next lunge, that he always had these odd thoughts while he was in a fix. Here he was with an outraged, arrow-riddled ogre charging at him from one side, and another still fighting his mount. There was a third ogre now, loping toward him with nothing less than hungry murder in its dark eyes, but all he could think about was how silly Darbon looked fighting naked and one-handed. He turned toward the approaching ogre and let a pair of arrows loose. One caught the edge of a tree trunk and exploded in a shower of splinters and chipped bark. The other, though, found its mark and stuck deep into the ogre’s abdomen. The feral creature had no idea that it was wounded and it charged onward, never even breaking stride.
Vanx reached for another arrow and found that the quiver was empty. He didn’t panic. Oddly, the more tense the situation, the calmer he felt. It was one of the qualities about him that his trainers had all praised. The ogre bearing down on him was in a bloody rage. Vanx reached to his hip and found that his dagger wasn’t in its place. His immediate suspicion was confirmed when he saw that Matty was using it. Once a thief always a thief. He’d had a sword, a long, thin work of Zythian steel that his mother’s father had given him before he left on his vision quest. No doubt it was hanging in Duke Martin’s trophy room next to his mounted bears and wolves. Vanx knew he had to do something, so he did what instinctually came to his mind.
As the ogre came rushing up, Vanx heeled the haulkatten sharply. The alert young beast leapt into a sideways twisting sprawl that only those of the feline persuasion can manage. The ogre’s grasping claws closed on nothing but air. The enraged beast couldn’t stop its momentum, though, and it smacked face first into an ancient oak tree with a skull-cracking crunch.
Vanx laughed out loud. His mirth was cut off quickly, though, when a blow caught him in the ribs and took his breath. He went flailing from the haulkatten and the startled animal jumped away from the unseen attacker. Vanx was left dazed and looking up at another ogre. This one held a club over its head and was already bringing it down to smash him. Unable to clear the cobwebs from his mind, Vanx held his arms up in a feeble attempt to ward away the blow.
Trevin was drenched in thick, dripping gore. He had caught the jugular of one of the ogres with his sword and had been sprayed as its hot, sticky life pulsed out of the wound. He fought like a madman, as if defeating this enemy might ease his anguish or save his lover. Beside him, a few of the wolf-riding Kobalts were fighting the ogres too. Blood slung from glistening steel and filthy claws alike. Both fang and arrow bit into flesh, and the savage snarling of the wolves mixed with the roaring ogres to create a terrible din. Several hulking forms already lay dead at Trevin’s feet, and another was on him before he could take a breath. He heard Matty call out for Vanx and was surprised that she’d survived the initial attack. The weight of the diving beast alone should have crushed her and Darbon. He couldn’t concern himself with that, though. He was getting tired, and the beast before him was just agile enough to stay clear of his blade. This ogre had a weapon, that is if you consider a severed arm of one of its kindred as such.
Matty yelled at Darbon, and Trevin’s eyes followed her pointing finger to where Vanx was struggling. Darbon went streaking as fast as he could to help. He was cut, ripped open across his back. Trevin knew that the boy couldn’t feel it because the rush of the moment was keeping the pain at bay. Had the boy felt the pain of such a wound, it would have been debilitating.
Matty saw the gash as Darbon ran naked across the camp to help Vanx. It made her heart clench. She looked away just in time to see one of the ogres reach for the pack the wizard was clutching to his chest. The explosion of light and heat that occurred burned her eyes horribly. The sound and smell of wizard fire and charring flesh was acrid and hard to stomach. When the hair-raising intensity of the magic subsided, Matty found that she still couldn’t see. Only silvery flashes and swirls of light appeared in her eyes. The sensation scared her so badly that she screamed. The relative silence that followed was more frightening than the battle had been. Now, only a few grunting combatants could be heard, but she had no idea who or what they were.
Darbon didn’t get blinded by the wizard’s magic because he was racing away from it. He saw what it did to Vanx, though. The slave-turned-friend was looking around aimlessly and fighting not to touch his burned orbs. Darbon felt hot blood running down his back though.
Darbon hurled his rock into the back of the arm-wielding ogre’s head. The ogre reached to the wound, staggered a step, and then fell to its knees. Retrieving another rock from the underbrush, Darbon slammed the ogre’s head again. This time it fell in a sprawl and lay still, its skull a concave mush.
Darbon looked around and saw Trevin cleave the head from the only ogre left that he could see. He realized, as the last beast crumbled to the ground, that they were alone again. The ogres, the tree beast that had saved him and Matty, even the wolf-riding Kobalts, had fled. He’d seen the bright flash reflecting off the trees when it happened. Now he saw the ogre’s husk of a body; a toppled statue of ash, just like the one he had fallen into the night before, was all that remained of the beast that had touched the wizard’s shield.
Darbon turned as Trevin fell to his knees. The soldier’s chest was heaving as he gasped for air. Darbon counted five, no, six dead ogres around him. The camp was littered with green-fleshed bodies and thick with the stench of ozone and molten copper. Already insects were buzzing about, searching for their share of the free meal.
“Darby?” Matty called. “Darbon, I can’t see.”
“I’m here, Matty,” Darbon replied. He saw that she was curled in a fetal ball, lying in the scrub brush. “Just stay where you are.”
“I can’t see, either,” Vanx said. “If someone can tell me, I’d like to know what’s happening.”
“They’re all gone,” Darbon told him in a tone that inferred that he had no idea why. “There’s another charred ogre by Quazar’s orb; the flash might have scared them away.”
“What of Trevin?” Vanx sat up and rubbed at his eyes furiously. Still, all that he could see was splotches and blurs.
“I am here,” Trevin said between heaving breaths. “Is everyone all right?”
“Other than being bright blinded, I am,” said Vanx.
“Darby is not all right,” Matty said, her voice a little more steady than before. “He’s been clawed across the back.”
Turning in a circle like a dog chasing his tail, the still naked young man twisted as if he might get an angle to see his own back.
“Help Vanx over here, and we’ll see if we can get that cleaned out,” Trevin ordered. “With those filthy trolls it’s the infection you have to worry about, not so much the wound itself.”
Trevin got to his feet and examined his arms and thighs. “We’ll need some cold water too, to wake up that fargin wizard.”
“They’re after his pack!” Matty said. “That’s what they came for.”
“What makes you say so?” Vanx asked as Darbon helped him stumble closer to her. He couldn’t figure why the Kobalts, much less an ancient enta would help defend them. He was still trying to figure out why the Kobalts had led them to Quazar.
“It reached for the pack,” Matty said. “I saw it plain. It wasn’t reaching for the sorcerer or Gallarael.”
After Darbon set Vanx down close to her, he gave Matty a hug. She seemed to forget herself and let out a long sob of relief.
“Must be a secret pocket in there for gold,” Matty mumbled. “I only saw the stuff for spells when I looked.”
“Components,” Vanx corrected. He’d seen some stones when he’d explored the contents of Quazar’s pack. Everything else in there was typical, as far as spell- working goes. The ogres weren’t after those. It had to be the stones. But why? What were they for?
“You’re a greedy, ignorant woman, Matty,” Trevin said in a kindly, almost sweet voice. “What by all the fargin’ gods would a bunch of fargin’ ogres want with some fargin’ gold?”
“I may not be very smart, you bastard.” She wiped a tear from her face and seemed to grow a little angry. “I don’t know what sorcerers and wizards hide in their packs, nor what those nasty beasts are after, but I am not greedy.” She spat in his direction. She then reached out and felt until she could put a hand on Vanx’s arm. “Go help Darbon clean his wound, Trevin,” she snarled. “And if you’re so fargin’ smart, you tell me what those things are after, because they didn’t get it and they’ll probably be back sooner than later.”
“Aye.” Vanx nodded. He was starting to be able to pick out shapes and shadows again. “She’s right, Trev. Hurry, and don’t forget to bring back some cold water. I want to wake that wizard up and find out what’s in that pack.”
Across the land he flew
on a brilliant flaming steed.
Brandishing old Ornspike
in the kingdom’s time of need.
Again Quazar came up into a brawler’s crouch with a sputtering yelp, but it was Trevin who splashed him this time.
“Quazar the cowardly wizard, we should call you from now on,” said Trevin with a disgusted snarl on his face. “You’d let us die at the hands of beasts that were coming after YOU?” Trevin spat a wad of cottony saliva at the point where Quazar’s translucent shield met the earth. “What is worse is that instead of helping us with your magic, you hid in your shell like a frightened turtle.”
“They’re gone then?” Quazar asked with a nervous glance around the corpse-strewn campsite. His voice held little remorse and even less sympathy for Trevin’s anger. After heaving a sigh of apparent relief he looked the guardsman in the eye.
“Stand back, sir, or I will use my magic to defend myself. You cannot conceive the importance of the artifact I carry on my person. Did you not see the very Wildwood come alive to defend us? The ogres must not get the Blood Stone back. They should have never had it in the first place. But beyond that, I saved Princess Gallarael from further harm. You should be thankful for that alone. Now step back, I say. Back! Back!”
“Trev,” Vanx called. He still couldn’t see well, but he could hear just fine. “Give the wizard some room.”
Vanx wasn’t sure what this Blood Stone was about, but the idea of any powerful artifact in the possession of some half-feral, half-sentient creatures was unnerving at best. Ignorance and magic didn’t mix very well, nor did magic and flesh-hungry instinct.
“Listen to your Zythian friend, Trevin,” Quazar said. “Give me some room.”
“Zythian?” Trevin asked as he took two steps backward and turned to look at Vanx. “You’re not Zythian, are you Vanx? You don’t look Zythian.”
“Oooh, I should have seen it before now,” Matty said in a gossipy tone. “Only the blue eyes of a Northlander mixed with the yellow of a Zyth could make eyes that color of green.” She rubbed her own eyes wishing she could see. “I’d bet he’s half and half. I bet he is.”
“I am,” Vanx said defensively. “What of it? It doesn’t change who I am or how I feel, or how I think.”
“Can you-can you really turn into a bird-a bird and fly?” asked Darbon. He was feeling the pain of his wounds now. He looked as pale as the river wash.
“Blah! Blah!” Trevin blurted. “I was wondering how you were able to see so fargin well at night.” He scowled down at Vanx who could see well enough now to register Trevin’s expression of disapproval. “It changes something all right.”
This is it, Vanx thought. Either I’ll be shunned as a strangeling or put back into chains. He decided that he should have listened to his elders. They’d all warned that the human condition didn’t allow for much tolerance. I should have never hoped that these people, as kind and honorable as they can be, would be able to see past my race. They-
“What it changes is the fargin subject, wizard,” Trevin continued, surprising Vanx completely. The guardsman stalked back over to Quazar, who’d just dispelled his protective orb. “You’ll not trick me so easily, old man. Now quit trying to turn us against each other and start convincing me not to shorten you by a head.”
Quazar found Trevin’s still bloody sword point resting at his collar. Even if he tried to cast a quick spell, Vanx knew that all it would take was a flick of Trevin’s wrist to open the wizard’s neck.
“If you kill me, Gallarael dies for certain,” said Quazar as he plopped down cross-legged right out from under the danger. Before anyone could blink an eye he started into his tale.
“Firstly, I don’t mean to collapse when I cast the shielding spell. It is a powerful conjuring and it seems that I am not yet strong enough to cast it and remain conscious. As for being cowardly and not helping you defend yourselves, let me make one thing clear.” He crossed his boney arms over his chest like a defiant child. “I am sworn to protect the kingdom and the nobility of Parydon. That is exactly what I did. The Blood Stone and Gallarael were completely safe inside my protective shield.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Vanx said. “You said yourself that she must be taken to Dyntalla and saturated with potions and whatnot before the venom liquefies her insides. How can that be accomplished if she is stuck in a magical orb with an unconscious wizard?”
Quasar made a quizzical expression as if he were pondering the validity of Vanx’s words. After a moment he spoke again. “The well-being of the entire Dyntalla settlement outweighs the life of a duke’s daughter. I did what I did, and I will stand by my actions before the High Wizard and the king himself if need be. A man named Garner broke away from our original party when we were attacked. I’m certain he’s gone back to Dyntalla to gather a rescue party. Even if he didn’t make it, Gallarael and I wouldn’t have been alone out here forever.”
“Fair enough,” Vanx replied, and then to Darbon he said, “No, I can’t turn into a bird. We need to put out some fishmeal to draw the haulkats back in. We should probably be on our way.”
“I will,” Darbon replied. “And I’ll see if I can find that horse too.”
“Don’t bother.” Trevin’s tone was grim. “I saw it go down over there.” He pointed. “Your back looks terrible, though. You should rest.” Trevin seated himself beside Gallarael’s unconscious body. “I’ll take care of it when the wizard’s done with his tale.”
“My back’s not so bad,” Darbon told them. But the way his breath caught when he tried to heft up one of the bags of fishmeal said otherwise. He was soon back beside Matty, a few shades paler than before.
“What is this Blood Stone?” Vanx asked.
Quazar shrugged. “I’m not really sure. There’s no doubt that it’s powerful, but until I can research its qualities I cannot say for certain. The Kobalts seem to think it binds the ogres to the area. They say that the ogres have slowly turned from typical wild beasts into deliberate, even evil, creatures. They have set fire to mountain glades and have dumped the rotting corpses of their kills into the streams that feed the forest and lakes below. They have begun slaughtering for pleasure, not just for food. All of this since they came into possession of the Blood Stone. You’ve heard the expression, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’?”
Vanx and Trevin both nodded in unison that they had.
“The Kobalts, who are far more clever than we ever expected, captured a Dyntalla ranging party and, with some difficulty, conveyed that together we could rid the area of the overpopulating beasts. The ogres have grown so populous in the southern mountains that the Kobalts have been forced out of their ancestral domain. They want to go back. They want to restore what the ogres have destroyed. In return for aiding us, they only ask that we leave the Wildwood to them. It seems this forest is one of their sacred hunting grounds.”
“Of course, Duke Ellmont couldn’t agree to the terms. So word was sent to Parydon proper and King Oakarm made a ruling. He sent Prince Russet with his decision. King Oakarm agreed that all the lands between the Waterdon flow and the Kimber River would be left unmolested by the kingdom save for a protected road running from Dyntalla to the upper Waterdon outpost. He-” Quazar hushed and turned quickly as the sound of crunching undergrowth came from just outside the camp.
Amden Gore’s old haulkatten came creeping back like a skulking cur. It bypassed the busted sack of fishmeal that Darbon had dropped and went straight to Matty. The animal nuzzled her and when she began cooing to it, it let out a low, rumbling purr.
Vanx said, “The other one is not very far away. I can hear him.” The odd look Darbon and Trevin both gave him as they strained to hear wasn’t lost on him. Nor was the fact that neither of their expressions held any of the contempt for his race that his people often spoke of.
“She returns your feelings then?” Quazar asked Trevin, seeing the way the guardsman was running his fingers through Gallarael’s hair.
“If she loves me only half as much as I love her, then I am as lucky as a man could be,” Trevin said. “I’ll do anything to save her.”
“Even prick a fire wyrm to get a drop of its blood?” Matty snorted, causing the old haulkatten to skitter away. Immediately, she groped for the creature and began speaking to it soothingly.
“Gallarael does love him,” Vanx said. “Gallarain told me as much. Her mother knows of the affair as well. The duke, though, is another matter. And I will go with Trevin to Dragon’s Isle to save her, if it must be done.”
Quazar stroked his beard and eyed Vanx. “You’ll need more than a drop of it. Why are a venom-riddled princess, her lover, a one-handed-uh-woman, and an apprentice smith traveling the Wildwood with a half-Zythian miscreant such as yourself?” He held up a hand to forestall Vanx’s response to being labeled a miscreant. “This is a tale I want to hear fully told, so I think we should wait until we are on the move again to hear it.”
“It’s a tale all right,” said Trevin. “A tale Duke Ellmont and Prince Russet should hear as well.”
“How, by all the gods, can you tell I’m a smith’s apprentice?” Darbon asked through a painful grimace. “Did you spell me?”
Quazar chuckled. It was a kind of heartfelt laugh that seemed to lift the spirits of the others. “It’s no trick lad. Your right arm is half again bigger than your left from swinging that hammer all day every day. That’s how I know. The fact that you’ve only three whiskers on your chin is how I know you’re an apprentice. Now let me see if I can help that wound of yours.”
Darbon looked from one arm to the other, and back again several times. Matty, who was apparently still struggling to see, made her way over to him. “Never mind that old coot, your arms is hardly noticeable.”
The other haulkatten came pacing back into the camp then. Its chest was puffed out proudly and its muzzle and forepaws were dark with ogre blood. It didn’t hesitate to go straight to the fishmeal. Only after it had eaten its fill did the older creature try to eat.
While Trevin and the others reloaded the two animals, Vanx spoke to Quazar.
“So the king agreed to leave the Wildwood for the Kobalts? How did you get the Blood Stone? Why didn’t the Kobalts just keep it for themselves?”
“The answer, my curious friend, is simple if you think about it.” Quazar patted Vanx on the shoulder. “Ships. Our simple ability to take the Blood Stone from this land completely is why. The Kobalts fear magic almost as much as they fear the sea. They think, and I’m finding they are correct, that the ogres are drawn to the Blood Stone. If they kept it to themselves, the ogres would keep coming to it. Part of the agreement is for us to take the stone from this land to another.”
“How did you get it?” Vanx asked.
“An explorer named Garner was the leader of our party. We negotiated the king’s conditions for a road through the Wildwood with the Kobalts, and then the strange little beasts just handed it over.” Quazar pulled a pouch from his shirt collar. It hung on a leather cord around his neck. In his open palm, he dumped out a smooth, opaque river stone the size of a man’s big toe. It was the deep, rich color of fresh blood. “This was the third time we’ve-well, I’ve been set upon by the big nasties since I’ve had it.”
“The third time?” Vanx was surprised. “How big was the original party?”
“A score of hardened fighters and myself.” Quazar’s voice grew somber remembering the recent deaths for which the stone was responsible. “Their sacrifice wasn’t wasted,” he mumbled as he put the stone into the pouch and pushed it back into his robe. “The ogres come across the plains outside Dyntalla in packs. They thwart our every attempt to farm the land.” The old wizard shook with the hatred he felt for the creatures. “They scatter the herds that have to graze out there and they kill the animals and their tenders with reckless abandon. They don’t even eat the meat. Well they eat some of it, but they leave more than they consume. They just kill, kill, kill. We need them gone or thousands will go hungry. This is a great step toward that end.”
The intense conviction of Quazar’s belief showed in his voice, but Vanx found that he could understand the ogre’s lack of willingness to have their land overrun by the humans.
As if he could see Vanx’s thoughts, Quazar went on. “They must go back across the mountains, Vanx; their numbers have tripled since the kingdom has had a settlement here. They must be thinned out. They are like a plague, a huge menacing plague that will deplete the entire land of its resources if they are not stopped, or at least slowed.
“Answer me this. Have you seen a deer, or a fox, or even an owl since you’ve been in the Wildwood?”
Vanx couldn’t remember seeing anything, only carrion birds.
Quazar put his hands on his hips and nodded as his point sank in. “The ogres have killed them, or scared them away. They have tainted the water with rotting carcasses and have burned the land. They have created an imbalance which cannot be allowed to continue.”
After a moment, Vanx decided that he had to agree.
I cast this wreath into the sea
to satisfy Nepton.
Shelter well into the depths
those souls you’ve taken on.
The next afternoon, as they continued through the Wildwood, the group spoke quietly of many things, but no one broached the subject of Dragon’s Isle. Vanx noticed that they weren’t alone. A score or more of the Kobalts on their fleet, shadowy mounts could be detected at the fringes of his vision. He thought that maybe even the enta were still helping protect their passage. Whether they were or not, it was impossible to detect. Even with Vanx’s sharp Zythian senses, sightings of their escorts were few and far between. It was only when one of the creatures, the one with the fur sash, came into plain view ahead of them and raised a clawed hand that the others realized they weren’t traveling alone.
Quazar, with Trevin and Gallarael mounted behind, had been leading the group from the back of the younger haulkatten. Vanx, Matty, and Darbon rode the slaver’s crotchety old animal following them. The going had been relatively slow, but steady. The weight of three grown people was akin to a full load of ore. The haulkats could travel like this in almost any terrain for days, but only at a steady pace, and only if they were fed their accustomed ration of ground fishmeal each night when they were allowed to rest.
Trevin and Darbon were riding at the rear on their respective mounts. Both of them kept bows strung and at the ready. Vanx wondered how Darbon was taking the pain of his back wound so well. It had to itch and burn. Several times the boy scratched at it with an arrow over his shoulder. Vanx had long since decided that the weapons, at this point, were redundant. He didn’t say anything to them about it, though; he could tell that the feel of the yew in their hands and the assurance of arrows at their hips went far toward keeping the strain of the situation from getting to them.
The Kobalt barked out a series of harsh, yapping grunts. Quazar reined in the young haulkatten and motioned for Vanx to do the same. Oddly, Vanx was getting the gist of what the Kobalt was trying to convey to them. Quazar understood the crude language even better and replied.
“How far behind us?” he asked in the common tongue. Then with a shake of his head, he made an elaborate hand gesture and barked back a series of noises that he clearly struggled to produce. After the Kobalt responded to his question, the wizard spoke to the group.
“There are men following us, four of them with horses.” His eyes met Vanx’s. “The Kobrary, the leader of them, says they are following our trail and are armed as if they were hunting. If what you have told me is true, then maybe the duke sent his men to clean up the mess.”
“Duchess Gallarain has no doubt gotten the news as well. She would have put out a search for Gallarael, too,” Trevin offered. “But not without the duke knowing about it. He might not know everything, but he does know who comes and goes through his gates.”
“We can’t worry about them,” Vanx said with a shrug. He eyed the Kobrary and wondered what it was, besides the furred sash, that made him the leader of the creatures. “Gallarael has to be taken to Dyntalla. If we dally we may not get there in time.”
Quazar nodded agreement then barked and yelped with the Kobalt some more. When the exchange was over the wolf carried the Kobrary away in swift, bounding leaps, once again leaving the group seemingly alone.
“Four is not the number of a search party,” Vanx said. “How do you think the Kobalts will slow them down?”
Quazar’s thick eyebrows rose suddenly. “You understood us then?”
“I did, but more the gestures than the sounds,” Vanx answered.
“I shouldn’t be surprised. Your race has a great aptitude for understanding the languages of nature.”
The old wizard shrugged and let out a sigh. “Who knows? They gave their oath to the king’s terms, so they will not kill men traversing the forest road; any men. And since the actual route has not yet been established, those men following us will eventually make it to Dyntalla.”
“Or into an ogre’s maw,” Matty chimed in.
“With them comes my slave chains,” Vanx said somberly. “Or worse.”
“How far behind us are they?” Trevin asked.
“Less than a day,” Quazar grumbled. “And they are four men, with four good horses. We are six with two tired haulkattens. They will catch us out on the plains between the forest and city wall.” He grimaced. “If they don’t overtake us before we get out of the forest.”
“We’ll have to travel at night, and only stop long enough to rest the animals,” said Vanx.
“Not all of us can see in the dark, Vanxy,” Matty said from behind him. “I can barely see in the light, but I have grown used to not having chains on my ankles, so I’m willing to keep moving.”
“The wizard can make light,” Vanx reminded them. “And once we’re out of the forest, these kattens can move much, much faster than they can in the trees.”
“That’s true,” Trevin agreed. “But we’ll get nowhere sitting here arguing the matter.”
With that they resumed course. When the sun was low enough that the world under the thick canopy became dim, Quazar called forth a melon-sized orb of light and caused it to hover a few feet over his head. It was harsh, bright illumination that threw long eerie shadows away from their passage.
When the moon was high in the sky they stopped to feed and rest themselves and the animals. The break was a short one. By dawn, both Matty and Darbon were slouched in the saddle against each other and leaning heavily against Vanx’s back. He didn’t mind so much. Matty’s breasts were soft and their constant shifting and jiggling kept him awake.
Vanx hadn’t been sure what to expect on his vision quest, but he was certain that this sort of adventure wasn’t it. Singing his songs in fire-lit taverns was what he loved. Exploring different places while enjoying the humor and spirit of those he entertained, the fawning women, and the free tankards of the good ale, now that’s what he was about. The only reason he’d been in Highlake was because of the huge fish that swam in the waters there. He still wanted to see the icefalls at the edge of the Bitter Lands. He wanted to hunt the spike-horned shagswine, whose delicious meat supposedly caused one to have grand visions of the future. He wanted to lay his eyes on the dark, needle-like spire that jutted up out of the sea for no apparent reason, and he wanted to visit the distant land of Harthgar, from where the humans came. There were supposedly castle cities as big as the entire island of Zyth, dozens of them. But still, the destination he’d always contemplated, the place that filled his youthful dreams, was the one place he’d never truthfully expected to go.
Dragon’s Isle was infested with its namesake. Dragons were beyond dangerous. He’d seen one once, a smaller wyrm that had flown across the sea looking for a place to roost. It chose a cavern in the mountainous region of Zyth and tried to settle there. It fed on the herds and terrorized villagers until the council of elders decided that it had to go. No matter how hard they tried to repel the beast with magic, it wouldn’t leave. Finally, the creature was killed.
Vanx had seen the corpse laid out in the field where it died. He’d walked the twenty-two pace length of it, from head to tail. He remembered it clearly.
To kill the dragon they had poisoned a fat sheep and staked it out. The young, red-scaled wyrm had taken the tainted offering and later fell from the sky. Vanx was around thirty summers old then. It was the day after he’d looked at those sparking scales and teeth as big as his forearms that he’d decided to scratch Dragon’s Isle from his list of places to explore. The prospect of going there now — if he survived the Wildwood and if the Duke of Highlake’s men didn’t catch and kill him — didn’t seem as daunting. Gallarael was in her present position because she was helping him. He wasn’t about to forget that.
They were about to stop again when Vanx caught the scent of magic in the air. The sun was high in the sky and Quazar had long since extinguished his magical light. The old man was barely awake in his saddle and the source of the static sensation was too distant to have come from him. What struck Vanx as odd was that the source of the magic was somewhere ahead of them, not behind.
“Come,” Vanx said loudly, reaching over and giving Trevin a smack on the shoulder before he urged the old haulkatten past the younger one. “Follow me, and get yourselves ready for a fight.”
“What is it?” Trevin asked.
“I’m not sure, but I sense there may be trouble ahead.”
“If it’s trouble, why don’t we go around it?” Matty yawned but reached up and pulled Vanx’s dagger from his belt. This time he noticed her taking it.
“We might have to do that,” Vanx answered. “But I want the wizard to get close enough to see if he can figure out what magic I am sensing.”
“No need,” Quazar said with a bit of alarm in his voice. Vanx stopped his mount and looked back at them. “It’s magic all right; good clean magic. Like we of the Order use.” He looked back over his shoulder at Gallarael, who was slumped between him and Trevin, and frowned. “I think you should get close enough to see what it is. Those are things I can’t divine. It might be Garner’s rescue party. Then again, it might just be more trouble. We can follow at a safe distance.”
“Matty should trade places with me then,” Trevin said as he slid off the young haulkatten. “She can keep hold of Gal.”
The two switched places and Vanx urged the old haulkatten up ahead of Quazar and the two women. He felt certain they were heading for something bad. He wished he, Trevin, and Darbon were on the younger mount instead of Amden’s old beast. At least he knew the young katten would defend Matty if the old man hid in his magical shell again.
“Don’t put an arrow in my back by mistake,” Vanx jested as they slowly crept ahead.
“It might be a better fate than what awaits you in Dyntalla,” Trevin replied.
Darbon chuckled. The tension of the moment was plain in his laugh. “Being shafted in the back is a far better end than itching to death from being clawed. I can’t even reach where it’s worst.”
“Maybe so,” Vanx agreed. They’d gone far enough that the others were probably out of hailing distance. Vanx still sensed the crackly static of the magic, but he couldn’t see or hear anything other than the forest itself. Then the old haulkatten hesitated beneath him. The animal flicked its ears and rotated them forward. It could hear something.
Inching the animal ahead, Vanx thought he heard a shout and the ring of steel on steel. He figured the latter sound as improbable as a flying boar. Who would be sword fighting in the Wildwood? Another shout, from a different voice, then the low, growling battle rumble of an ogre came to his ears.
The haulkatten shuddered beneath them. It was growing nervous.
“What is it?” Trevin asked.
“There’s a battle ahead,” Vanx hissed in a harsh whisper. “Swordsmen and ogres, I think. A lot of them.”
He pressed the haulkatten until it grew so skittish that he thought it might bolt.
Spying a towering pine tree, Vanx handed the reins back to Trevin and slid off of the beast.
“I’m going to climb up and take a look,” he whispered before scaling the tree as quickly as a startled lizard. He looked down to see Trevin and Darbon gaping up at him. No human could ever hope to climb as well.
Vanx couldn’t believe what was happening. He could see the edge of the Wildwood, and the flat, slightly rolling plain beyond the trees. The transition from forest to plain wasn’t a constant. Copses and glades broke off from the main wooded area in a random fading pattern. In one of those open glades, a group of men flying the Parydon banner were engaged in a heated battle with a horde of blood-lusting ogres. The ogres had the upper hand and the men desperately needed help.
I’ve walked a long and lonely road,
if you could only see where I’ve been.
It’s a mystery how the stories unfold,
but sooner or later we all meet our end.
“Darbon, get off the katten!” Vanx ordered as he half-slid, half-fell out of the tree. “Run! Go back to the wizard as fast as you can. There’s a battle. Tell him that his rescue party is in it neck deep.”
Vanx gathered himself from his landing and with two strides leapt into his previous position in front of Trevin. The old haulkat sensed the excitement and tried to rear up and dislodge its riders, but Vanx and Trevin held firm. Vanx jerked the guide reins then put his mouth near the frightened creature’s ear. He spoke something to the beast in words that were stern, yet soothing.
Darbon was staring up at them with wide eyes. Vanx gave him a lopsided grin. “Go, Darby. Stay there and keep an eye on those women but tell that old coot to get his arse up here. That katten he’s riding will lead him right to the fighting.”
“Done,” Darbon finally nodded before sprinting away.
“Are you ready, Trevin?” Vanx asked.
“I am, but you don’t even have a weapon. You gonna throw rocks like Darby?”
Vanx reached to his belt and chuckled. His dagger was gone. Matty. He remembered her taking it earlier. He just shrugged and heeled their mount toward the battle.
“Do you want my bow or my sword?” asked Trevin.
“Give me the bow. Hook that quiver to my belt,” Vanx called back over his shoulder, pausing every few words to make sure he didn’t take a low-hanging limb to the head. “I saw what you did against the ogres before. Keep your blade. If you could do that much damage again, those men might just have a chance.”
The old haulkatten carried them right out of the Wildwood. One minute they were in the thick foliage, the next they were on rolling grassy turf. A score or more of king’s men, some in full armor, some in studded leather uniforms, were battling as many ogres, a few of them nearly twice as large as those they’d faced in the forest. A wild-haired young man in glittering mail was doing severe damage to the opposition by charging his silver destrier at them then withdrawing quickly. The way the other soldiers formed around him when he backed out of the enemy showed Vanx that he was the one in charge. Vanx figured him more brave than smart.
“Get around behind them, Vanx,” Trevin yelled. The din of battle was intense. Steel rang on wood and iron. One of the ogres was using a huge bone club to pummel a swordsman who’d lost his horse. Vanx let the old katten have its head for a heartbeat while he loosed at the ogre. The arrow struck deeply into its chest. The severely wounded soldier took advantage of the creature’s surprise and ran his sword straight up into its guts.
As they flanked the horde of foul-smelling, green-fleshed hulks, Trevin climbed to one side of the saddle and made ready to leap into the fray. “At least we made it through the Wildwood,” he jested.
“Like Darby said, if we die today, it’s still better than ending up a dragon turd,” Vanx replied, but Trevin was already rolling to his feet and cleaving the lower portion of leg from one of the huge ogres. Again, Vanx wished he was on the younger haulkatten. Were he so mounted he would have charged right into the horde. As it was, he didn’t dare get too close for fear of being launched from a bucking, twisting katten whose only desire was to flee.
He saw a mound and directed the haulkatten that way. Twisting in his saddle, he snatched the last quiver of arrows from the pack frame, untied the cords holding the other gear in place, then pulled all the rigging off of the animal as he jumped to the ground and let it run away. Using the slightly elevated position and his keen sight, he wounded or put down as many of the ogres as his supply of arrows would allow. It took only moments to empty the two quivers. After the last arrow was loosed he surveyed the battle to see how else he could help.
The unhelmeted young commander and a knot of his men were being pressed back against the Wildwood’s tree line. The men were afraid to seek its cover, and rightfully so. Vanx saw movement behind them. There was no telling how many of the beasts were lurking in the dark tangle of trees. There wasn’t much Vanx could do for them, other than harass the ogres from the rear.
Elsewhere, Trevin and a half-dozen kingdom swordsmen had their hands full with the two ogres. They looked like ten-year-old boys fighting full-grown green-skinned men. They also looked to be gaining the advantage.
Trevin was rolling and diving and darting about the legs of one of them. He made a slash, nearly hamstringing the thing, but it kicked out and spun away in time to save itself. Another swordsman heeled his horse in quickly and jabbed his blade in the ogre’s buttocks before it could get hold of Trevin. The other ogre palmed a destrier’s head and twisted. The horse screamed and bucked and went down on its side, pinning its rider’s leg. The terrified horse thrashed, crushing the man’s chest armor. The ogre kicked its head so hard that it went still.
Vanx didn’t watch any longer. He raced across the battlefield, stopping only to snatch up a sword from a fallen man. The archers of the rescue party, some of them anyway, were regrouping at a distance. Vanx heard someone yell, “Looooose!” and then the thrum of bow strings. A tight group of arrows arced out and sank into the crowd of ogres pinning the blond-haired commander’s group.
Loud bellows of rage and pain erupted from the horde. The second volley of arrows came in as Vanx spitted one of the ogres from behind. He yanked the sword free from the creature’s spine with the aid of his booted foot, and then went after another. His world became a wild, spinning blur of green-colored flesh and hot, dark blood. Snarling faces snapped at him as he dodged filthy-clawed fingers. The sweaty beasts smelled like rotting meat and fought ferociously.
Vanx’s movements became mechanical and instinctual, yet fluid enough to keep from getting walloped. Club-like arms and jagged, raking claws were everywhere. He was grazed across the cheek by an arrow, of all things, but he didn’t let that slow his devastatingly fluid assault. At one point an ogre managed to grab a fistful of his hair. He spun away with his blade, taking the creature’s hand off at the elbow as he went. Untangling the stubborn fingers caused him to lose the rhythm of his battle trance long enough to get clawed across the chest and knocked from his feet. When he landed he saw the wild-haired commander and was shocked. His face was alarmingly familiar.
The hair, the nose, and the perfectly symmetrical eyes were virtually identical to someone he’d seen recently. He didn’t have time to ponder who, though. He had to get to his feet before he was trampled. On the way back up, he was kicked in the ribs. His lungs were emptied of air, but that didn’t stop him from spinning a complete circle with his blade held out to buy himself some breathing room. Around him the violence raged on.
Gasping for breath, Vanx hacked into the neck of an ogre and spun away. He saw, more than felt, the effects of the thick-bone club that shattered to pieces on his skull. A burst of light, a shade of lavender not so different from the wizard’s protective sphere, engulfed his vision. Emerald and sapphire stars exploded as he tumbled to the ground again. He was dazed to near unconsciousness. He thought he heard the young blond warrior scream, but he couldn’t be sure. Then his eyes focused long enough to see two of the king’s men fleeing in terror and the twisted yellow toenails of the dirty green foot that violently met his body and sent him all the way into blackness.
Trevin finally severed the big ogre’s tendon and sent it to its knees. After that, the mounted swordsman came in and stabbed the creature full of holes. Finally, it fell over and lay still. More ogres erupted out of the forest, some right into the group pressed against the trees, some well clear of the jumble of butchered bodies.
Trevin didn’t register it at the time, for he was trying to put down the other of the over-sized beasts, but later he would reflect that the expressions on those ugly, pug-nosed faces that were just arriving were looks of fear, not rage. The ogre with which he was engaged kept him from seeing why they would be afraid. It was intent on pounding him into the dirt, or tearing him in half, as it had just done to another man.
When the new wave of ogres came, the bowmen lost their clear shot of what was left of the horde pressing the king’s men at the forest edge. That didn’t stop them from loosing at individual targets, though, and then there was a moment where everything stopped just long enough to draw a breath.
All of a sudden the forest itself came raging out of the forest. Half a hundred or more wolf-riding Kobalts and a dozen enta caused the archers to flea in utter terror. The rest of the men, and some of the ogres, just stood slack-jawed as the wolves, their mounts, and the living trees of legend laid waste in a very unpleasant fashion to every green-skinned creature that remained.
The beast before Trevin looked determined and hungry one moment, then wide-eyed with terror. An enta’s grasping branch-like hand reached over Trevin and took hold of the ogre’s upper arm. The mounted horsemen around them couldn’t keep their well-trained animals from bounding away. It was all Trevin could do to roll clear of the enta’s massive root-footed leg as it came down next to him and gripped the earth.
What happened next defied everything that Trevin understood about size and strength. A strand of limb no bigger around than two of Trevin’s fingers squeezed the monster’s bicep until the flesh pulped. The ogre jerked and screamed, but the enta held it fast. The enta screamed back at the ogre from a knothole maw, and then took a wide stance with its earth-grasping root-feet. How the enta could see, Trevin couldn’t imagine. There was no semblance of eyes to be seen anywhere. The ogre thrashed and wailed like a child about to belted by his father, but the enta held it firm. Then suddenly, with more strength and power than Trevin could imagine, the enta yanked the massive ogre up off of its feet and swung it overhanded only to slam it back into the earth with so much force that it shook the ground. The ogre didn’t so much as twitch after that. Trevin didn’t care, though. He darted in and ran his sword hilt deep into the ogre’s chest.
“Appreciate it,” he called up to the tree-beast as he fought to yank his blade free.
The sound of cracking wood, repetitive and powerful, like that of a falling tree crashing through other trees on its way to the ground, erupted from the enta before it turned and awkwardly lumbered away. Trevin couldn’t be sure, but he had a feeling that the ancient forest creature had been laughing at him.
Looking around, Trevin saw that the ogres had either been killed or had fled. Immediately his thoughts went to Gallarael. Unceremoniously, he half begged for, half pulled a man off of his horse. Before anyone could think, he was riding back toward the Wildwood to find his love. He didn’t have to go far. The young haulkatten came bounding excitedly out into the clearing. On its back, Gallarael’s limp form was sandwiched between Darbon and Matty. The wizard Quazar was nowhere in sight. As Trevin approached he was overcome with relief and didn’t see the young, blond-haired king’s man come limping up to the reunion, but Matty did.
“Ha!” She barked out a satisfied grunt of a laugh. “I bet every last coin in my stash that I could tell you who Gallarael’s real father is now.”
Trevin looked at her askance, and then turned to see the approaching young man. His jaw nearly hit the dirt. He was looking at a gore-covered, battle-hardened young man who could have been Gallarael’s twin. The resemblance was beyond all doubt. Only siblings could look so much alike. Then he saw the insignia on the young man’s breast and it all fell into place. This was Prince Russet Oakarm. Gallarael’s real father was the King of Parydon.
Without another thought, he fell to a knee and bowed to the prince of the realm.
Her name was Itchy Witchy, and her arse was always twitchy,
but her tits made the sailors forget to care.
The first mate tried to fit her, but her bush was full of critters,
and the captain made him cut off all his hair.
Vanx opened his eyes back in his mother’s humble abode. It was just like it had been when he was a boy. As he rose from his padded floor mat and yawned, she turned and smiled that wonderful smile and her golden eyes lit into sparkling jewels. That smile was love incarnate and he hoped it would always be with him.
In the back of his mind he knew he was either hallucinating or dreaming because his mother had died a dozen years past. Vanx forced that thought away, though, and decided to revel in the warmth of his vision.
On bare feet he ran to her. When his arms wrapped around her waist and he had to look up to see her loving face, he realized he was in his boyhood form.
The comfort and familiarity of the vision shifted and he was skipping along the flower-lined path to Master De Xava’s grove, which was in a copse of ancient iron oaks near the river. Vanx had part of a cheese wheel, some fresh-baked bread, some dried venison, and some green apples in a sack thrown over his shoulder. His mother always packed enough for both him and the lesson master.
The feeling was carefree and intensely joyful, as if the whole world would eventually bend to his will. Just before he entered the copse, a pair of young Zyths a few years older than Vanx stepped out of the afternoon shadows and surprised him. Before Vanx could catch the breath they scared out of his lungs, they started pelting him with rocks and insults. Fists and booted feet soon followed.
“You’re not Zythian,” one of them barked as they sat on Vanx’s chest. “You’ve dirty hair and green eyes. You’re one of them.”
“He’s a mud-bug’s shit pile, is what he is,” the other boy said. “And his mother is just a man-loving whore.”
“Stupid half-human.” And so it went for a good long while.
Vanx remembered hitting up into the jaw of the bronze-haired, yellow-eyed boy on top of him. He’d struck with all he had. He remembered feeling a hard-toed boot hit him in the temple and the explosion of light and pain that it caused. Then there was the horrendous beating that followed. He also remembered that the idea the two boys were right, that he wasn’t like any of the other children on the island, so distracted him that he hadn’t even cried.
Master De Xava carried him back to his glade and boiled up a brew of thatchle root, lichen extract, and cherry bark.
“It is the custom that you decide the punishment of your assaulters,” the thin, silver-haired teacher told him as Vanx sipped the pain-relieving tea.
“What would you have done to Zeezle and Dorlan Croyle for attacking you unprovoked?”
“But they’re right, Master,” Vanx said through swollen lips. “I’m not like them-or you. I’m not a Zythian.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” the old amber-eyed scholar asked. “The blood of Zyth and man do not mix well. Nearly all children of that sort of union die at birth, or shortly after. As far as I know, Vanx, you are the only one of your kind.” Master De Xava smiled kindly. “I’d say that makes you especially extraordinary.”
“I don’t want to have them punished for what they did, Master Xava,” Vanx said with a shrug. “I’d rather have the chance to face them one at a time on the practice yard. Or better yet at the center ring, at the Fairy Fest, before the council of Elders and all the clans.”
“What if one of them beats you? They are both bigger and older than you.”
“Then they will be shamed all the more for having both jumped me in the forest.”
The old man’s laughter was cut off a few moments later when Vanx continued. “…But neither will win, Master. Dorlan called my mother a whore. His insult will be returned tenfold. You can wager on it.”
The scene shifted a little bit. They were in the same forest glade, only it was many years later. Zeezle’s expression was hollow. There was none of the mirth in his eyes that Vanx had come to associate with his close friend. All that could be found in Zeezle’s dim amber orbs were tears of anguish. Dorlan, Zeezle’s brother, was dead. Killed when the notorious young dragon attacked the herd of big-horned billies that Dorlan was shepherding. Vanx knew that it would be a few more years before Zeezle found the portions of life’s joy that were charred away on Dorlan’s pyre. Zeezle’s passion, though, the grim subject of his work, and the focus of most of his attention, had been determined that day.
Suddenly Vanx was at a cozy candlelit table and Duchess Gallarain was purring in his ear. She licked his cheek with a huge, sandy tongue, and Vanx rolled awake instantly.
The young haulkatten was hovering over him and purring loudly. Around him, the horrific sounds of the injured men, and others shouting and bustling, came to his ears.
“You’re alive then?” Darbon asked with relief showing in his voice. He and Matty were crouched down near where Vanx was lying in the grass.
“He’s too pretty to die,” Matty said.
Darbon smirked at her but grinned when Matty looked at Vanx.
“What happened?” Vanx managed. “Where are Trevin and Gallarael?”
“They’re on their way to Dyntalla with half of the Crown Prince’s escort, no less,” Matty snorted.
Vanx tried to sit up, but instantly regretted the attempt. His head swam and his stomach clenched into a tight knot. A hot, pulsing throb began hammering at his temple in double taps. “Where are we?” he asked weakly.
“Shhh.” Matty patted his chest. “Lie still. The goose egg on the side of your head is as big as my nub.”
Darbon offered him a waterskin. “We’re out among the crows and corpses, waiting.” Darbon’s tone showed that he wasn’t pleased about it.
Vanx took a sip and was happy that it was wine he tasted. “Waiting for what?”
“Prince Russet’s return,” Darbon answered. “He and some men have gone off to find those who were following us. We are to all travel to Dyntalla together when they get back. Take it easy, and rest while you can.”
After a few more sips of wine, Vanx fell back into his half-conscious daze. He drifted off, contemplating the fact that the wild-haired warrior was the Crown Prince. He’d pictured the Prince of the Realm as being like the pompous young noble-boys he’d come across in the past. Prince Russet, though, was as bold and dangerous as they come. He dreamt this time of the night the duke’s men had hauled him out of the Golden Griffon’s common room and put him in chains.
He’d been playing the instrumental portion of “The Ballad of Lady Zepple”. He was lost in the pain-filled melody of the diminished chords and was about to start into the final verse. The room was crowded, and thick with pipe smoke, but the smell of roast boar and spilled ale dominated the senses. It was a scent that lingered in his nostrils long into his incarceration in Highlake Stronghold’s dungeon.
Most of the people in the dimly lit common room were dreamy-eyed, or lost in the melody behind closed lids. Only the barkeep, Vargoron, and his humongously fat wife weren’t enthralled by the tune. Vargoron was filling a trio of mugs held in one expert hand, while the slab of fat hanging below his wife’s upper arm swung back and forth as she wiped up a spill further down the bar. A pair of dwarves, ore seekers from the far eastern land of Karr, were swaying and sloshing in time. They’d been rude and unruly at first, but after Vanx played a few of the ditties he knew from their homeland they became enraptured in the music with everyone else.
Vargoron’s eyes darted nervously to the door, then to Vanx. Vanx had known what was happening. He could have bolted up the stairs and leapt out of a window. Twice before he’d used that sort of escape. Both times had been on Parydon Isle where the wives of the wealthy merchants offered him gold and jewels to share his bed. There, there were always so many people about that it was easy to fade into a crowd. It wasn’t the lack of people in the street that kept him on the dais, though.
It was the song.
To stop such a powerful thing in order to flee seemed unholy. As much as his instinct told him to, Vanx couldn’t just run away.
A half-dozen of them came through the front. By the way Varogon’s eyes darted back into the kitchen, Vanx knew there were more. He didn’t hurry the song, and before the men reached the raised platform where he sat they paused long enough to listen.
As Vanx finished the tune, the heart-wrenching crescendo had him swaying. He couldn’t help but wonder who would be waiting for Gallarain when she arrived at his room later in the night, for, as the song finished, and the magic of the music was gently broken, he had no doubt that it would not be him.
The duke’s men took away the lute to an eruption of boos. They wasted no time shackling his feet and hauling him bodily to the dungeon. As the heavy iron door clanged shut behind him, he woke again.
Vanx felt a sudden lurching motion and was jostled onto his side. Matty was there, and Darbon too. But something was wrong. They were in the back of a supply wagon and they were all in chains.
A crisp, cold burst of laughter came from somewhere nearby. The voice was unmistakable and it sent icy chills down Vanx’s spine. He fought the wrist manacles and peered up over the side of the wagon to see with his own eyes, hoping desperately that his ears were deceiving him.
“I didn’t have enough reason to take his head off before,” Duke Martin joked with the young Prince of the Realm. “But the mandatory penalty for escaping a sentence of slavery is death.”
“It is,” Russet Oakarm replied. “Yes, it is.”
I’m off to make a fool of a fool,
and a fool of a king as well.
Only a fool can fool a fool,
But with a king’s wits who can tell?
“The coldhearted bastard hasn’t said one whit about Gallarael,” Matty whispered. She was leaning against Darbon on the other side of the wagon cage. “He’s not even asked a question about her.”
Vanx was momentarily frozen in place by the look the dark-clad man riding behind Duke Martin gave him. The man’s eyes were empty and black, and something told Vanx that he was very dangerous. Vanx felt as if his soul were laid open by that dark, menacing gaze. Finally, a sinister grin twitched across the man’s hawkish, goateed face. The level of comfort returning to him made Vanx wonder if he had just been released from a spell.
“If the prince is siding with the duke, then I’m done.” Vanx twisted back to face his friends. “Didn’t Trevin or the old wizard speak for us?”
“It’s not what it seems, Vanx,” Matty said cryptically. “That princeling gave me a bawdy wink and told me and Darby to hold our tongues and watch over you.”
“’Tis true,” Darbon agreed. “There’s something going on here. The prince’s guards were told not to say a word to the duke and his company. All that happened while the duke rode out of the Wildwood.” Darbon’s expression changed and he indicated with a pointed finger one of the riders. “That-that hairy-looking mountain man is Bear Fang Karcher. Just like them Kobalts said, they were hunting us. He is an ogre hunter.”
“The prince knows as much,” Matty added. “I think we might be alright as long as we do what the princeling says; he seems to be a crafty one.”
“If you say so,” Vanx grumbled. He held up his wrist manacles, letting the footlong chain between them dangle. “It’s not like we have much choice in the matter.”
Matty held up her arms. She had no arm manacles. There was no way to keep one on her handless wrist. “You’d be surprised what I could get done with this lot of soldiers.” Her expression was jovial as she reached up under her pullover top and produced Vanx’s dagger from between her breasts. She showed it for only half a heartbeat before snugging it back into place. Both Vanx and Darbon considered her cleavage with only mildly surprised looks on their faces.
They rode on through the day, bouncing and bumping along on the hard-planked wagon bed. They crossed the Kimber River at a wide, pebbly shallow. Vanx kept expecting the wagon to start floating, but the water never made it over the axel shafts and the horses didn’t even have to slow.
Just before sunset Vanx began to smell wood smoke. Soon after, he saw the tiny speck of an open fire ahead in the dusky distance. Their procession headed directly toward it, following two horsemen who went galloping ahead in a rush. The landscape was mostly flat here. A few clusters of pines and wild oaks thrust up out of the sea of knee-high grass, as did a few lonely knuckles of grey stone.
Right before they gained the encampment, the smell of venison roasting on open flames came to Vanx’s nose. His mouth began to salivate and his stomach rumbled aloud. He hadn’t eaten at all that day. The sensation kept him distracted as he took the place in.
It appeared to be a temporary set up — several tents around a central pavilion. Since it was about half a day’s ride from the edge of the Wildwood, Vanx figured it was some sort of base camp for Quazar’s rescue party. Thinking of the old wizard raised a hundred questions that he doubted he could get answered any time soon.
There weren’t many men. With those from the prince’s escort who had ridden in with them, Vanx guessed there were around half a hundred in all. He also noticed that there were more horses and empty saddles than there were bodies. He didn’t want to think about the numerous corpses who met their end battling the ogres at the edge of the Wildwood.
It was near darkness when their wagon lurched to a halt. A quartet of soldiers came to escort them. Like Vanx, they were weary and they stunk of sweat and battle. Vanx could make out the gore still spattered on their chain and plate armor. The pitch torch one of them carried hissed and sputtered and cast a crazy, dancing orange light.
“The prince says to tell you to have faith in what is right. I have to run a chain through your legs and lock you all together, but I don’t like it none.”
“Nor I,” another of the men added softly. He met Vanx’s eyes. “You saved our chops when them big bastards had us pinned down and this is no way to give thanks.”
“We follow the prince’s orders. He is as just as they come. He is up to something that is in your favor, we think.”
They were herded over to a tiny copse at the edge of the camp. It consisted of six stunted pine trees huddled around an older, towering one. The soldier carrying the long chain looped it around the central trunk and, after running it between the three prisoners’ legs, he closed the loop with a heavy lock.
“I’ll bring the makings for a fire and set up a privy blind so that the lady can have a modicum of privacy.”
“Yes, good, Sir Earlin,” one of them agreed. “And I’ll fill my plate with those choice cutlets and some cheese and ease over after full dark.”
“And here.” The man with the torch handed the brand to Sir Earlin and fumbled at his hip. He loosed a half-full skin and passed it to Vanx. “Sir Cyle, give the lad your skin.”
“Yes, sir.” Sir Cyle did so.
“He might try to kill me in the night while I’m chained,” Vanx said after sipping from the skin. Seeing the utter confusion in the man’s eyes, he clarified. “The duke was in the forest hunting us. He wants me dead.”
“I might want you dead too, if you was pokin’ my wife,” Sir Earlin chuckled. “But not to worry. Our orders are to make sure the three of you get to Duke Elmont’s dungeon unharmed.”
Sir Cyle nodded in the darkness. “And that’s how it will happen, so at least try to enjoy our piss-poor hospitality. If it were up to us, you would be sleeping in the prince’s pavilion tonight.”
True to their words, one or more of the knights was at hand all through the evening. A privy pit was dug and a canvas screen was erected around it so that they might relieve themselves in semi-privacy. Hot food — choice cuts, not scraps — was brought on a platter of bread and cheese, and a pitcher of clean water was passed around as well.
When asked if they needed anything else, Matty requested a bucket of wash water. It came along with a bundle of clean clothes, all thin under-armor wear, most likely from the packs of the fallen men. They took turns washing while Sir Cyle answered Darbon’s myriad questions about Dyntalla. The tired knight didn’t seem to mind, and somehow managed, with broad gestures and general descriptions, to evade Darbon’s actual questions.
Soon another knight came to relieve Sir Cyle. This man either hadn’t been at the battle, or had an extra set of fully polished armor lying about. Vanx assumed the former, for this young man wasn’t battle-jaded or road weary.
It was late; the full moon was silvery pale, and stars speckled the cobalt sky. Vanx had just drifted off to sleep when a boot at his side shook him awake. It was the dark-eyed, dark-clad man who rode with Duke Martin. Feeling a chill in his blood, Vanx sat up and glanced about. There was no one around them but Matty and Darbon, and the two of them were in a tangled knot of slumber. None of the knights were anywhere to be seen and Vanx’s heart began to hammer into a panicked tattoo, for the sinister-looking man’s expression was a blood-chilling grin of triumph.
“What do you want?” Vanx asked.
“Shhhh!” The man hissed through his delight. “If I wanted to kill you, I’d not have shaken you awake, fool.”
The reality of that statement made such stark sense to Vanx that it calmed him. He struggled to gather his wits, though, because his every instinct was telling him that this man was dangerous and evil.
“What is this Blood Stone I’ve overheard the soldiers whispering about?”
“I wouldn’t tell you even if I knew,” Vanx replied. “What are you? Where is our guard?”
“My name is Coll, and I suggested that Sir Pallance take a break and fill his skin from the keg in the cooks’ tents. He has a long day ahead of him, leading troops back to the edge of the Wildwood to fetch the bodies of the dead.”
“And he just went?”
Coll chuckled. “I can be very persuasive, as you’re about to find out.” Coll waved his hand around and mouthed the words to a spell that should have made Vanx want to answer his questions eagerly. Zythian blood was far more resistant to magic than human blood. Vanx had enough of it in him that it simply deflected the spell’s power and dispersed it into the night. Clearly Coll couldn’t understand how Vanx had defied his dark magic. He grew angry when Vanx was still able to refuse his will. Determined to learn about the powerful artifact, Coll tried a different tact. He strode over to where Darbon and Matty were sleeping in each other’s arms and cast another spell. This one was quite a bit more powerful than the last.
Just as a deep crimson cloud of gas began flowing out of his palm and crept down over the unsuspecting couple, Sir Earlin stepped out of the darkness, drawing steel.
Had he been listening all along? Vanx wondered as his hope rose and fell in the same heaving of breath. Coll’s red mist, looking like a roiling cloud of steamed blood, quickly formed around Sir Earlin’s face. The knight’s sword slid back into place. His determined expression went slack, and the big, armored man took a knee right beside the sleeping forms of Vanx’s friends.
“You see, Vanx, even though you can somehow thwart my spell, you will still tell me what I want to know.”
“Why should I?” Vanx asked with halfhearted defiance. He could have guessed Coll’s next words.
“Because if you don’t, these three will die.” Coll’s eyes locked onto Vanx’s, and Vanx felt that same icy chill he had earlier in the day.
“As we speak they are breathing in more and more of the poisonous gas. The more they breathe, the more damage is done to them, so you’d better start talking before their minds are permanently damaged due to your dalliance.”
“What do you want to know?” Vanx asked. He would say what he had to say to save his friends, but no more. Not a word more.
“You can start by telling me what talisman you carry that keeps my spells from affecting you.”
“I’m only half-human. My blood makes me immune to fledgling cantrips such as you work.”
Coll’s brows narrowed at the insult. “I might just kill your friends for that.” Coll gave Vanx one last glaring look. “Now tell me about the Blood Stone.”
While Vanx told him vaguely of the stone and how it attracted the ogres, he searched the recesses of his mind for the words and gestures required to cast a spell that he knew would summon a gust of wind. It was a sailors’ incantation, a silly poetic phrase containing a magical binding, a bargain of sorts. One day off the end of your life in trade for a steady wind. It’s a small price to pay if you’re going to die at sea without it. Vanx learned the limerick during the first days of his vision quest, when he sailed from the isle of Zyth to Parydon proper. He had worked the binding twice, just to pass the time at sea, but that had been many, many mugs of ale in the past. Still, it came to him like the words of a song.
“Who has the Blood Stone now then?” Coll asked, his face a study in smugness and burning curiosity.
“Ahhh.” Vanx sighed and put his fingers into a curl at his mouth, as if he were holding a horn. He blew into them then started reciting. “Fill the sails and sail us on, for we have been adrift too long. Wheek mar un bartered treth, a day of life for one sweet breath.”
Before Coll realized what was happening a sudden blast slammed into him. He went staggering back, windmilling his arms to no effect. The poisonous cloud of gas, as well as a few of the encampment’s tents, went with him. Within the span of three heartbeats the whole camp was alive with fright.
I’m off to make a fool of a fool,
and a fool of a kingdom too.
I might lose my head to the kingsman’s ax,
but I’ll try to fool him too.
The wall around Dyntalla was as impressive as it was imposing. It was built for the sole purpose of keeping the wilderness at bay with absolutely no attention paid to aesthetics. Vanx estimated it to be thirty feet tall. It was made of dull, grey granite and had a crenelated top. Its plainness was broken by the two square towers that flanked the heavy, iron-banded double gate. Each tower rose about fifteen feet above the top of the wall. Vanx could make out an archer and the triangular kingdom banner posted atop each one. On the left was Duke Elmont’s family crest, a rampant lion silhouetted in a field of green. The other displayed the spread-winged Parydon Falcon in gold on a field of bright purple. The men looking out at the approaching procession were armed with heavy crossbows. Vanx knew this was so that they could easily shaft someone below them at the gate. Not until Prince Russett’s banner men raised his pennant, which showed the Parydon Falcon swooping with outstretched claws in purple on a field of gold, did the distant rattle of the gate chains come to Vanx’s ears.
To Vanx, the scene was right out of some epic song. Dark wizards scheming under the nose of a young, headstrong prince; a snake-skinned duke who cared little for his own honor, and even less for the life of the daughter he didn’t know wasn’t his. The poisoned princess and her common-born lover, a crazy old wizard, and a would-be hero chained in the back of a supply wagon unjustly. Vanx laughed at the last thought.
He was no hero.
Still, as they drew nearer to the slowly opening gates he couldn’t help but feel that he was in some wild tale told by the hearth to pass away the winter months. All that was missing, he decided, were trumpeters blasting a proud, heart-quickening anthem, and a crowd of flower-throwing commoners waiting to greet the procession’s arrival.
Vanx let his wandering mind drift back to the beginnings of the new wall they’d passed a good mile back. Farmsteads and grazing swaths littered the span between here and there. None of the dwellings had the homey feel of permanency, as if the brave occupants knew they might have to flee back to Dyntalla for safety at any moment. Humans might spread across the new land like a plague, as some of his people thought, but at least they did it thoroughly well. And who was to say they were wrong for doing it?
Once the new wall was completed the human’s foothold on the Wilds would be more of a headlock, maybe even a chokehold. He pondered the idea that this uprising of magic-influenced ogres might be nature’s way of rejecting man. Then he remembered how the king of men had sworn to protect the Wildwood and how the ogres had chased away most of its inhabitants.
Sir Earlin, who had kept his men close to the wagon throughout the day, spurred his big, grey destrier up close to them.
“I owe you double now, Vanx,” he said. “You saved my chops again last night.”
“So you remember then?” Vanx felt a wave of relief. He hadn’t mentioned the incident with Coll for fear of causing himself even more trouble than he was already in. “I thought maybe you’d blanked it from your mind.”
“Nay, friend.” The knight paled at the memory. “As much as I’d like to forget that foul magic, I doubt I ever will.”
“That sorcerer is dangerous,” Vanx warned. “Someone has to warn the prince.” As much as Vanx disliked Duke Martin, he felt he had to say what he said next anyway. “There’s a strong possibility that the Duke of Highlake is under his sinister influence.”
“Yes,” Sir Earlin agreed. “I’ve spoken to the prince already. That’s why I’m here. He has a message for you. He wants you to be ready to leave your cell at two bells past midnight. Rest until then, my friend. My cousin is the dungeon master and you will be fed and treated well.”
Matty shot across the wagon bed. “All of us, or just him?” Her movement was so fast that she startled the knight’s horse.
Sir Earlin grunted at her. “That I cannot answer, lady,” he said. “I was told only to give a message to Vanx.”
“You can’t leave us in there, Vanx,” Matty said, giving a slight nod back at Darbon. “Especially him.” Vanx didn’t catch the meaning of Matty’s glance, but knew it had significance and that he should figure out what she meant.
“I’ll not let the prince forget about you two, Matty, I promise.”
“Why am I even in chains?” Darbon blurted out defensively. “I am an apprentice smith. I was on my way to Parydon with my master to get my guild badge.” His voice had grown into an indignant yell that everyone could hear. “I’ve done no wrong, and people in Parydon are expecting me.”
Seeing that Duke Martin, Coll, Prince Russet, and even Bear Fang Karcher were now staring at them, Vanx lunged out a wild boot kick at Sir Earlin’s horse. “Sorry,” he mumbled under his breath, more to the animal than to the rider, as his heel thumped the side of its head soundly. The well-trained horse snorted then lowered its head and gave the wagon’s side-plank a solid head-butt.
“Shut your mouth, boy,” Sir Earlin barked. “Or me horse’ll shut it for ya!”
This drew a bit of laughter from some of the men, but a lot of the chuckling seemed forced. Vanx saw the duke’s expression pale when Darbon was speaking, and how he hurriedly leaned in to hear what Coll whispered to him in private. The duke wasted no time easing his horse over to the prince’s side. He spoke quietly for a moment, and then Prince Russet gave a glance up at the Dyntalla wall. They were still some hundred yards from the gate. The prince shook his head and left the duke awaiting a reply as he trotted his silvery-gray mount over toward the wagon. With a look of frustrated regret showing plainly on his face, he spoke harshly.
“Aiding escaped slaves is a crime, boy! Duke Ellmont will hear your case and pass judgment.” Russet Oakarm’s eyes caught Vanx’s for a moment. The look said far more than any words could. “Until then, bind your tongue, or maybe someone should bind it for you.”
Matty snatched Darbon back by the collar. “Shhhh! Don’t anger His Royalness,” she hissed.
Behind the prince, Vanx saw the smug look of relief wash over Duke Martin’s face, and the mild look of amusement on Coll’s.
Suddenly, trumpets blared out, exactly as Vanx had imagined. But now the reverie of the moment was forgotten as the gate portal swallowed them into shadow.
“Sir Earlin, Sir Cyle,” Prince Russet ordered between the repetitive stanzas of the quick, stirring royal anthem. “Find Commander Gorn and turn over these slaves to the dungeon master.”
Vanx was impressed with the sheer size of the wall. Not only was it some thirty feet tall, but it was also twenty feet thick at its base. The gate tunnel’s arched ceiling was full of murder holes and arrow slots, and big enough to hold half a dozen fully loaded wagons and their teams. The whole of Prince Russet’s party fit in between the inner and outer gates with ease. Only after the huge outer panels were ratcheted closed did the scroll-worked iron gates before them lift.
It was surprising what lay behind the wall. Vanx wasn’t sure what he’d expected, but it wasn’t what he found there. He thought he was entering a crowded, city-like setting, a place teaming with carters and criers and the general tumult of such places. In his limited experience, that’s what one found behind stone walls, but not here. Beyond the Dyntalla gate lay squared pastures and long, wide fields of what might be early wheat. These were offset by tracts of neatly planted rows of one crop or another. The air smelled clean, with just a trace of brine. Not far from the village-like cluster around the gate, there were more pastures of green. These were fenced and dotted with sheep that were ready for the shear. Some held tan and brown aurochs that barely seemed to move as they chewed away at the thick grass beneath them. The only other notable feature of the area was a single building sitting off to the side of the road. It was made of logs, like a huge mountain cabin. Around it were several wagons and a hitching post where horses were tethered. Young men labored to load heavy sacks of grain, barrel kegs, and burlap bags bulging with supplies into the wagons. Vanx decided that it was a trading post.
A road crossed the one they were on. It ran in the long shadow thrown by the wall. A cloud of dust in the distance showed that a group of horsemen was galloping their way, probably from the distant corner tower.
For a while they rolled onward along the road they’d taken through the gate. The prince and Duke Martin’s escort stayed behind, only to be replaced by a dozen leery-looking men in leather armor riding horses that were either of a poor lineage, or were malnourished. Sir Earlin and Sir Cyle led the way.
In the distance, for the amount of land encompassed by the great wall extended far beyond the limits of Vanx’s vision, a lazy brown haze hung in the air. It was the same sort of corruption he had seen clinging to the tower tops and palace roofs in Parydon. The smoke marked the location of Dyntalla proper. Vanx expected the air there to smell of wood smoke and coal-fired forges, of sea salt and freshly caught fish, of pitch, and sewer, and filth. That is how his nose remembered Parydon. His homeland didn’t have a metropolis that would qualify as a city. There were villages, many of them, but nothing like the life-infested corruption of Parydon proper. He’d once estimated that the island of Parydon was one third the size of his homeland, yet in that smaller space more than thrice the number of humans lived. It was madness, but he had to admit that he loved the place. Inns and taverns, hawkers and whores; the divergence of peoples was astounding. People from Curn, fur-clad Northmen, and half-naked Carrells intermingled with the small, stout dwarves and the boisterous folk from Harthgar.
Dyntalla, he was beginning to suspect, was going to be a little different. It was less populated and farther away from the center of the Parydon kingdom seat than any other stronghold, including Highlake. Vanx decided that it might be farther away, but it was too large a place to be less populated. Duke Martin’s mountain stronghold was nothing compared to this. Vanx longed to question the knights about it, but thought better of doing so.
Any one of these men riding guard might be their enemy.
Who exactly was the enemy here? Coll? Duke Martin? A monstrous beast on a distant island? Hordes of ogres? He wondered where he would be taken at two bells after midnight. He looked at Matty, who was staring back at him with half-closed lids. Darbon’s head lay in her huge bosom, bobbing and jiggling as they rode. Vanx didn’t find any answers in her eyes, but he remembered the look she gave him earlier and it suddenly became clear why she didn’t want Darbon to be in the dungeons. No matter how well the knights said she would be treated, she was a whore, or had been. Vanx tried not to judge. The guards, the fat, slovenly noble bastards, merchants who’d lost themselves in their cups, and probably as before, Duke Martin himself, would venture down to her cell door and hang their wick in.
Darbon would go mad for she wouldn’t be able to refuse them, not without being beaten, starved, or killed for not giving them what they wanted. Not even a good-hearted knight would be able to maintain a chivalrous stance against anything done to a one-handed, therefore marked, slave.
“I’ll survive it,” Matty said quietly. Apparently his expression had revealed his thoughts. The setting sun threw their shadows far ahead of them. In its unkind light Vanx could see every day of Matty’s age, every grime-filled wrinkle and loosening sag of skin. “Just make sure Darbon goes with you tonight.” She stroked Darbon’s hair. “Demand it, Vanx. Demand that Darbon go with you, wherever it may be.”
Vanx knew there was nothing he could say to ease her torment so he nodded that he would do what she wished. “I’ll try to have you along as well,” he added, hoping to give her a bit of hope.
“No.” She smiled at his kindness but the look changed to a sinister grin. She patted her cleavage, indicating the razor-sharp dagger that was still nestled between her breasts.
“I’m hoping Duke Martin stops in for a visit while you’re gone,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “He won’t be the same when he leaves, I assure you.” Her eyes fell back on Darbon’s sleeping face. Vanx could see the love in them, but he could also see the part of Matty that had brought her to where she was.
“Besides all of that, where you’re going, I’ll just get in the way. Darbon can use a bow. Don’t forget how he spitted Captain Moyle’s throat.”
“I remember.” Vanx nodded, but still hadn’t caught what she was getting at. “Where is it you think we’re going, Matty?”
“Why, Dragon’s Isle of course,” she smirked. “Do you think old Quazar and Trevin have just been lazing about these past few days? I’d bet my other hand that you and Gallarael’s brother are getting on a ship.”
The wizard saw the king and the king spoke grim.
“It’s me, mighty wizard I need your help again.”
“I’ll aid you,” said the wizard. “But there will be a price.
I will take your newborn daughter, while the reaper takes your wife.”
“You’re to be deposed then?” Duke Martin asked Commander Aldine. Both men, along with Bear Fang Karcher and Coll, were informed upon waking that they were being held in royal detention. They would be allowed the run of the stronghold, but the city beyond its gates was forbidden to them. One of Prince Russet’s treacherous, austere guards had been assigned to shadow each of them. Just outside the door of the ornately furnished sitting room, three of the guards waited for their charges.
After they’d been informed of their incarceration, Kavin Karcher just laughed. He’d gone to the privy a good, long while ago. No one had seen the infamous trapper or his shadow guard since.
“Yes, my lord,” Commander Aldine answered nervously. “Just after the noon bell, I’m to report at the archbishop’s office.”
“There’s no reason for you to be so fidgety,” Coll said from the glossy oaken board where he was pouring three goblets of brandy wine. He paused and set the crystal decanter down, plucked a square of cheese from a healthy platter that had been brought for them, and spoke around it as he chewed. “Mjust manswer the questions mtruthfully, mCommader. You’ll be just fine.”
“Aye, and shorter by a head,” Aldine snapped. “What do I say if I’m asked about the attack on the caravan, or why Captain Moyle chose to camp half a league away from a patrolled area? What if I’m asked of certain activities that my lord had taken with that would-be-bandit, Lord Magrin?” He turned from Coll back to face Duke Martin. “What if I’m asked why some of your men rode with those bandits during the attack? What if I am asked about Gallarael?”
Coll strode over and sat the tray of goblets on the low foot table between the duke and the commander and then took one of the offerings for himself. He chose the high-backed chair to Duke Martin’s left, leaving Commander Aldine sitting alone on the three-cushioned divan across the table from them both.
Duke Martin leaned forward and took a goblet in one hand and a handful of the cubed pieces of cheese in the other. “Help yourself,” he said, and looked at Coll for a heartbeat.
Coll gave a smart nod, and then responded to the Commander’s questions.
“Well, it seems you understand what not to answer.” He took a long swig of his drink. “You can’t answer a question with a response that implicates your liege lord. You’re sworn not too. For instance, and you can answer this truthfully; have you seen the duke engaged in conversation with any unsavory bandit-types?”
“Well… uh… no,” Aldine answered. He leaned forward and took a bread roll from the platter and sandwiched it around a piece of thinly-sliced roast. “No, I haven’t.” He took a bite, chewed for a moment, and then swallowed. Pointing his little finger at Coll as he spoke, as if he were being clever, he went on. “But the rumors of the orders I was given are-”
“Stop!” Coll said sharply. “The question was about what you’ve seen, not what the castle gossip is about.”
“Mmm.” Aldine nodded as he finished chewing his morsel. “I think I understand, but what if they ask what I’ve heard people say?”
“Well, did you hear that Duchess Gallarain was sleeping with the one-legged dwarven jester when the mummers were up from Dabbldwyn?”
Aldine’s gaze shot to his liege lord. He was surprised to find a jovial crinkle at the sides of his eyes. “Do you not think I hear the rumors too, Commander?” the duke asked. “You’ve heard the one about Captain Moyle accidentally killing one of his men on the training yard while he was piss-pot drunk?”
“Of course, but that’s a tale spread to make the youngsters afraid of him. There’s not a bit of truth to it.”
“Ah, but that’s what a rumor is,” Coll interjected, “a story told with little or no truth to back it up. It does not matter if there are rumors that Duke Martin was engaged with bandits; there’s also a rumor that you’ve been sleeping with Duchess Gallarain and that it was you who wanted to kill the bard. I’m sure the archbishop will be asking you about that rumor, too.”
Commander Aldine finished chewing his last bite of food and swallowed hard. Licking his lips, he dared to take in the duke’s expression again; it was one of amusement.
“She’s a whore, Commander,” the duke chuckled. “Like it or not, it’s the truth.” He took a long pull from his goblet and sighed. “She was no maiden when we consummated our union, I assure you. If she hadn’t made a spectacle over this mud-blooded minstrel, I would have piked his head and gone about my business.”
There was a subtle but unmistakable emphasis on the phrase “piked his head”, and it caused the commander’s mouth to go dry.
“A curious bit to think about, that one-legged little freak is still in the bottom of my dungeon somewhere.” The duke chuckled disgustedly. “I wanted to pike him, but I was ashamed to display his malformed gourd over my gates. By the gods, what goes through that woman’s head, I’ll never know.”
It was then that Commander Aldine finally leaned forward, took the third goblet of brandy wine from the tray and sipped from it. Coll let out a sigh of relief so obvious that the commander stopped. It was too late; he had already swallowed a mouthful of the bitter-tasting drink.
“It’s done, then?” Duke Martin asked Coll as the commander’s eyes bulged and darted around frantically.
“It is, my lord,” Coll answered him. Then to Aldine, “Commander, if you’ll just lie back and relax, you will feel no pain as you pass.”
“Mwew-myou poisioned me,” Commander Aldine gasped and choked as a sound like crashing waves careened through his skull.
“No, Commander,” Coll said as he stood and pushed Aldine back into the divan with his booted foot and held him there. The commander’s goblet tipped in his hand, but Coll caught it before it fell. “That is a rumor,” he said, looking directly into Aldine’s frantic eyes. “Technically, you poisoned yourself when you drank from a goblet full of jade-tailed scorpion venom. In our current predicament, only a fool wouldn’t have expected such a thing to happen.”
Duke Martin belted out a laugh at that. “You haven’t been paying attention,” he said, pointing an accusing finger at Aldine. “The newest rumor out of Highlake is that you were laying with the Duchess and were jealous about her tryst with the Zyth.”
“Mwaaw.” Aldine tried to push up from beneath Coll’s foot but couldn’t manage it.
“Wait, Al, there’s more,” the duke continued. “You set up the ambush and paid your bandit cohorts to blame all of it on me so that you could rid your woman of her lover and her husband all in one fell swoop. They’ll find plenty of the missing items from the caravan raids among your things back at Highlake.”
“Gnooo,” the commander gurgled as a froth of bile formed at his lips.
“After all,” Coll added, “you’re the man who directly commanded the troops, not the duke. You’re the very man who ordered Captain Moyle to set camp in that unpatrolled area. You’re the one who got Gallarael killed and then killed yourself here in the sitting room because the guilt of accidentally killing your lover’s daughter overwhelmed you.”
The last thing Commander Aldine remembered was Coll sliding a small vile into his palm and closing his hand over it. After that, the world faded away into complete blackness.
“By the gods,” Duke Martin said when the commander finally went still. “I thought he’d never take a drink.”
“For a moment I thought he might be turning into a formidable adversary,” Coll commented as he pulled a folded coverlet from the back of the divan and covered the commander’s body with it to make it appear as if he were napping.
“It’s worse than I thought,” Quazar mumbled to himself. He was silently urging Duke Martin and his Darkean companion to leave the sitting room so that he could run in and save the commander. Had Coll not spoken the name of the poison he’d used there wouldn’t have been a chance at all. As it was, the chances of reviving him were fading quickly.
Quazar was watching them through a peephole from a hidden passage in the wall. The two appeared to be leaving the room. Quazar hoped they’d hurry. He didn’t want it on his conscience that he had just stood by and watched while a man’s soul departed on its journey to the hereafter. He didn’t have much choice, though. He had taken vows before the Council of the Royal Order before attaining the title of Master Wizard. The vows limited his ability to interfere with what the nobility of Parydon did, including stopping dukes from poisoning their own liegemen. He was, however, bound to try to save anyone who needed saving, especially a respected commander of kingdom men, so he waited impatiently and prepared his mind for what he would have to do if he had the chance to help the poisoned man.
Orphas told him, through the lode crystals that crowned the staves all wizards of the Royal Order possessed, that Aldine was the most likely to be truthful. Orphas had also conveyed his suspicions on Coll’s influence and the possibility of his being a servant of the dark. After carefully observing Coll and casting a few subtle spells of revealing, Quazar had confirmed his colleague’s suspicion. Coll was a Darkean. He had little in the way of power, but was as ambitious and evil-hearted as any Quazar had ever come across.
Duke Martin was under the influence of something greater than Coll, though. The two of them had been speaking of the Blood Stone’s power and how to obtain it before the commander had come into the room. The coldness of the way the two men had spoken, and the utter lack of compassion for the lives of those who serve them in their dark bidding, had held Quazar to the peephole. Quazar could tell that Coll was trying to use the duke’s ripe emotion, the shame of his wife’s escapades, to tempt him further down the path of pain and hate. The imminent death of his daughter, and the collapse of his plan to worm his way into the high nobility by marrying off Gallarael, had him seething to regain control of the world around him. What Coll couldn’t see was that there was already a deep emptiness in the duke’s heart. Duke Martin had crossed the point of no return long, long ago. Quazar considered that it might actually be Coll who was being led, not the other way around.
“… can’t believe he so rudely fell asleep like that,” Coll commented softly as he and the duke exited the sitting room.
“The dungeon is available for us to visit, is it not?” the duke asked the guard assigned to him. The man nodded with no change of expression that Quazar could see. “Good. I think I need a word or two with that thieving whore.”
Quazar fidgeted as Commander Aldine’s shadow guard peeked into the room. When the door to the sitting room finally closed, the wizard let out a sigh of relief. With a flourish of his hand and a spoken word, he disappeared from the cubby behind the wall and reappeared in the sitting room. He wasted no time starting what needed to be done. He just feared it was being done too late to save the commander from death.
A dragon hoards its treasure.
A dragon guards its haunts.
Where does a dragon lay its head?
Why anywhere it wants.
They rolled through another gate, this one set into a wall so hidden by the structures built off of its face that it was barely discernible for what it was. The farmsteads and dirt-packed roads had become more frequent and gave way to stable yards, inns, and eventually a shabby, cobbled mercantile district. The glowing windows of the one- and two-story dwellings cast beams of steady yellow lantern light, making it hard for Vanx to see into the shadows. But it didn’t matter. This was where the poor and less fortunate lived, those who toiled for what little coin they had. The hawkers sold plums and apples that Vanx knew were on the verge of rotting. The tavern sold ale so watered that it barely had a scent at all, and the whores, he was certain, were dirty and pocked with sores.
Just as Vanx expected, the world on the other side of the city gate wasn’t much different. People wore plain, roughspun garments just like the farmhands and plowmen at the city’s fringes. But there were others wearing imitation finery, the stuff the wealthier classes expected their servants to wear. Sweat-stained doublets belted over ill-fitting hose. Gowns with hems that were tattered and frayed. There was an occasional well-dressed merchant or land owner conversing with the more respectable whores on lamp-lit corners.
The buildings here were more closely packed. The streets were cobbled and clean and nearly closed in overhead by the jutting balconies on the third and fourth levels.
A well-lit balcony full of lace-pressed cleavage and multi-colored locks held women who giggled and called down to the guardsmen of the escort. Vanx saw that their faces were painted gaudily. These were the whores who didn’t walk the street. A few of the men called back promises, some in lewd detail, of what they would do later when they were free of duty. The other people on the streets averted their eyes and ignored the group as they passed. Their reaction, or lack of it, caused Vanx to wonder if carts full of people in chains were a common sight here.
The road wound around a bend and the old Dyntalla Stronghold rose up before them. The dwellings and the spaces between them became wrought-iron fences with evenly spaced lantern-topped brick posts, probably the homes of minor nobility and the wealthier of the area’s families.
The mercantile district here was free of hawkers. Uniformed men were posted so that one was always within sight. The fineries worn here were not imitation. The tavern rooms boasted minstrels and dancing, and by the smells and sounds spilling forth from their doors, they were serving more wine than ale.
The stronghold itself loomed up before them, looking like so many of Parydon’s castles, all blocky and square at the lower levels, but surrounded by steeply pitched tile roofs and copper-sheeted tower peaks. It wasn’t gloriously illuminated like the palaces Vanx had seen on the Isle of Parydon, but then again this wasn’t another castle down the lane competing for vanity among its rivals. In Dyntalla, there was only one castle, and its iron-bound gates cranked open loudly for them like some hungry, mechanical maw.
The smell of the ocean was strong. The sea breeze was rushing steadily inland. Even as they were taken down into the dungeon, the scent of brine found Vanx’s nose.
Vanx ate ravenously from a dirty wooden platter full of cheese and stale bread. He washed it down with tepid, but clean, water. After that, his chains were removed and he was led to a plain stone room barely four paces long and half as wide. A torch held in the jailor’s hand revealed a semi-clean floor with a dark, dry stain in the middle of it that might have been old blood. Then the door banged closed and a latch was set. The torchlight was reduced to two beams: one that spread through a head-high peep hole, the other a thin, wide, plank-like beam just below waist level.
“Two bells after,” the jailor grumbled. “Rest until then.”
Vanx hadn’t intended to fall asleep, but slumber found him as soon as he settled against the wall. It was a sound, dreamless sleep. Then he was rudely awakened by the loud rasping of his door’s lock being slammed open.
The same torch-bearing man came into the cell.
“Follow me,” the man grunted a chuckle before turning and stalking off.
Vanx was relieved to see Quazar standing with both Darbon and Matty at a rough-hewn archway. They began to descend down a wide, well-worn stairwell that took them, to Vanx’s best estimate, about fifty feet below the level of the streets. They stopped at a landing.
The torch-bearing dungeon guard left them and went back up the stairs. Quazar cast a bright white orb into existence. As they hurried to follow the wizard down a wide tunnel, Vanx wondered how much farther down those stairs went. Neither the torchlight nor the wizard’s bright orb was able to penetrate the depths. The tunnel they were traversing twisted and turned its way through the rock into which it had been hewn. Occasionally, brackish water puddled on the floor for them to splash through. White streaks of salt and mineral deposits marked where seawater trickled in through the crevices. Vanx had the unnerving feeling that they were moving under the sea. He didn’t like the thought and fought to keep his worry at bay. Luckily his concern disappeared when Quazar led them into an open cavern.
A million surfaces caked with salt crystal reflected the wizard’s magical light in a spectacular manner. The whole cavern sparkled and twinkled. Every surface reflected, refracted, or glimmered. Vanx figured it was like being trapped inside a diamond.
“Here is where we part ways,” Quazar said as Trevin stepped out of a side tunnel brandishing a torch, the orange light of which was nearly negated by the sparkling spectacle around them.
“Vanx.” Trevin nodded his greeting with a grim smile. His torch was like a single candle trying to shine in the heart of a roaring bonfire.
“How is Gallarael?” Vanx asked.
“She’s dying, but conscious for the moment,” Trevin answered. “Quazar says he can maybe keep her alive until we return with the fire wyrm’s blood.” He paused. “Gal said thank you for helping get her through the Wildwood. She will tell the archbishop what you and Matty did.” He paused to choke back his grief. “You’ll come with me to fetch the stuff, won’t you, Vanx? I doubt we have enough time.”
Vanx forced a grin. “I will, but there will be more than just one dragon to deal with. I’ve heard from someone who has been there that the island is full of the dangerous bastards.”
“I have heard the same,” added Quazar.
“Let us hurry from here,” Darbon said, taking Matty’s hand and starting toward Trevin. “I want away from the dungeon. This dark place is not right.” He was clearly startled when Matty pulled her hand from his. She hadn’t moved to join them. “What is it?” Darbon turned to her in confusion.
“I’m not going, Darby,” she said plainly. Then she looked to Quazar. “You can keep me hidden for a time?”
“I can try,” Quazar nodded. “I will try.”
She gave the young smith’s apprentice a hug and kiss, then found the shadows behind Quazar to hide her tears. From the darkness she spoke again. “Vanx Malic, you keep him safe. The Goddess commands it.”
Quazar stepped to Vanx’s side and whispered. “He doesn’t know she’s with child,” in a voice so soft Vanx nearly missed it. Then in a normal tone, “Remember to take the dragon’s blood during Aur’s alignment with her stars. It is imperative that this be the case. Samples taken at any other time simply won’t be pure enough.”
The distant sound of boots slapping the wet stone floor and shouting men echoed to their ears.
“We must go,” said Trevin, pulling Darbon along by the sleeve. “Word of your escape from the dungeon has reached the city guard. They’ll be down here looking soon.”
“Goodbye, my Darbon,” Matty called. “Watch over him, Vanx Malic.”
After that, Vanx was scrambling up through a winding tunnel behind Darbon as Trevin led them to their destination. The whole way Matty’s talk of the Goddess, and her commands, and the way her goodbye had sounded so cryptic, filled his thoughts. Before he realized it, they emerged into another cavern. It was far less spectacular than the last one, but no less surprising. This cavern opened up onto the sea, and waiting for them in a fully manned longboat was Prince Russet and a crew of rowers.
“Hurry now,” the prince ordered. “We have to reach the Sea Hawk and be out of the bay by dawn.”
“The Sea Hawk?” Vanx gave Trevin a questioning look.
“It’s the prince’s schooner.” He shrugged as if there were no way he could explain. “He’s taking us to Dragon’s Isle in it.”
“I usually show up in a place riding in the lap of luxury and leave in chains,” Vanx told the prince as he followed Darbon up the plank that had been set for them. “You’ll forgive me if I’m at a loss for words here.”
“Ha!” Russet Oakarm clapped Vanx on the back and booted the plank board away from the boat. “If you’d stop poking the wives of the lords in the lands you visit, you might leave those places as you came.”
Vanx chuckled but couldn’t say more because Darbon began questioning Trevin about what was going on, and what had transpired over the last few days.
While the seamen rowed them across the moonlit bay, Trevin answered as best as he could.
After reaching Dyntalla, Quazar had taken Gallarael into his tower. There he cast his staying spells on her, and some priests somewhat revived her. While that was going on, Trevin was introduced to Duke Ellmont, and then deposed by the Archbishop of Dyntalla and a flock of his scribes.
Trevin said that Duchess Gallarain had gotten word to Dyntalla through an Orphas. Trevin wasn’t sure if an Orphas was a person or something else. Either way, quite a few charges were being piled against Duke Martin. The duke still hadn’t figured out that he was an uncelled prisoner, now contained by the Dyntalla wall. Trevin had heard that some of the duke’s men were turning on him, and the prince added that his father might possibly be coming to Dyntalla to oversee the process of justice himself.
Matty and Vanx were still considered slaves, and would be until their tales came out and an unbiased ruling could be rendered. Just because the duke was cold-blooded and guilty of many a crime, it still didn’t change the status of those already judged.
“So whose slave am I?” Vanx asked.
“Lucky for you, I’m not married,” Prince Russet chuckled. “For that reason, you are considered to be in my service for the time being.”
“May I speak freely, Master?” asked Vanx in a voice heavy with sarcasm.
“I said the kingdom considers you in my service, Vanx. As far as I am concerned, you’re the man who saved half of my crew at the edge of the Wildwood.”
“What about me?” Darbon asked.
“You’ll be a free man once you’ve been questioned by the archbishop.”
“If you live to be questioned is what he means,” Vanx joked. “We have a stop to make on the way to Dragon’s Isle. There’s someone on Zyth that will be able to help us. It’s not out of the way.”
“Don’t fall for it, Highness,” one of the rowers said with conviction in his voice. “If it’s true, if he’s half heathen, he will just turn into a bird, or disappear once we dock.”
Vanx laughed at the absurdity of the sailor’s superstition, but his mirth was cut short by Trevin.
“Watch your tongue, man,” the young guardsman snapped. “This man has gone far and above the call of duty to a kingdom that isn’t even his own. He could have walked away a dozen times over, but hasn’t.”
“’Tis true,” Prince Russet agreed. “You’ll hold your tongues or I’ll cut them out and let the half-breed heathen cook them for his supper.”
Vanx met Prince Russet’s eyes for a heartbeat. In the silence of the moment, only the sound of the outspoken oarsman’s gulping swallow could be heard. That caused the whole boatload of men to burst out laughing.
“I left Highlake on my way to Parydon to get my smith’s badge,” Darbon commented. “Now, here I am on my way to an island full of dragons.”
“Just think, Darby,” Vanx said as he sat down beside his friend, “just last week, you were but a boy and none of us thought we’d make it through the Wildwood.”
Across his sea we sail,
to Nepton we hold true.
For if you cross old Nepton,
his sea will swallow you.
By midday Dyntalla was but a brown smear on the horizon; otherwise, the sky was a blank canvas of bright blue save for one puffy cloud, which lazed seemingly in place even though the breeze was warm and brisk. A flock of gulls squawked and frolicked in the schooner’s wake and the bright sun glittered off the sea. The Sea Hawk slid over the slow-rolling swells and down through the valley-like troughs with grace and agility. The water was a deep cobalt blue, and all morning long, both Trevin and Darbon had been vomiting over the side rail.
“It will get better,” the deckhand nearest the two said with a three-toothed grin. “About the time we hit Zyth you’ll just be getting used to her.”
“How long is that?” Trevin managed to ask.
“About two days, if this wind holds.” The sailor grunted as he hauled up a bucketful of seawater on the end of a rope. “But that’s only iffen we can avoid the tempests.” He sloshed the seawater from his bucket onto the deck between Darbon and the rail, washing away the small puddle of bile the boy had recently heaved forth. “If the tempest gets us,” the deckhand went on, “then we’ll be tossed about mightily, and if lightning don’t get our boom, or set our sails afire, then maybe we’ll not drift too far off course; might make Zyth in a week or two.”
“Enough,” Captain Willington barked from somewhere. He was a barrel-chested, full-bearded seadog stuffed into the fancy uniform of a royal captain. “Quit scaring the poor landlubbers, Yandi, or I’ll let the heathen feed you to his kin when we get to Zyth.”
“Aye aye, Cap’n Willie,” the man responded over a snort and a few hoots of laughter from his mates.
“He was just sportin’ with them, Cappy,” another hand said from above. This one had all of his teeth, but was missing the lower half of his left leg. It was no surprise that everyone called him Peg. True to his name, there was a thick wooden dowel booted in rusty iron strapped to his left thigh so that he could walk about.
When he’d first seen the one-legged seaman, Trevin had wondered what good he’d be at sea. He couldn’t envision a man with a wooden leg being able to keep his balance on a continually moving vessel. He found out how wrong he was when they left Dyntalla Bay and Peg shot up into the rigging like a monkey. The man’s arms were powerful, and he went about pulling lines and unfurling sails better than any man in the rigging. Only moments after that, Trevin found the side rail. Now, several hours later, with Darbon still fatefully at his side, he was feeling no better at all. In fact, he was feeling worse. He couldn’t even manage to thank Captain Willie for calling the annoying deckhand away from them.
Darbon started to say something, but only groaned into another heave. This time, not even stomach fluids came out of him.
“Thank old Nepton himself,” Yandi said, trying desperately to contain his mirth. “The lad’s finally empty. The other emptied out half a bell ago.”
“That means your shift of swabbin’s over, Yan.” The captain looked to be fighting his grin. “Take your bucket and brush down and clean out the prince’s privy. One of these two lost it there before making it to the rail.”
Yandi let out a grumble of displeasure over his new order, but all that escaped his mouth as he tossed the bucket back overboard was, “Aye aye, Cap’n.”
The captain leaned over the rail of his slightly elevated steerage deck and looked down at the two seasick men. “Let yourselves heave a time or two more to make sure you’re really out of juice, and then make your way down to your cabin. I’ll have Cookie draw you a cup of stout to help you sleep. When you wake up from that, the misery will be behind you.”
Trevin tried to thank the captain but only managed to raise his head before the ship lurched. The bow went down sharply and sideways. Trevin gasped and went instantly into another fit of heaving. This time Captain Willie’s laugh wasn’t containable, nor were the hoots from the rigging.
Below deck, in Prince Russet’s royal cabin, Vanx, Prince Russet, and Sir Earlin were discussing several subjects while sipping fine wine.
“A dragon killed his brother when we were boys,” Vanx was saying about Zeezle Croyle. “Since then, the study of wyrms has been his passion. He is the only person I know who has ventured to Dragon’s Isle.” Vanx shrugged. “He might be able to help us. I doubt we’ll be able to just walk up and prick a vile of blood from a mature fire wyrm. But you never know, this might not be as hard a quest as it seems.”
“Good, Vanx,” Prince Russet nodded.
“I’ll tell you where the big dragons sleep,” Sir Earlin said jovially. He was more than a little drunk. The other two waited, but it became clear that the knight wanted to be prompted before finishing. Finally Prince Russet asked, “Where do those big dragons sleep, then?”
“Why anywhere they fargin’ well please!” The knight slapped his knee and bellowed out a deep, contagious laugh.
“Sir Earlin, is this really the time for such jests?” Prince Russet asked after his fit had subsided. “My half-sister’s life hangs in the balance of this endeavor.”
“I haven’t forgotten.” The knight’s smile faded. “But if ever there is a time to make light of life, it’s when you are on the way to an island full of dragons.”
“Or an island full of man-eating heathens,” Vanx added dryly.
Prince Russet caught his eye and smiled. “Sorry about that. I was trying to scare the oarsmen.” He shrugged. “I meant no offense.”
“I took no offense, Majesty, or Highness, or whatever it is I’m supposed to call you.” Vanx returned the somber grin. “The look you put on his face was worth it.”
“You can call me Russ if the setting is casual, for you are not from Parydon. But in public, Prince, or Prince Russet will suffice.”
“Do you treat all your slaves with this much consideration?”
“You’re the first slave who’s ever been in my service, Vanx.” The prince took a sip of wine. “If it were up to me, sir, you would be knighted for the way you selflessly braved into that horde of ogres so that my men might have a chance to break away. And the simple fact that you had no idea that I was the Crown Prince at that time makes the deed all the more extraordinary. Not very many men,” he shook his head apologetically, “or Zythians for that matter, would have done half as much.”
“Most folk not sworn to protect a liege would have flat-out bolted away,” Sir Earlin said with a look of deep respect. “Only a lunatic or a baresark, or maybe a half-crazed man-eating heathen would have waded in so deep with not a scrap of armor to protect his body.”
Prince Russet raised his heavy pewter goblet in toast. “To man-eating heathens.”
“Aye, and to dragon’s blood easily obtained,” Sir Earlin added.
Vanx touched cups with them and found himself feeling a little more pride.
He’d considered leaving this tangled human melodrama behind him back in the Wildwood. He’d survived the slave shackles twice now, and had somehow gotten through the treacherous, ogre-filled forest. Though he could find a hundred reasons to abandon this affair, he hadn’t. He was proud of that, too.
His moment of self-congratulations was blunted when Prince Russet returned to the table and unrolled an old sheepskin map of the area. The map was centered on the strange spire that Vanx still longed to see. To the far north, the tip of the bitter lands dipped down into the picture. To the west, the Isle of Parydon sat next to the coast of the huge continent the humans had claimed. The northern half of Zyth could be seen at the bottom of the page, but what drew the eye was the ferocious-looking dragon drawn over the landmass east of the spire. Below the artist’s menacing sketch were the words, “Dragons Be Here”, and reading them caused Vanx to reconsider the idea that going there for any reason might be a mistake. Sir Earlin had just described his actions on the edge of the Wildwood as something done by a lunatic. Vanx was starting to wonder if the old knight wasn’t right.