Rien paced the dark forest clearing, being careful not to make too much noise.
The first three days through the forest went quietly with the exception of an encounter with a bear that the spooked horses tried to make as short as possible.
Looking for a nameless witch amidst a dense forest was not the easiest affair to undertake, but it seemed much safer than facing the unknown dangers Dargon had to offer. The last time Rien had both the town guard and the town mob after him was because each thought he was a member of the other. Naturally, being alone and a lot healthier at the time, the problem was a lot easier to solve.
Circling the clearing one more time, Rien made his way to the center and gently shook Kera.
“Go away.” Her sleepy voice sounded with a certain finality.
Rien shook her again. “It will be light soon. We need to go.”
Kera moaned and sat up. Her hands crept up to her face and she rubbed the sleep from her eyes. “It’s too dark. I can’t see a thing.”
“You don’t have to,” Rien answered. “Get up.”
Kera’s hands paused at her face.
“Grow new body hair?” he smirked, pulling Kera to her feet.
“Why don’t you check?” she asked and with one hand unstrung the front of her tunic.
Rien resisted looking down. “I think I’d better not.”
“I don’t,” Kera pulled herself to him and instantly pushed away from the cold steel armor.
Rien hesitated for a moment, then turned away. “If you’re not ready by the time it’s light enough to travel, I am leaving without you,” and with those words left to prepare the horses.
A few moments later Kera approached him. “I need some help with my armor,” she said solemnly.
Rien assisted her with the task and they were ready to go before the sun broke the horizon.
They travelled the forest path until late morning, the way they had for the last three days, then ate a late breakfast and while Rien rested in the shade of a great oak, a few hundred feet from the trail, Kera stood watch.
This monotonous routine continued day after day, with Rien and Kera traveling morning and evening, when the light was passable and the heat would not burn them in their armor.
Kera found Rien’s habit of sleeping propped up against a tree and his uncanny timing of when to get up a bit strange, but attributed it to his being a trained warrior.
This afternoon when he opened his eyes, she was sitting across from him. A fresh rabbit hung on a spit over a smoking fire, distorting the air between them.
“Explain your actions this morning,” Rien said.
“It seemed like the thing to do,” Kera answered.
“Why?” Rien demanded.
“Because it’s a lot better than this iron trap!” Kera hit the breast plate of her armor.
“I think you’re confused,” Rien shook his head.
“And would it really be that unpleasant?”
“No!” Kera exclaimed, instantly realizing that she was too loud. “It seemed so last night and even more so this morning,” she added in half voice. “Look, perhaps I am confused, but I certainly know the difference between a human body and steel plating.”
“Give it another day,” Rien said. “If you feel the same way tomorrow, we’ll discuss it further.”
After dinner they mounted their horses and continued their search through the forest.
The man looked up at Cril. “Two people, two horses. Camped here maybe a day ago.”
“Was it them?”
Tilden walked around the remains of a half covered campfire. “They were very heavy. Either large men or armored individuals.”
“They went pretty far off the trail to eat,” Falgien, the third man, noted.
“I’d guess they camped here over night,” Tilden corrected his companion.
“There’s nothing more here,” Cril said, walking across the clearing. “Let’s go before that bear shows up again.”
Wearily the three men recalled that the bear they encountered while breaking camp two nights ago, shredded the fourth member of the group and had been stalking them ever since; day and night. They quickly returned to the trail, mounted their horses and looking back, continued their journey.
“Tilden?” Cril called back a few minutes later. “Could they have been stupid enough to travel the woods instead of the trail?”
“I doubt it,” the man answered. “It’s too dense for the horses. They wouldn’t get far.”
“The camps are too close together,” Cril said. “They are making frequent stops…or perhaps even taking two breaks a day.”
“If they are still in that armor, they’d have to,” Falgien said. “It traps heat like an oven.”
“Those who made that camp fire were heavy…” Tilden reminded everyone.
“Then more than likely we’re gaining on them,” Cril whispered almost to himself.
Rien and Kera came across the old hermit Tristin and his hunting dogs mid morning, the next day.
While surprised by the intrusion, the old man invited them in for breakfast and to satisfy his own curiosity. The horses, apprehensive of the four barking dogs went less willingly than they were commanded.
“What brings you so deep into the forest?” Tristin asked, waiting for Rien and Kera to secure their horses to a tree.
“A quest,” Rien answered simply.
“Young people are so brash,” said the hermit. “What sort of quest?”
“Perhaps you could help us,” Rien said, as the hermit showed them into his cabin.
“Sit, sit down,” Tristin waved his arm. “I have some stew somewhere here.” He momentarily left the room.
“Somewhere?” Kera looked at Rien. “I’m getting the feeling he hasn’t seen it himself for a month or two.”
Rien only smiled, saying nothing, as the hermit returned with a pot.
“So what is it you want to ask me?” the old man questioned.
“We’re searching for an old woman, said to be a witch, who lives in these parts,” Rien answered.
A large grin spread on the hermit’s face as he filled two bowls with stew. “A knight on a quest to kill an old hag,” he laughed. “You are a knight?”
“I am,” Rien hesitated in answering, slightly displeased with the title. “But I am in search of the woman to ask her for help.”
The hermit placed the bowls before his guests. “Eat up, it’s otter. Very fresh.”
Kera threw a paranoid glance from her bowl to Rien, but followed his example and picked up her spoon.
“And you? A knight too?” Tristin asked Kera. “You say very little.”
“Only a squire,” she smiled, swallowing the stew and was surprised at the taste – it wasn’t bad at all. When the old man turned away, she glared at Rien. “Just a squire,” she repeated.
“Well, so what is it you dare come all this way to ask old Maari?” Tristin asked, missing Kera’s remark.
“Old Maari,” Rien repeated the name, “we are told, has knowledge of how to cure a certain disease, but I’m afraid this is all I can tell you.”
“I quite understand,” the hermit said. “She lives a ways from here, down the trail you were on. Follow it to where a second trail intersects your path and turn west, then a two day walk to a fork in the road, take the right one. Two more days will bring you to where you are headed. Perhaps only half the time on horse back.”
“Is there a particular mode of etiquette you recommend we practice?”
“No, no, nothing special. Just be ready for anything. Being a witch, she possesses magic and some of it is black. Be sure you know her price before she assists you.”
Rien finished with his stew and stood up. “Thank you for your assistance, sir. We should be going now. Our time is very limited.”
“I wish you could stay, but I quite understand,” Tristin smiled. “A pleasant change it is to see someone all the way out here. I feel bad about having to cast you out like this. Perhaps you can stop by on your return trip, if it takes you past here.”
“If it takes us past here,” Rien promised. After another ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’, he and Kera took their leave.
After a few minutes, Kera pulled her horse up to Rien’s. “You’re a real knight?” she asked.
“Worse than that,” Rien answered. “A landed knight.”
“You are?” Kera’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “Where? Are you…nobility…?”
“No,” Rien said. “I’m not nobility. Both nobility and knighthood are status symbols I do not find of great importance. They require giving respect to people who often do not deserve it.”
“You’d make a hard follower for any lord.”
“I have no master. I do not follow a banner. What in my land is considered land ownership is treated as lordship here. When I first crossed the mountains, I had no real knowledge or understanding of the society I faced and in due time realized that here survival depends a lot more on the ability to fight and win. Naturally I apprenticed in the craft, was knighted in the field and in due time got where I am. The combination of these two make me a minor lord – a foreign dignitary. I am neither.”
“Your title is still ‘Lord’,” Kera said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wish you would ignore it, now that you do know,” Rien said. “I prefer not attracting too much attention. It holds no value to me.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Kera laughed. “And where did you learn to pick pockets?” she reminded him of a past event. “Same place as the real nobles?”
“That I learned where I was born.”
“Not only are you a knight, but you used to be…” Kera started.
“A practical joker,” Rien interrupted her. “Nothing more.”
“Of course,” Kera said, somewhat mockingly. “And listen, it’s well past your bed time.”
Rien looked up at the sun, higher in the sky than he has seen in the last few days of travel and turned his horse off the trail. Kera followed him until the forest path they were on was out of sight. There, in a small clearing, they made camp.
“I take it you have a castle,” Kera asked Rien after he secured the horses.
“A small keep,” he answered. “Why?”
“And a lady waiting for you?” she continued.
“No,” Rien said. “My wife and I learned a long time ago that our life styles are too conflicting. She doesn’t wait for me any longer. I haven’t seen her in quite some time.”
Kera cast her eyes down. “I’m sorry. I thought that’s what was holding you back.”
“It’s a decision both she and I agreed on,” Rien said. “You’ve done no harm by asking.”
“That still doesn’t tell me why those plates are so much more comfortable for you,” Kera looked up.
“Perhaps I’m afraid to admit you’re right.”
“You know I am,” she answered, removing the plates of her armor.
Astonished, Rien simply watched.
Cril and his companions dismounted their horses at a small wooden cottage. Four dogs on long leashes barked wildly as they approached the door.
Cril swung it open, startling the old man who was about to open it from the inside.
“Can I help you, sir?” Tristin asked, wary of Cril’s drawn sword and his two companions.
Cril placed the tip of his weapon against the base of the hermit’s neck and backed him into a wall. “I will give you only one chance to answer my question. I have reason to believe that two travelers, male and female, dressed in field armor, passed by here. How long ago was it and which way did they head from the crossroads up the trail?”
Tristin stammered, unable to confront the danger he was in.
“Now!” Cril yelled, applying pressure on his weapon.
“They were here late this morning!” Tristin panicked. “They took the west path!”
“Very good, old man,” Cril said with a sneer, “but that was a chance too late.” With a quick thrust, he shoved the sword through the hermit’s throat.
“The west trail!” Cril commanded his companions. “We’re less than half a day behind.”
Rien turned over to the touch of something cold on his shoulder. Standing above him was a man with a sword, dressed in heavy leather. Behind and next to him, stood two more.
“I doubt you could have caught us at a worse time,” Rien said. Next to him Kera stirred and tried sitting up.
“It’s very nice of you to wait for us, Kera,” one of the men, whom she recognized as Cril, said. “Liriss wants to see you…DEAD.”
Just then Rien thrust his feet out, causing the man standing over him to fall backwards and drop his sword. Grabbing the weapon, Rien rolled over, just in time to parry the second man’s swing. He struck back with the sword, blade bouncing off his opponent’s weapon and digging into his lower arm. The brigand jumped back, his weapon arm obviously useless.
Parrying Cril’s blow, Rien backed up to a tree, trying to gain a perspective on the field of combat.
Kera, with her stiletto, was taking on the wounded man, who still tried to lead an offensive, using his off hand to wield his weapon. On the far side of the clearing was the man Rien tripped. He seemed indecisive without a weapon, torn between running and helping his friends.
Instinctively Rien blocked a glint of steel aimed at his torso and counter struck. His sword broke the surface of Cril’s armor, but did no real damage. In turn, Cril thrust his sword forward, leaving a scratch in Rien’s side and getting the blade stuck in the tree.
Rien swung his sword down, smashing it across the blade of his opponent and breaking Cril’s grip on the hilt. Cril dodged a follow-up swing by moving back and fumbled with a dagger on his belt. Rien attempted another strike, but stopped when he saw Cril sinking down. Behind him stood Kera, holding her blood covered knife. A quick glance about the clearing indicated that she had won her fight and the third man had fled the battlefield.
Wearily Rien dropped the sword and embraced Kera. The grey in his eyes slowly reverted to blue.
“This is what I was afraid of,” Rien finally said, casting Kera away. “Get dressed. We have no time to waste.”
Obediently Kera walked over to her bundle of clothes. “One man got away,” she pointed out.
“Without a weapon I doubt he will try anything. He’s probably a long way from here by now.”
“You think there will be any more coming after us?”
Rien looked up at Kera and noticing the blood on her arm, grabbed it. The wound was only superficial and he let her go. “You know Liriss better than I. Will there be more?”
“Yes,” Kera answered after a moment of thought. “He hates losing.”
“So do I,” Rien said.
“I am glad we took this break,” Kera told Rien.
“And only luck kept us alive,” he answered. “It was negligence. Don’t expect it to happen again soon.”
“Not soon?” Kera asked. “Then it will later?”
Too many things had been happening for Rien to consider that. “I need to give it some thought.”
Kera stopped him with her bloody arm. “What’s wrong? What do you need to think about? Three hours ago you looked like you were enjoying yourself.”
“This is wrong!” Rien said, holding Kera’s bloody arm before her face. “That is wrong!” he thrust his arm out, pointing to the two dead bodies.
“I see I’m the root of all your troubles!” Kera pulled her arm free. “Should I find my own way home?”
“No,” Rien said. “Too much has been done already. No matter where you are, there will be people after you and me. There’s safety in numbers.”
Kera put her tunic on and started on the armor. “I honestly think you’re more confused than I am.”
“Could very well be,” Rien answered.
When the two were ready, they set their assailants’ horses free and mounting their own, took to the west path at the crossroads. They travelled five miles before it became too dark to go on and then stopped to make camp. As at all other night stops, no fire was lit, so not to attract unwanted attention.
Rien restlessly paced the clearing, desperately hoping that for the time being, no one else was following them. The surprise he and Kera had received that afternoon was very sobering, considering that Dargon was a long way away.
It would be wise to assume that the man who got away headed back to Dargon. With the horses no longer in his possession, the trip would take more than two weeks. If this was the only group Liriss sent, the next few days would not bring trouble.
Of greatest importance now was finding the old witch, Maari, who hopefully was the same individual Taishent had mentioned. Was she going to help? More importantly, could she? Rien remembered Tristin’s warning about the price. What would a witch want? Money would do no good in the forest…
Rien continued pacing, wishing it were light, so he could relax his mind through hunting. Finally giving up, he sat down under a tree, sword across his lap and sat out the rest of the night with the impression of being the only one awake in the entire forest.
The next day passed quietly, with Rien and Kera making their way to the fork in the road and starting on the last leg of their journey. They made good progress before darkness finally forced them to stop for the night, but excited about the nearing end of their quest, they resumed the journey well before sunrise.
Halfway into the morning, the trail abruptly came to an end. It was well worn only up to a patch of grass that looked as if it had never been walked on. Rien and Kera exchanged bewildered glances and dismounted.
“Maybe we took a wrong turn,” Kera offered.
Rien did not answer.
“Maybe we went too far…” she tried again.
Tying his horse to a tree, Rien walked back down the trail, examining the grass and shrubs on both sides. “There!” he finally pointed to a barely visible trail in the spring grass. “If not for the trail ending, we’d have missed this all together.”
“Why does the trail keep going past here, if it leads to nothing?” Kera wondered.
“Perhaps Maari is a recluse,” Rien suggested. “Not knowing to find anything here, most people would probably turn back.”
“You think this leads to the place?”
Rien solidly put his foot on the fresh grass. “It leads somewhere.”
After a few hundred feet, the light trail once again turned to a well worn path, indicating that security was indeed the reason for the confusing trails. A while longer and a small cottage appeared in a clearing. It looked lived in, but not overly used.
Rien and Kera approached the hut with caution, pausing at a wooden stand next to a wall. A large collection of herbs and dried roots were spread on it.
“Look,” Kera picked up a pair of gloves. “This doesn’t look like leather.”
Rien took one of the gloves from Kera to examine it. Soft texture, much softer than leather, covered the outside and the inside consisted of short white fur. “This used to be a cat,” he finally said, tossing the glove down.
Kera almost dropped the glove she was holding. “Cat?”
“What’s so surprising?” Rien asked. “They make gloves of cow hide.”
“Cow hide, fine, but not cat,” Kera insisted, laying down the other glove.
“Cats are usually associated with daemons,” Rien explained. “Thus, their coat can be assumed to be the power of a particular daemon. In this case, probably an old familiar.”
“Doesn’t white represent purity?” Kera asked.
“Sometimes,” Rien nodded. “That’s why virgins are so often portrayed wearing white. It can also represent power, such as a bolt of lightning. Purple is another common display of strength, though it is not a common color for cats.” He smiled. “Almost any attribute can be assigned to any color, if you do enough research.”
“What’cha two doing?” a female voice stopped Rien’s explanation.
Both he and Kera turned to face an old woman. “We are searching for a woman named Maari,” Rien said innocently enough.
“You won’t find her on the table,” the woman grunted. “What do you want?”
“We came in search of help.”
“Did you now?”
“Are you Maari?” Kera asked cautiously.
“I am!” the old woman declared and moved to the other side of the table. She approached suspiciously, squinting. “Lift up your hair,” she told Rien.
He shifted uncomfortably. “Is there something wrong?”
“Lift it up or leave,” Maari insisted.
Unwillingly Rien lifted his longer than average hair, revealing a pair of pointed ears.
“Just like I thought!” Maari snapped. “An elf!”
“Ljosalfar.” Rien corrected with anger in his voice.
“Ljosalfar, Dopkalfar. All elf to me,” Maari said, pacing on the other side of the table with herbs.
“If you are so knowlegable, then you should know that for me it does make a difference,” Rien answered.
“What sort of help do you need, Elf?” Maari ignored his statement.
“A cure for lycanthropy.”
Maari paced the length of the table again. “That I can do.”
“In exchange for what?” Rien remembered Tristin’s warning.
“Go!” the witch looked at Kera.
“Wait for me by those trees,” Rien pointed to the edge of the clearing. “This won’t take long.”
“I’m not…” Kera started to protest, but Rien’s grim expression suggested for her to leave.
She turned to go and Maari studied Rien until Kera was out of hearing range. “You’re an elf. You have nothing of value for my type of magic, but she does.”
Rien glanced in Kera’s direction. It was obvious what was coming.
“She has a soul,” the witch stressed. “I can use her life force to channel my magic!”
“Her soul is not mine to give you,” Rien said. “You will have to name a different price.”
“Any young life!”
Rien set his jaw.
“Don’t look that way at me!” Maari warned. “I am offering you a cure. You will die without it! Only pure humans can survive lycanthropy!”
“A young life…” Rien hesitated. To Maari, it might be just so easy, but he did not approve of magic such as hers. Perhaps she could be tricked. If nothing else, there was still time to stall for. “That may take time,” he finally said.
The old woman smiled and picked up a chalice from the table. “To seal the deal,” she offered it to him.
Accepting the drinking horn, Rien spilled its contents on the ground. “I seal deals with people, not daemons.” Placing the chalice on the table, he extended his hand and the witch reluctantly shook it.
“Now leave and bring me a dragon egg, to make you a cure. Don’t come back without it!”
“Dragon egg?” Rien cocked his head.
“Big lizards, with wings. They lay eggs.”
“I thought they were all dead,” Rien said.
“I’m sure you’ll find one,” Maari answered. “Your life depends on it.”
Gathering up some of the herbs on the table, Maari returned to the house. Rien watched her go, then picking up some blue flowers, rejoined Kera.
“What’s that?” she asked him.
“Wolfsbane, Monkshood, Friar’s Cap…depends on stem, leaf or flower. A poison, in any case.”
“What will you do with it?”
“Fight a dragon.”
Kera’s jaw dropped open. “Is that what she was telling you?”
“She told me a lot,” Rien said. “I’ll tell you on the way back to the horses.”
Kera looked back to the cottage once more and accepted Rien’s hand for the trip back. “Your ears are pointed,” she suddenly reminded herself and him.
“They are in most of my species.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked.
“I assumed you knew that about elves.”
He stopped, pulling his arm back. “My mother was Ljosalfar. My father human. Are you going to judge me?”
“You can’t help where or who you are born. No one has the right to hold that against you.” Kera took his hands in hers. “I suspected something two days ago – it was hard not to notice, but…you’re flesh and blood, like the rest of us.”
Reluctantly Rien permitted Kera to keep hold of him. “Yours isn’t a typical human reaction.”
“I never considered myself typical,” Kera said. “Did Maari agree to help us?”
“She agreed,” Rien answered, “but as payment she wants a subject to cast spells through. Necromancy, I assume.”
“Are you going to get her one?” Kera asked.
“No. Life belongs to the person living it. Neither I, nor Maari, nor anyone else has the right to take another’s life, except in self defence.”
“So she asked you for a dragon?”
“That’s a different story,” Rien said. “She still expects a donation of life, but to cure us she wants a dragon egg. What do you know about dragons?”
“They’re large, breath fire and live in caves,” Kera said.
“Sounds like we know about the same,” Rien sighed. “I wonder if Bistra wrote anything about it in his book.”
“We can check when we get back to the horses,” Kera suggested.
Rien nodded thoughtfully.