The Darst Range
A few leagues outside Kenna
Nicodemus cradled the woman in his arms and then gently laid her on the ground. He didn’t know who she was or what she was running away from, but when she tripped into his arms, he saw fear in her eyes. As he knelt beside her, he felt a presence in his mind. It was an animal — a very dangerous one — that was near. It was hungry and was watching them. He wondered if this animal was the cause of her fear. Nicodemus looked around and did not see anything in the forest, but he knew that the animal was close.
“Friend,” he thought hoping that whatever was out there would leave them alone. He had always been able to hear what an animal was thinking and to send his thoughts to the animal. He didn’t know how he talked to the animals, just that he thought of images, he thought of the animal, and it understood him.
As he looked around, he saw several birds flying around and singing. A tree rat hopped out from some brush and started moving toward Nicodemus. He jumped, because his first thought was that it was dangerous. He knew differently, though, since the thoughts he got from the dangerous animal were separate from the thoughts he got from the tree rat, and the tree rat was very small and skittish. It couldn’t possibly be dangerous.
Suddenly, there was a blur of movement. Nicodemus stood frozen in amazement as he stared at a very large wolf. He hadn’t heard or seen the wolf move; there had been just a blur as the wolf had snapped up the tree rat in its mouth. There was a crunching of bones as the wolf chewed and then swallowed the rat.
The wolf had black fur with grey streaking through it, especially around the muzzle, scars on its body, and one torn ear. As it turned toward Nicodemus, he saw intelligence behind the wolf’s eyes. The wolf growled and walked toward him. It was challenging him in some way, but Nicodemus didn’t fully understand how. He could hear no thoughts coming from the wolf, but he could feel its presence in his mind. He watched as the wolf walked closer. The wolf growled, wrinkled its muzzle back, and bared its teeth.
“Friend,” Nicodemus thought hopefully as he stared into the large jaw. He knew he had no chance against the wolf, but he didn’t shy away. The wolf stopped in front of him, lowered its head, and sniffed the woman. Nicodemus froze and watched it from the corner of his eyes. The danger was still there, Nicodemus knew, but he also knew that the wolf would not attack them. While he still couldn’t hear any thoughts from the wolf, he noticed that the wolf wasn’t outright threatening them. Its ears were forward and alert to sounds, it wasn’t baring any teeth, and it moved in a smooth relaxed manner. The wolf gave a low mumbling growl as it turned to walk back to where it had appeared. It looked back before it moved into the brush. Nicodemus saw that it looked at the woman and not him.
Nicodemus watched it disappear into the woods and felt its presence fade as it moved away from them. Only when he could no longer feel the presence, did he move. Standing, he wiped the sweat from his face.
He had come across bears, devil cats, packs of dogs, and other predators before, but none of them had been as dangerous as this lone wolf. All of the predators he had seen had shied away from him and he had sensed their fears of him. This wolf had shown no traces of fear. He had even come across a small pack of wolves, but they had run from him before he got very close. He hadn’t even seen the wolf kill the tree rat. It had all happened in the blink of an eye.
The woman moaned and began to stir. Nicodemus looked down and watched as her eyelids opened. He smiled and stepped back as she sat up.
“Who are you?” she asked. Nicodemus pointed at his throat, opened his mouth, and shook his head. A whisper of air escaped his throat.
“You can’t talk?” she asked.
He nodded yes.
“Do you live around here?”
“I got lost in the forest,” she said as she stood. “Could you show me the way to the nearest village?”
He nodded and pointed in the direction of his parents’ farm. He turned and began walking that way with the woman following him. They got to the house and Nicodemus opened the door. Hearing the door, his mother came from the kitchen to see who it was.
“What are you doing back — Oh!” Delia broke off the question when she saw the woman beside Nicodemus. “Who are you?”
“I don’t normally look this way,” Elizabeth said, taking a twig out of her hair. “My name is Elizabeth. I … I was lost in the forest. I guess I wasn’t watching where I was going when I tripped and fell into, um … I don’t know his name.”
“Nicodemus, and I’m Delia. Come in to the kitchen and I’ll fix some tea. There’s a wash basin in here where you can wash some of that dirt away.” Elizabeth followed her into the kitchen with Nicodemus right behind.
“Some men came by here not long ago,” Delia said fixing the tea. “They were looking for a woman, and offered a reward for her return. They were looking for you, weren’t they?”
“Why are they looking for you?” Delia asked.
“I was being held against my will by a wealthy merchant from Dargon,” Elizabeth replied. “I know it sounds bad, but it’s the truth. I want you to know why I need help. I escaped from Gilliam — he’s the merchant — in Kenna, and ran into the forest. He wants me back, and I doubt he’ll ever stop looking.” Elizabeth sighed as she looked down into the water in the wash basin. She caught her reflection and stared at it. The dirt on her face and her matted hair made the reflection look like a stranger to her.
“I don’t know what to do or where to go,” she said finally. “He has contacts in most towns. No matter where I go, he’ll eventually find me. I think my safest choice is to stay outside of the towns. He rarely goes into the fields or mountains, but he’ll send other people to search them.”
“I’m not going to stop working just to go to Kenna and tell those men you are here. If there’s no dinner, I’ll never hear the end of it from Hank — my husband. You’re welcome to stay the night,” Delia said. “That is, if you don’t mind helping me out with some of the work around here. Stevene knows I could use it. Can you cook or sew?”
“Both,” Elizabeth answered. “Thank you for letting me stay.”
“When Hank gets home,” Delia replied, “he can decide to let you stay longer — or not. Nicodemus,” Delia said turning to him, “go clean up your room and get the blankets. We’ll wash them and Elizabeth can sleep in there. You … well, we’ll find someplace for you to sleep.”
“I’ll help wash the blankets,” Elizabeth said, and followed Nicodemus to his room. They gathered the blankets and went outside to the back of the house. There was a small well where they gathered buckets of water to pour in a large wooden tub.
“You caught me as I fell, didn’t you?” Elizabeth asked. Nicodemus nodded yes and dumped a bucket of water in the tub. Elizabeth remembered the feelings she had before she passed out, and started to reach for Nicodemus. She remembered a peaceful and warm feeling when she was in his arms, yet she couldn’t remember what he was thinking. Ever since she was a child roaming the streets of Dargon, she had always known what people were thinking and feeling when she touched them. But she couldn’t remember his thoughts before she passed out in his arms, only the feelings.
Before she could touch him, she jerked her hand back in fear. “What if those feelings weren’t from him?” she thought. “What if it was just my being exhausted?”
Nicodemus watched her in puzzlement, and then turned to get more water. Elizabeth sighed and started to soak a blanket. As Nicodemus got the water, Elizabeth instinctively kept out of his way and his touch. While washing the blankets, she did the same. After hanging them to dry, they both returned to the house. Two cups of tea were on the table waiting for them, and Delia had returned to her sewing.
“The garden needs to be hoed,” Delia told Nicodemus. He sighed, took his cup, and went back outside. He knew she wanted him out of the house so that she could talk to Elizabeth alone.
“You want to know all about me, don’t you?” Elizabeth asked after Nicodemus left.
“Yes,” Delia answered. “I want to know so I can decide what to do if those men come back.”
“A merchant in Dargon was holding me against –”
“What merchant?” Delia interrupted. “Why was he holding you?”
“His name is Gilliam Hytheworde. He kept me because there were things I could do that no one else could. Things that helped him in his business.”
“Nothing is simple with you, is it?” Delia asked.
“No,” Elizabeth said. “I can tell what people are thinking when I touch them. That’s the curse that I’ve been carrying ever since I was little.”
“I … I’d like to know for sure,” Delia said. “Do you mind?”
“Let me have your hand.” Elizabeth said, moving over to where Delia sat. She braced herself for the rush of emotions she knew she would get and then touched Delia’s hand. She jumped slightly at the initial shock.
“Does she really know what I’m thinking?” Delia thought.
“Does she really know what I’m thinking?” echoed Elizabeth, and then Delia’s emotions flooded her. She was braced for them, but what she got wasn’t what she had expected. There were no invading emotions, but instead there was calmness, wonder, and a trace of fear. She missed part of what Delia had thought in her own amazement.
“… husband’s name is Hank,” Delia thought.
“Husband’s name is Hank,”
“No,” Delia hissed. Her chair upset as she backed away from Elizabeth. Delia’s eyes were wide and she rubbed her hands against her apron, trying to clean them of some invisible dirt. “No more,” she repeated.
“Gilliam kept me and used me,” Elizabeth tried to explain. “He used me,” she reiterated. “I would find out what the people he was dealing with were thinking. If I didn’t comply, he would lock me in a small empty room for days. Sometimes he would let Darrin touch me. That was worse than the room.”
“I’m sorry,” Delia said. “It’s just that I don’t like magic, and … and I was rude. You seem to have been through enough that I don’t need to add more suffering to it.” Delia smoothed out her apron and moved the chair so she could sit in it once again. The chair wasn’t as close to Elizabeth as it had been, though.
“Thank you,” Elizabeth replied. She went around the table and sat across from Delia.
“How long were you there?”
“I don’t remember how long, but I do remember that I was a child living on the streets when Gilliam found me. I was begging and not doing very well. I could always tell what people thought when I touched them, so I thought I could make some money that way. For a Common, I’d tell them what they were thinking. Gilliam came to me and I did what I said. He was impressed enough to give me five Commons. That evening, he sent someone to get me.”
“To get you?” Delia asked.
“Two men came and dragged me off the street.”
“You didn’t fight back?”
“I tried, but it was useless. There weren’t any town guards around, either.”
“You never ran away from him?”
“He kept me locked in a room most of the time. I would run away, and he would catch me. The punishments always came … quickly. But when I was good, he would reward me in some way — nice clothes, good dinners, things like that — but I still tried to run away. He finally bribed me — he told me that if I didn’t try to run away, that he would teach me to read and write and that he would give me a job in his business; something other than touching people to find out what they’re thinking.”
“Sounds like a merchant,” Delia snapped. “Bartering and bribing is all they know how to do.”
“I believed him,” Elizabeth said. “For awhile, I … did what he wanted, and in return, he taught me to read and write. Much later, I finally realized that he wasn’t going to ever let me go. I was too important to him, and that’s when I started trying to run away again. I finally made it, and now I don’t know where to go.”
“We’ll talk to Hank when he comes home,” Delia said. “I’m not promising anything. Hank’s a bit of a hard man, except where Nico is concerned. But I think he’ll let you stay for a bit. Nico seems to like you.” Delia smiled when she saw Elizabeth’s eyes widen.
“No one’s seen her,” Darrin told Gilliam.
“She can’t be too far,” Gilliam said. “She doesn’t know the area, she’s not used to being on her own, and she doesn’t have anywhere to go.”
“Do you want me to make another search of the farms?”
“No. I want you to find help here in this area. There has to be hunters and trappers. Find them and use them to track her down.”
“I don’t understand?” Darrin asked.
“Hunters track animals in the woods, don’t they? Trappers do sometimes when an animal gets away from a trap. Tracking an animal isn’t much different than tracking a lost woman in the forest.”
“I understand now.”
“Good! There is one more thing that I want you to do. You are to break her spirit. I don’t care what you do so long as you don’t kill her.”
“I’ll find her,” Darrin said, smiling as he left.
The Darst Range
A few leagues outside Kenna
Darrin had found two people in Kenna who hunted and trapped for a living. One of the two men in front of Darrin had a large dog on a leash. The dog kept its head to the ground as it ran.
“You sure that dog can find her?” Darrin asked, trying to keep up.
“She’ll find her. My Ferra can find anything, anywhere,” Petyr, the man holding the dog, said. Petyr was a tall man with many scars and scratches on his body. He had brown hair that was cut short and his face was clean-shaven.
“It’s been near two days since she ran,” Darrin said.
“Ferra’s found men five days after a thunderstorm covered their trail. Don’t you worry, we’ll find her.”
“Heh!” Garett spouted. “Twas two days after a light rain.” He was the second man that Darrin had found. He was a big man, although not as large as Darrin, and wore a sword and long knife on his belt in worn, well-used scabbards. He had light-colored hair with a scraggly beard.
“We’d better find her,” Darrin replied. The pace they kept was a near run. Ferra only stopped when she seemed to lose the scent, and even then it wasn’t long before she started off again. They climbed into the mountains and followed Ferra as she led them to a place that looked like it had been a small camp. It was old, but the sticks and rocks were still brushed aside and a pile of branches lay in the center, unburned.
“Could have been her,” Garett said. “Someone tried to make a fire. Doesn’t look like they did, though. No ashes or burned wood anywhere around.”
“Looks to be a week or so old. Not more’n two weeks, I’d guess,” Petyr said. “It’d be about the right time. I’d say it was her that was here. Come on,” he said as Ferra pulled him along, “she’s got the scent.” The two men had little trouble keeping up with Ferra. They’d done this many times. Darrin, however, wasn’t used to running through the mountains and had a rough time keeping up with them.
They ran through the woods as Ferra followed the scent up and down the mountain. There was no pattern to the trail they were following. Petyr and Garett knew that the girl had been lost — experience told them so. It was on a downward slope that Ferra stopped. The woods had cleared a little on top of a small hill. Ferra circled around a clump of grass, sniffed left, right, and then went down the hill a bit. She came back up to follow a second trail around the hill.
“At least two trails here,” Petyr said. “Looks like she’s been in this area more than once. Which one, Ferra?” The dog looked up at Petyr and cocked its head.
“Which one’s freshest?” Petyr said, unleashing the dog. “Scent!” Ferra stood, looked both ways, put her nose down, sniffed at two trails, and then sat back down.
“Looks like we’ll have to decide,” Petyr told them. Before anyone could choose, they heard a female voice off in the distance. They couldn’t make out the words, only that it sounded female.
“Could be her,” Petyr said. “Not many females out in these woods. Chances are it’s her — or some high pitched boy.”
“Trail along the hill?” Garett asked.
“I think so,” Petyr replied. “Let’s go.” Petyr started Ferra on the trail and she took off with Garett and Darrin following. The trail wound along the hillside through the forest to open into another clearing. As Petyr broke into the clearing, he saw two people in front of him — a man and a woman. The woman, he hoped to be the one they were after, but he didn’t know about the man standing to her right.
He told Ferra to sit, but didn’t get to do much more as Garett and Darrin ran into the clearing behind him. He saw the girl’s eyes go wide, and she ran.
Petyr, Garett, and Ferra chased after the girl. Darrin, not wanting to be left behind, took off down the path where the others had run. The man, who had been standing to the girl’s right, looked puzzled and confused.
Petyr and Garett raced through the brush. The girl wasn’t watching where she was going as she ran into a large patch of thick brambles. She was just getting free of them when Petyr grabbed her. They were binding her hands when Darrin found them.
“Eliza,” Darrin huffed. “You shouldn’t have run away. Gilliam is not happy with you. In fact, he’s quite angry. Angry enough that I get to teach you a lesson. A lesson that you will never forget.” He started toward her when Garett stepped in front of him. “What –?”
“You will not touch her,” Garett told him. “I don’t go for harming women. You wanted us to bring her back to Kenna. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Darrin’s face turned slightly red as he turned away from Garett to lean close to Elizabeth. “Later,” he whispered to her. “Let’s get her back to Kenna, then,” he disgustingly said to Garett.
Nicodemus couldn’t believe what he had seen — what had just happened. Those had to have been the men searching for her. “But how did they find her so fast?” he thought. “She must be very important to someone.” He stood there, fixed to the ground, undecided on what to do.
They were going to take Elizabeth back to Dargon, and he knew he couldn’t let them do that. The short time he had spent with Elizabeth was enough to let him know that she was special. Although she never talked about her past to him, she also never treated him like he was dumb because he couldn’t talk. She spoke to him as an equal — as another human being. He couldn’t let them take her away; he was beginning to like her. Like her more than just a little, he realized. But there were three of them. Before he could decide on a course of action, though, the men returned.
“Are you going to try to stop us?” Garett asked as he stepped in view. Petyr, Darrin, and Elizabeth were behind him. Nicodemus nodded yes.
“Just you?” Garett asked smiling. “You’re a brave one, I’ll give you that. You do realize –”
Nicodemus wondered why he stopped in the middle of his sentence until fur brushed his elbow. He looked beside him at the large wolf standing there. Hackles raised, lips curled back to show large curved fangs, and a low rumbling growl, the wolf inched forward.
“*Ol’s balls!*” Petyr hissed. “Where did that come from?” Garett grabbed the hilt of his sword, and the wolf’s growl grew louder.
“Are you trying to get us killed?” Darrin asked.
“Don’t move, Garett!” Petyr pleaded. “That thing’ll tear you in two before you can scream in pain.”
“Look at it!” Garett hissed! “It’s going to kill us no matter what we do.” Garett started drawing his sword from its scabbard. The wolf sprang with a loud snarl. It knocked Petyr down and then turned to Garett. Darrin moved out of the way as fast as he could and prayed that Garett would kill it, but not wanting to stay and find out, he kept running.
The wolf started to jump as Garett stabbed at its head. Faster than Garett could react, the wolf dropped low, turned a bit, and lunged. Its mouth closed around Garett’s side and there was a crack as its maw closed, crushing ribs. Garett cried out and dropped his sword from the pain. The wolf snapped again and tightened its grip. Garett screamed and tried to pull away. The wolf twisted and knocked Garett down where it ripped open his throat.
Petyr got up, looked at Garett’s bleeding body, and started to run; Ferra was nowhere to be seen. He ran a few steps before a large weight crashed onto his back. Dirt flew into his eyes as he hit the ground. He didn’t see the large jaws go around his head, but he felt them as they crushed his skull.
Nicodemus watched everything in horror. The wolf had torn the two men to shreds with little effort. It could have been Elizabeth and him when they had first encountered the wolf. He hadn’t realized just how close to death that they had been until now. The wolf turned from where Petyr lay and walked towards Elizabeth. She stood there paralyzed with fear. Her hands were tied, but her feet were not — still she didn’t run. She knew she could not outrun the wolf.
Nicodemus watched the wolf and saw its features change. The hackles went down, there were no bared teeth, and it seemed more relaxed. He hoped that they were in no danger, now. The wolf got close to Elizabeth and sniffed. It licked her hand once and then turned to look at Nicodemus.
“Friend,” he got from the wolf, but there was something about it. It was in a tone laden with sarcasm and contempt. It was like the wolf was far above him, knew more about the world, and was laughing at him. Sarcasm, contempt, and a deriding tone — but no anger. He started to reply, but the wolf was gone. It had slipped back into the forest quietly and quickly.
Nicodemus walked over to Elizabeth and started to untie her hands. She jumped slightly as he touched her, but he was too busy with the knot to pay attention to it. He got the knot undone, freed her hands, and looked up into her face. She was crying. He lifted his hand to wipe the tears from her face when she took his hand in hers. He saw her jump slightly, but then she smiled as she held his hand in hers.
“You are so beautiful,” he thought. “I wish I could say that I love you.”
“You can,” she said.
“What?” he thought.
“I can hear what you’re saying,” she told him. “It’s a curse that I have. I can feel people’s emotions and hear their thoughts when I’m touching them.”
“You can hear me?” he thought, incredulously.
“Yes. And I love you, too,” she said as she hugged him close.