Authors: Dennis L. McKiernan
But then his heart plunged into despair, for within the shelter, their faces pale as death, laid out in repose were Faeril and Gwylly.
* * *
“They came at us in the night,” said Riatha as she and Urus sat at the edge of the lean-to. Riatha was spooning tiny amounts of liquid between Faeril’s lips, the damman not awakening but swallowing. “From behind, just as Faeril suspected they might. The howling storm prevented us from perceiving their approach. But by the same token, the storm prevented them from overwhelming us, for they could neither see nor hear us, and the Vulgs could not easily catch our scent.
“Faeril was Vulg bitten, but gwynthyme and sunlight have burned the poison from her, though she will yet be fevered throughout the day.
“Gwylly took a blade in his lung, though, and will not be fit for travel for a week or so, and even then but slowly.
“Fortune favored both Aravan and me, he taking nought but one or two cudgel blows, and I a slash on the wrist.”
Gently Urus took her left hand and looked at the bandage. “Did you cleanse it thoroughly? Wrg blades are often—”
“Poisoned,” interjected Aravan. “Aye, we let it bleed, and applied gwynthyme as well. I made poultices for all who took cutting wounds.”
Riatha did not recover her hand from Urus’s. “What of Stoke?” she asked quietly.
A hard look came into the Man’s eyes. “Lost! The storm— Five ways could he have gone from the last place I—where last the Bear scented him.”
Aravan glanced at the mid-morning sky. “Have we time, thou and I, time to find traces? Traces of their passage?”
Urus gently placed Riatha’s hand back in her lap. Then the Man leapt to his feet and began pacing as would a caged beast. “Traces? Nay! The storm took care of any traces. If Stoke moves tonight, then there will be tracks. Then will I follow…alone.”
Riatha started at this declaration. “Alone?”
“Aye,” interjected Urus. “Alone. The Waldana cannot pursue them. And they will need caring after. You are wounded—”
Riatha leapt up.
’Tis but a scratch! ’Twill not keep me from Stoke.”
Of a sudden the ground trembled—Dragonslair shuddering in the distance. After long moments the shaking stopped.
Urus had reached out for Riatha, steadying them both. As the shocks died away he asked, What of the Waldana?”
A voice piped up from the lean-to. “What about us?” Gwylly started to struggle to a sitting position, but a spasm of coughing overcame him, and he fell back, crimson stains on his lips.
With a cry Riatha spun about and swiftly knelt at his side. “Oh, Gwylly, move not. Thou art sorely wounded. Pierced through by blade.”
His eyes closed, the buccan groaned. “Oh, is that what it is? I feel as if I’ve been dragged by my heels through the very pits of Hèl.”
“’Twas a hard fight, wee one.”
Gwylly’s eyes flew open. “Faeril! What of Faeril?”
“Hush, hush,” soothed Riatha. “She sleeps at your side.”
Gwylly turned his head. Then he reached out a hand and took hers in his. “Is she…all right?”
“What happened to her?”
Riatha glanced up at Aravan. He knelt beside the Elfess. “Well, Gwylly, she killed a Vulg, that’s what.” Aravan reached over and took up a silver knife, holding it for the buccan to see, the argent edge flashing in the sunlight. “Stabbed him in the throat with this, Talarin’s gift. I know because I went back to retrieve our packs and aught else, and I happened to be looking at the dead beast when the Sun turned the slain creature to ashes. I saw the glitter, and when I stepped to where the Vulg had lain, there was the blade.”
Gwylly gasped. “And I thought I had done well to bring down three Rūcks, or Hlōks—in the darkness I couldn’t tell. But Adon, a
“It proves one thing, though,” he said, faintly smiling, “it doesn’t pay to cross a Warrow—especially a damman.”
Aravan laughed. “Thou hast the right of it, Waerling.”
Gwylly tried to roll onto his side, but gave it up as Riatha objected. “She looks flushed,” said the buccan. “Are you certain—?”
“Aye, Gwylly,” responded Aravan. “She’s completely out of danger. She took a gash from the Vulg, that’s all. We used a gwynthyme poultice—”
bite?” Gwylly tensed, and that brought on another fit of coughing. After it subsided, Gwylly turned to Riatha. “The black bite, the poison—did the gwynthyme get it all?”
“Yes. That and the Sun.”
Riatha took the buccan’s hand in her own. “She sleeps off the dregs of the fever, Gwylly. When she wakes, all will be well.”
The Elfess moved to the fire and began preparing an herbal concoction, flaking bits of a dried root into a small container of water, heating all. As Urus sat beside the buccan and began speaking softly, Aravan squatted by the Elfess, his voice low. “Dara, thou wilt have to remain with the Waerlinga while Urus and I trail Stoke and his lackeys.
Only thou hast the deep knowledge to tend the Wee Ones’ wounds should aught go awry.”
Riatha looked at the buccan and sleeping damman, and gazed at Urus as well. And then, sighing, she glanced over at Aravan and nodded, and continued to stir the liquid.
* * *
That night, a savage Bear prowled the perimeter of the camp, warding the ones within.
* * *
The next morning as dawn lightened the sky, Urus and Aravan set out for the last place the Bear had scented
, the Man and Elf hoping to find traces of the Foul Folk. Should there be tracks, Urus and Aravan would leave clear trail sign for Riatha and Gwylly and Faeril to follow when they could travel.
An hour after sunup, Faeril wakened, the damman trembling from residual weakness brought on by the fever—that and lack of food. Riatha began spooning up a plate of lentil beans to go with a biscuit of crue.
Faeril looked in Gwylly’s face and listened to his breathing, assuring herself that he merely slept. Then, groaning, she tottered to her feet and stumped into the trees to relieve herself. When she returned, slowly she hunkered down on her haunches and took the plate of food from Riatha.
“Gwylly, how is he? What wound did he take?”
“A thin blade ’tween the lower ribs and into a lung. A dagger, I suspect, though it could have been a sword. He will heal, can we but give him rest.
“But thou, Faeril, how fare thee?”
“Garn, but I feel as if I had been sat upon by a horse.”
Riatha smiled. “Nay, Faeril, no horse, but Vulg instead.”
“Well, horse or Vulg, I have the bruises to prove it. My body’s gone all blue.”
“’Tis not surprising. Vulgs have nearly the size of ponies, though not the heft.”
Faeril shifted about, trying to ease her sore muscles. “How heavy are they?”
“I know not. Mayhap four hundredweight. Mayhap five.”
“Well, it felt like a thousandweight, though had it been, I would now be but a flat spot in the snow. I think it did not put all its heft upon me.”
Spooning up a mouthful of beans, the damman looked
about the campsite as she chewed. “Where is Aravan? And have you heard from Urus?”
“Aye. Urus returned yester. He tells that the storm erased all traces of Stoke and his lackeys. Yet Urus and Aravan now fare south, seeking fresh tracks so that once again we may run Stoke to earth.”
Satisfied, Faeril took a bite of crue and fell silent, concentrating on eating.
Later that morning, Gwylly awakened. He would have nothing of this lying abed, demanding that he be allowed to go into the trees to relieve himself. Supported by both females, he leaned against a tree to do so, coughing gently.
Afterward, Riatha brewed a moss tea and insisted that Gwylly breathe the pungent aroma. “’Twill aid thy lung to heal from the inside.” Additionally, she removed the gwynthyme poultice from the wound at his ribs and replaced it with a bandage soaked in the same brew, murmuring, “This for the outside.” And she made him drink the rest in spite of its terrible bitterness, the buccan screwing his face into a horrid mask. “’Twill pull the fluid from thy lungs.”
’Twill curdle my insides, if you ask me,” protested Gwylly, shuddering.
The Elfess laughed and Faeril giggled, yet both watched the buccan closely to make certain he drank it all.
The Elfess then turned to Faeril. “Thy bandage as well needs changing.” Together they unwrapped the old, revealing a deep gash on the inside of Faeril’s right arm, running from elbow to wrist.
“Oi!” exclaimed Gwylly. “Bad wound. But, I say, it looks as if some stitchery has been done.”
“Aye,” responded Riatha. “Sewn with fine gut. Else the wound is open to ill vapors. Four and twenty stitches, whereas yours, Gwylly, took but nine.”
Gwylly looked down at his chest, unsuccessfully trying to see the wound beneath the brew-soaked bandage. “I’m sewn up, too? Like an old coat?”
Again Faeril giggled, and Riatha laughed outright. “Aye, Redtop. Like an old coat.”
Gwylly smiled. “Redtop? Better were I called ‘Patch.’”
Grinning, Faeril looked up from her arm. “Patch it is, Gwylly, if you insist, even though it does sound like the name of a dog.”
Now Gwylly laughed, but his humor was cut short by another coughing fit.
* * *
All that day they waited, speaking in hushed tones, as if the mountain stone were listening. While Faeril oiled and sharpened their long-knives—both weapons retrieved yester from the deep snow at the battle site by Aravan—Gwylly told of downing his three foe and how confused and desperate and frightening it had been, fighting in near total blackness, taking a wound in the second engagement, “…Like a lick of fire hitting me between the ribs.”
Riatha, it seems, with her Elven vision had fared slightly better at seeing the foe, and when combined with her acute hearing, altogether she had slain seven of the enemy. Aravan had told Riatha of four
he had killed, and the Vulg that he and Faeril together had dispatched. And when added to Faeril’s other Vulg and the slain Rūck, well then—“Oi!” said Gwylly, “that totes up to two Vulgs and
Rūcks and Hlōks!”
Faeril glanced at Riatha. “Why, that means Stoke has only five Vulgs and twelve maggot-folk left in his band.”
“Mayhap, Faeril, yet heed, we are in the Grimwalls, and other
will flock to him should he call.”
Throughout the day, their conversation ranged far and wide, and they spoke of family and hearth and home and told of simple meals of bread and stew, which now seemed a luxury. As Riatha melted snow for water to boil the used dressings, they spoke of taking baths, and Gwylly told of his dog, Black, as a pup chasing ducks at the pond, the fowl taking to the water, Black leaping after, and the goose that came to the rescue of the ducks, forever curing Black of the notion of hounding barnyard fowl. They spoke of riding ponies and horses, of gardens and growings and other such, but always did their talk return to Baron Stoke and to speculations as to whether Urus and Aravan now tracked the monster.
An hour or two after dark, their speculations were answered, for a distant whistle announced the return of the Man and Elf.
“No tracks did we find, no traces,” said Aravan, warming his hands ’round a hot cup of tea.
Urus growled. “Aravan and I separated, and I took one canyon while he took another. Miles I covered, to no avail.”
Riatha spooned lentil soup into shallow tin bowls. “No cracks, crevices, caves?”
Aravan reached out, taking his measure of soup. “Nay, though the stone hides much.”
Urus shook his head. “I saw none either.”
They ate in silence, frustration and buried rage evident. At last Urus spoke: “Tomorrow we will search two more routes, and if we are unsuccessful, that will leave but one.”
“Mayhap,” said Aravan. “Yet there is a chance that we overlooked his new bolt-hole in the canyons we searched today.”
Urus stopped. “Garn! The blizzard hid all.”
Riatha looked up at him. “Yet it saved our lives.”
* * *
That night, Aravan and Riatha took turns standing guard, their Elven heritage allowing them to rest and watch at one and the same time.
Now and again the earth shuddered. And the Eye of the Hunter running its course rose late and ran lower down in the sky.
* * *
The next night when Urus and Aravan returned, the Baeran sat with a bitter scowl on his face. “The canyon I followed came to a dead end some eight miles inward. But the route Aravan followed went up through one of the cols, and beyond the pass he discovered six or seven more ways that Stoke could have gone. Garn!” He slammed a fist into open palm.
“Six,” said Aravan, frustration in his eyes. “Six more routes he and his lackeys could take.”
Gwylly sat propped up by a backpack. “Say, it just occurred to me: Stoke could abandon his maggot-folk and simply fly away, leaving no trail at all. I mean, even if we find tracks, what’s to say that Stoke’s with ’em? There is this, too: he could have his band—”
“Lay a false trail,” interjected Aravan. “Thou art correct, Gwylly. Urus and I have discussed such. Yet we have no choice but to try to find tracks. To do otherwise assumes that Stoke has already flown, with all the wide world his to alight within.”
* * *
Ten more days they searched, finding no traces at all, the canyons and vales beyond the cols branching and branching
again, yielding hundreds of ways Stoke could have gone through this shuddering land.
Every night Aravan and Urus returned to camp, vexation and ire written in their every glance, in their every move. And every night the Eye of the Hunter rose later and rode lower, disappearing with the dawn.
At last in the night they held long council, and ’mid oaths and tears of frustration and bitter invective they slowly came to the conclusion that for now Stoke was lost to them. He had escaped.
But what to do about it? Where to go next?
Then Faeril dug through her garments, drawing forth her copy of Petal’s diary. And in the flickering firelight she read to them, translating from Twyll to Common as she went:
The following day, a small force of warriors, armed and armored, clad in scarlet and gold, came riding across The Clearing and into the village. It was Aurion’s escort, come to accompany him back to Caer Pendwyr. And five days after, they rode out again, the Prince in their midst
But ere he went, he came unto Tommy and me. “I am but a Prince of the Realm,” he said, “yet I deem my sire will hew to the pledge I make this day, and it is this: Should you or Urus or Riatha need the aid of the High King, come unto Caer Pendwyr or to Challerain Keep and ask. We will help in running unto earth this monster you seek. So do I pledge in the names of all High Kings of Mithgar, forever.”
Though he was but ten, every inch a Prince he was, and both Tommy and I knew that aid would come if we but asked. We each hugged and kissed him, and he mounted his horse
We all watched—Tommy, Riatha, Urus, and I—as Aurion rode away, southerly, out across the wide Clearing, the Princeling mounted on a dappled grey, amidst chestnuts and bays and blacks all about, spearborne pennons snapping in the breeze, rampant golden griffin on scarlet field
And when we could see the future King no more, when the last standard passed beyond the horizon, we turned and strode back into the forest, where awaited mounts of our own