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Authors: Dennis L. McKiernan

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BOOK: The Eye of the Hunter
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Down through a forest they came, and the Bear snuffled and then
whuffed
; Gwylly had come to realize that this meant for him to follow. The Bear led the two tiny cubs to a great log, then casually rolled it with a shrug of one of its mighty paws. Underneath, in the rich loam exposed to the sunlight, beetles scrabbled for cover and white grubs writhed. The Bear pounced on this delicious meal, once pausing to look at the two-legs cubs, inviting them to join in. The “cubs” declined.

In camp at night, Gwylly and Faeril listened as Riatha and Aravan recounted events of history: of the destruction of Rwn; of the Great War, of the Sundering, of the banishment of Gyphon to the Abyss beyond the Spheres; of the War of the Usurper: of the Dragonstar and the Winter War; of the War of Drimmen-deeve; of Aravan’s pursuit of a Man with yellow eyes; of the past encounters with Stoke.

Faeril noted that when Riatha spoke of the destruction of Rwn, a look of desolation came into Aravan’s eye, and
he stood and strode off into the darkness, and did not stay to listen.

Likewise on another night, when Riatha told of her brother, Talar, the Elfess could not speak of his Death Rede, but instead, weeping, she too stood and left the circle, striding out to stand in the gloom.

When Urus went to join her, Aravan spoke softly to the Waerlinga. “Riatha is the only one among us who has actually experienced Stoke’s madness, Stoke’s ghastly flaying of a living being, Stoke’s hideous impalement.” At the look of noncomprehension on the buccan’s and damman’s faces, Aravan took one of Gwylly’s hands and one of Faeril’s in his own. “Understand me well: she
experienced
it! It was as if it were happening unto
her
! It was her own skin being flensed, her own body being pierced, she and her brother simultaneously, for such was the endowment of the Death Rede sent to her by Talar.”

Both Gwylly and Faeril drew back from Aravan, comprehension dawning at last. Distress welled in Faeril’s eyes, and Gwylly took her in his arms. “Oh, what a terrible gift,” said Gwylly, his own gaze misery-filled.

* * *

When they came into sight of Inge, Riatha called a halt. “It will not do to come upon the village with a Bear in our midst.”

Turning to the Bear, she and Aravan unbound the frame packs, struggling, for the Bear sat on his haunches and scratched, not cooperating yet not resisting either; the Bear simply didn’t deign to notice.

When the packs were off at last, Riatha spoke to the Bear. “Urus!” she called. “Urus!”

A dark shimmering came over the Bear—Faeril and Gwylly yet awed by the transformation, even though they had witnessed it every morning and evening throughout the preceding days—and in but moments where the Bear had been now sat Urus.

“Inge,” said Riatha, pointing.

Urus nodded and stood, taking up his pack and strapping it on, reaching for Gwylly’s. “No, Urus,” called the buccan. “I think I am now well enough to bear my own burden.” Gwylly swung the frame across his back, grunting. “Whoosh. I’d forgotten what a load these were.” Yet he waved away proffered help.

And down into Inge they went.

* * *

Even though there was no Bear in their midst, still these strangers caused quite a stir among the villagers. Not because they were travellers, oh no, for Inge lay on a minor east-west tradeway, and more often than not travellers passed through. Instead, these five strangers were remarkable in that they were two Elves, two Wee Ones, and a huge Man—all travelling together. Not like ordinary visitors—mostly farmers and their wives, occasional tinkers or merchants, at times a caravan of traders—Humans all but for a rare Dwarf now and again. But these were Elven Folk! And Wee Ones! And, oh my, wasn’t the Man a big’n!

They came into town, taking rooms at the inn, purchased horses and mules and supplies, then they were gone, staying but three days all told. Why, they were in and out so fast that not all folks got to see them. And the business they were on, their mission…well, let’s just say that it was most mysterious.

As Borlo Hensley, proprietor of the Ram’s Horn, the only inn in town, said after they had gone: “We welcomed them with open arms, and the first thing these strangers asked for was
information
! of all things.
Had we seen any Foul Folk? Suffered any raids? Heard any Vulgs howl? Had any
disappearances?
Seen a yellow-eyed Man? Noted any monstrous flying things? And other such nonsense
. Oh, Widow Trucen
said
she’d heard a Vulg howl some nights back, but Burd the wheelwright said ‘twasn’t nothin’ but a Wolf or two. Set her right he did, and she hasn’t forgiven him to this day, turns up her nose and passes him by.

“Strange questions, these, for it seems they were
hunting
after some’n, a Rutch or Drōk or Ogru, or even a Guul. But we couldn’t help them in their folly.

“The next thing they wanted were rooms and baths, though why the baths, I wouldn’t know. Said they’d been in the wilderness several weeks and hadn’t bathed even once in all that time, and couldn’t we smell that it was so? I told ’em they smelt just fine, and that too many baths’d make ’em sick. But they went ahead regardless.

“The Wee Ones, splashing and singing together, they were. And then after…well, let’s just say they kept in their room to themselves a good long while.

“The Elfess, now, she had a voice like that of a evengale, playing Ella’s harp and singing songs at night.
Magic
it was,
that or I’m a confirmed twithead, the way she made that harp do. And the Elf, he spoke poetry, some so fierce as to make your blood boil, and other so sad that there weren’t a dry eye in the house.

“Horses they bought, and mules—three of each. Made Burd right rich, I shouldn’t wonder, what with purchasing this and that and the other for to go along with ’em…good coin all, though I hear tell that Burd says he was paid with a jewel—Ha! I’ll believe
that
when I see it.

“The big Man, now, they say he’s a strong one. Lifted a waggon Burd was fixin’. Like it was of no consequence. Up by the corner. ‘So what?’ says I when Burd was telling me, ‘Dardar the smith can do that.’ ‘This is what,’ says he. ‘The waggon was carrying a load of fireturf. A whole load at that!’

“Now, it ain’t that I’m callin’ Burd a liar, or even a exaggerater, but a Man’d have t’ be as strong as a ox to lift a load of turf, and that’s no flam.”

A murmur of agreement rippled among the patrons of the Ram’s Horn but quickly silenced as the innkeeper spoke on.

“Something else Burd said about the big Man, though, right peculiar: seems as if the horses and mules were skittish around him, like they was afraid o’ his smell or something, but they settled when he finally put a hand on them and spoke…gentled right down, they did.

“Be that as it may, three days they stayed, then left. South they are headed. I told ’em to steer clear of the Mire. A bad place, that, what with its bogs that’ll suck a Man under in a eyeblink, and the things that live in there what’ll do you in and gulp you down, to say nothing of the vipers and adders and of the nits and gnats and bloodsuckers and the poison vines and other such.”

Again a mutter of agreement washed through Borlo’s listeners.
Almost as bad as Dragonslair
, said some.
Worse than Dragonslair
, said others.
Full of “deaders,”
added others still. And once again the arguments erupted over which was worse—Dragonslair or the Khalian Mire—a war of words which had lasted without resolution for nearly thirty-four hundred years.

And as they debated with one another, the land jolted and juddered, timbers rattled and crockery clattered, and
none paid it any heed, for living where they did, the world forever shook.

* * *

Mid-morn of the day they left Inge found three riding horses and three pack mules fording the river that marked the border between Aralan and Khal. In the lead rode Aravan, a laden mule on a tether trailing behind. Immediately after came Urus and Riatha, each with a mule following. On these last two mules, ensconced among the cargo, rode Gwylly on one and Faeril on the other, for no ponies were to be had in Inge.

The swift-running water was high and frigid, the river wide-swollen with spring snowmelt. Leaving his mule with the others, Aravan rode across, testing the depth, gauging the current, assessing the danger. On the opposite shore he wheeled his mount and rode back across, the water up to his horse’s belly at the deepest. “Should a mule fall,” he said to the Warrows, “cling to the pack frame. The animal will right itself, and if the water is deep, it will swim to shore. We will come after ye or throw ye lines should there be a need.”

His words, though prudent, proved to be unnecessary, for the crossing was uneventful.

Southerly they rode, cutting cross-country through the rolling hills, intending to follow along the banks of the River Venn until it came to the Avagon Sea. Altogether, as the raven wings, they were some two thousand miles from Caer Pendwyr and slightly more than that from Challerain Keep, the two principal residences of the High King: the keep his summer quarters; the caer his winter home; the two Courts some fifteen hundred miles apart, the King travelling between in April and September.

Although the five comrades were two thousand miles from either residence as the raven flies, by land or by a combination of land and sea they were farther still. It would take them nearly four months to reach either place, given the choices before them.

Urus had growled when Aravan had proposed his plan sixteen days past:

“In four months, Stoke could be anywhere.”

“Yet we have little choice. We need the aid of the Realmsmen.”

“Realmsmen?”

“Aye, Realmsmen. After the Winter War, nearly a thousand years agone, High King Galen, the son of Aurion, founded a group of Men he named Realmsmen: guardians of the Kingdom, champions of Just Causes. They range the Realm and defend the Land.”

“When I was in the ice…. These rangers, how do we enlist their aid?”

“They headquarter in Caer Pendwyr in Pellar. It would be best to go there to describe Stoke and his deeds and have his likeness sent to all Realmsmen throughout the High King’s domain. ’Twould also be best to go to the caer to seek audience with the High King, for no matter which place we go, we are months from either residence. And should we strive for Challerain Keep in Rian and be hindered along the way, then he will be gone to Pellar by the time we arrive.”

“I like not this delay, Aravan, yet I have no better plan and we have but a short list of choices. Stoke is lost to us, and we could search forever. We need aid, and mayhap in Caer Pendwyr we can find it. Let us go there then and seek audience with the High King…and contact the Realmsmen. Mayhap together with their aid we will find the one we seek.”

And now they travelled southerly, aiming for a port on the Avagon Sea to book passage to the place where High King Garan dwelled.

* * *

The next day they sighted a swamp on the horizon, and by the noontide they rode along its marge. Large, hoary old trees, black cypress and dark swamp willow, twisted up out of the muck, looming, barring the morning light, their warped roots gnarling down out of sight into the slimeladen mud. A greyish moss dangled down from lichen-wattled limbs, like ropes and nets set to entangle and entrap the unwary. A faint mist rose up from the bog, reaching, clinging, clutching at those who would seek to pass through. Though it was early spring, snakes slithered from drowned logs into green-scummed water, and swarms of gnats and flies and mosquitoes filled the air like a grey haze, for the heat of decaying vegetation provided the dark environs with the warmth to sustain such life in all but the dead of winter.

And alongside these environs they rode, out where the cool air protected them from the swarms of bloodsuckers.

Looking in through the trees, they could see that the bog
itself was a veritable maze of water and mire and land and wild growth. And as the Sun shone down into this green enigma, the swamp steamed in response; and it seemed as if the air within might become too thick, too wet to draw a clean breath. The marsh heaved with gases belching from slimy waters, bubbles plopping, foul stenches reeking.

South they rode as the Sun sank into the west, and lengthening shadows streamed from the hunched hummocks, from the twisted trees, from the sharp-edged reeds and saw grass, filling the bog with gloom. And above the barely heard hum of the swarms of flying pests within, other noises began to fill the air: a
chirruping
and
breeking
and
peeping
of swamp dwellers, along with ploppings, splashings, wallowings, slitherings.

“Lor!” breathed Gwylly. “I’m glad we’re out here and they’re in there.”

The Sun began to set. Long shadows slanted across the darkening land and into the murky bog, filling the environs with ebon blackness, creeping shadows slipping among the reeds, past the foul moss adrip from lifeless branches, over oozing muck and above scum-laden water, the Khalian Mire taking on an eerie aspect as night fell.

And as the five set up camp along its edge, Faeril’s eyes were ever drawn to the sinister galleries. Of a sudden she jumped up and pointed. “Oh my, there’s someone within calling for help, for I see their lantern.”

All looked where she pointed. Gwylly leapt to his feet as well, preparing to go into the mire.

“Nay, wee ones,” said Aravan, “stay! ’Tis no lantern ye see, but a ghost candle instead,”

Faeril turned to the Elf. “Ghost candle?”

“Aye. Said to be the spirit of one who is dead. Said to try to lure the innocent and the unwary unto their doom within the bog.”

Riatha spoke. “Aravan speaks one of their names. They are called will-o’-the-wisp by others. But by any name they are indeed a danger should ye try to go in after them. They will lead ye on a chase to nowhere, mazing thy minds, getting ye lost, luring ye unto deep waters where ye may drown. So stay, for ’tis no lantern ye see, but a cunning spirit of the swamp.”

Reluctantly, the Warrows resumed their seats. “Tell me,
Aravan,” asked Gwylly, “how came ghost candles to this place?”

BOOK: The Eye of the Hunter
3.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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