This was the fifth novel I completed in 2003 under its original title, The Wellstone Chronicles. In the days prior to self-publishing, it was greeted with universal rejection by publishing houses from coast to coast. Now, to commemorate its 15th anniversary, I have tightened the plot, sharpened the dialogue, and hopefully made it a superior product all around. It is now available on amazon.com in print and e-book formats. Here to whet your appetite are the first three chapters. Let me tell you a story…
The Stone Seekers
by Jack Tyler
Remdala, the first work day after the Planting Festival
He was fat. He felt no shame over it. He had earned the privilege, it came with his station, and yet he never failed to feel disapproval in the gaze of the Warrior King. Being hung over didn’t add to his comfort, either. Still, would His Majesty have him remain aloof from the joy of the peasants following their triumph of planting a greater acreage than ever before in the recorded history of the Settlements? Anyway, unless he badly misjudged his man, old Milaar was no slouch with a tankard; he might have company in his misery this morning.
Footsteps rang in the distance, carrying along the marble floor, and shortly, Minister Olece, the old stockman, rounded the corner, a polished gray and silver guardsman at his side. It wouldn’t be long now. He caught the distinct perfume of the stables as the man passed, and he realized that Milaar would regard his bright silk robes and fresh-scrubbed scent as a breath of heaven after his meeting with the Livestock Minister.
“Minister Corens,” the guardsman called, shocking him out of his self-absorbed reverie, “His Highness is ready for you, sir.”
“Yes, yes, coming.”
He struggled up, bundles of scrolls clutched in his arms, and balanced his portly body over his tiny feet.
“Lead on, young man.”
He followed the guardsman, taking in the rich sights of the palace, the rosewood facades, the striated marble floor, the portraits of former rulers lining the hall. His earlier nervousness forgotten in the heady pomp of a palace visit, he considered a change of station that would make him a regular visitor here.
He and his escort made the right turn that brought them to the vestibule of the council room, where two more guards, perfectly attired and heavily armed, flanked the double doors.
“You are expected,” his escort told him. “Announce yourself, and enter.”
He arranged his scrolls under his left arm, bowed his head deeply, and swung the door open.
“Good day, Your Majesty,” he greeted his king, eyes glued to the floor as he followed the door into the room. “Your humble servant, Corens, brings wonderful news from the fields.”
He held his posture for a moment, but when there was no answer, he dared to raise his eyes a fractional amount. Scrolls went flying to the accompaniment of a womanly shriek.
He turned to summon the guards, but, alerted by his cry, they were already upon him, thrusting him roughly aside as they rushed into the room. He started to follow them, but his escort turned and held him at the door. Over the man’s shoulder he could see King Milaar, his gray hair and beard matted with blood on the right side, lying on the floor, his sword on the rug beside him.
“After them,” the king croaked in a weak voice. “Get them!”
Then the escort forced him back, and he saw no more.
Amdala, fourth day of the work week
Wonigal, the court healer, a slim man with a slim black beard to match, sat at the side of King Milaar’s bed. Open on his knees was a thick leather-bound book, its dusty pages brittle with age. He read, studied the king’s face, looked up in thought, and read some more. Reaching to the table beside him, he shook some lavender powder from a frosted bottle into the pan of a tiny brazier, and watched until the smoke curled up. The occupant of the bed did not stir.
Laying the book aside, he turned the lamp down and went to the window, looking down into the courtyard at the mourners gathered there, grieving as though the king were already dead. He turned away, moved to the bed, felt the king’s pulse. He shook his head. He was helpless.
A soft knock came at the heavy wooden door.
The door opened, admitting Fakaal, one of the scullery girls. She held a tray with covered dishes.
“Evenin’, your grace,” she said. “Been a long time since you ate. We took the liberty—”
“Thank you,” he said with a tiny smile, just a twitch of his lips. “Put it on the table. I’ll get to it, don’t worry.”
“How’s his Lordship” she asked as she put the food down.
“Is that good or bad?”
“No way to tell. The texts don’t say much about this unending sleep. He’s still alive. That, at least, is good.”
“Yes, sir. Do you need anything else?”
“No, thank you. You run along. I’ll be fine.”
Alone again, he returned to the table and looked under the covers. Mutton, greens, hunks of warm bread, a stein of ale; a peasant’s fare, simple and nourishing. Taking a mouthful of the bread, he opened the tome again, willing his eyes to focus on the ancient, ornate script. He may have been sitting thus for a minute or an hour when his concentration was broken.
“Have they been captured?”
His eyes flicked up above the book, and his heart leapt for joy. The king’s iron gaze was locked with his own.
“Guard!” he shouted, dropping the book and rushing to the bedside. “Guard!”
The door opened to admit one of the ubiquitous gray-clad soldiers.
“The king is awake! Find my assistant. He’s in the palace somewhere.”
“Yes, sir!” the man shouted, turning to rush down the hall.
“Are they taken?” Milaar demanded again.
“Is who taken, Sire?” Wonigal asked, pushing his ruler’s shoulders back down to the bed.
“Thieves? My Lord, no one is being pursued. Minister Olece was apprehended shortly after you were attacked.”
“Fools! Olece did nothing! How long have I slept?”
“By the Gods, we’re undone! Convene my cabinet at once.”
“Sire, you have suffered a grievous injury—”
“Enough! There is no time, man. Move!”
Chapter 1: A King’s Despair
Three men, grim and fell, marched in rapid cadence along the marble hall toward the council room of King Milaar. Two nattily turned-out guardsmen in gray cloth with silver mail, swords at their sides, shields on their backs, flanked a man clad in a grubby cloak of green and brown. He was six feet tall, and lean. His long brown hair was matted with sweat, and only mud spatters broke up the uniform coating of tan trail dust that covered him head to toe. Another soldier had arrived with him, every bit as dirty, but he had been halted at the door and sent to care for the horses. The little group rounded the corner to the vestibule, and halted before six more soldiers.
“Are you Jevahn?” their officer asked the disheveled civilian.
The officer held out his mailed hand. Jevahn cocked his head and glared.
“It’s routine,” said one of the men who had come in with him. “No one goes armed before the king.”
Without further comment, Jevahn drew his foot-long dagger and passed it to the officer.
“Thank you,” the officer said. “Corporal, announce the forester, Jevahn.”
“A simple head bow and a compliment to the king’s health will suffice. We aren’t standing on ceremony today.”
Before he had time to form a reply, one of the soldiers opened the double doors.
“Beg pardon, M’Lord. Jevahn, the King’s Forester.”
Jevahn stepped in beside the man and nodded his head.
“Your health, M’Lord,” he said.
“Come in, come in,” a big man with grizzled hair and beard commanded. “Corporal, seal the door.”
“Come over here, lad, and let’s have a look at you.”
Jevahn crossed the room, taking in his surroundings. A long oaken table took up the center of the huge chamber. Maps lay open upon it, shadowy in the dim lighting. A dozen old men, and a couple of women, stood around talking in little groups, attired in long robes and strange hats. Jevahn realized that this was the King’s Cabinet, and that he, a lowly forester, had been summoned to a King’s Council.
Standing alone on the dais behind the king was an altogether different sort of person, a young woman in the immaculate garb of a soldier, a short-sleeved mail tunic over her unsullied gray uniform. She was half a foot shorter than he, and younger, and her white cornsilk hair lay in a well-behaved bob around her face. He might have thought her an albino, save for her rich tan.
“A damned shame you couldn’t have gotten here sooner,” Milaar boomed, holding out his hand to greet him.
“The road from Leyland is long, Sire,” he said, clasping hands with his monarch. “I came as fast as your horses would allow.”
“Well, never mind, you’re here now. Let’s get this council started. Places, everyone!” He punctuated his command by clapping his hands, and his counselors began to drift toward the table. “You and my young soldier, sit here at my right hand. Your association may as well begin now.”
Jevahn, feeling like he had walked in toward the end of a play, moved to the table, then stood back to allow the young woman to choose her seat. She took the one next to the king. She only spared him a single glance, but it was enough to show him a pair of incredible gold eyes. He took the seat beside her, sharply aware of his road-weary appearance.
“Where to begin,” Milaar muttered aloud. “I suppose introductions should come first. Forester Jevahn, this is Sergeant Galena.”
The woman turned and nodded to him without comment.
“That sounds familiar,” he said.
“Well it should,” she replied.
Milaar suppressed a smile.
“Galena is a sergeant of the militia. She has twice held the Marshal’s Cup, an award for martial skills that the soldiers respect.”
“Decorated,” Jevahn said. “Were you involved in the breakthrough at Ventnor?”
“You know your history, then.”
“It wasn’t a minor action.”
“Gods be praised.”
“Indeed,” Milaar cut them off. “Galena, you should know that Jevahn is as accomplished in his own field as you are in yours. In fact, that is why you were both selected for this mission. You and your comrades, Galena, hold the Wall. Jevahn and others like him go out beyond it. They spy on our enemies, unravel their secrets, sometimes undertake measures to spread terror through their ranks. Each of you, you see, compliments the other.”
They examined each other again, taking a longer look this time.
“Now, to the purpose of your being summoned here. Hardly anyone outside the Royal Family and our closest advisers know what I am about to tell you, and it goes no further, is that understood?”
Both agreed that it was.
“All right. Have you ever wondered where we came from, why we cling to life in this enclave, beset by foul beasts which require our constant vigilance?”
Once again, they looked at each other.
“It is a valid question, Sire,” Galena said.
“We were originally one of sixteen tribes. Ours was called the Sanjai. We lived in a land called Telamon, and our population numbered as the stars in the sky. The tribes traded and lived in peace and prosperity. Life was good.
“Then a shaman named Dalu began a climb to power. He was a man of unlimited greed and arrogance, and once he had the power he needed to defy the Council of Elders, he enslaved his own people, and countless others, to fatten his coffers.
“Eventually, the elders of our tribe decided in secret to flee. When the time finally came, not many of the people cared to risk even the miserable existence left to them on the uncertainties of a long sea voyage without any charts, but a few hundred stole two ships and sailed to the east. With them, they carried an artifact of great power called the Wellstone. It was given to them by Katala.”
“Like the town?” Galena asked.
“Its name honors her memory. Katala was a conjurer in Dalu’s inner circle who secretly opposed him. She dared do no more. That small group of people landed here and became the people we are today.”
“Why is this not taught to our youth?” Jevahn asked.
“It suggests that we are cowards and outcasts.”
“Not to me.”
“To most. Now, it is well known that the vast majority of the water on this continent is poisonous, fouled with sulfur and phosphorus, and other evil things that have no names. Creatures that were formed and developed here use this water as easily as we use fresh, but the trees and shrubs grow poison fruit, and I need not tell either of you that the vast forest outside the Wall teems with darkness-loving creatures of unrivaled savagery.”
Again, the pair shared a glance.
“Some of the water here is usable, enough to sustain our level of population, probably not much more. My alchemists tell me that the bedrock is porous, and after ten thousand years of percolating through this rock, the poisons have leeched out, and this accounts for the clean water springs and wells that we are able to find. Finding these rare deposits would be sheer luck, and nearly impossible, but for the Wellstone. Its enchantment locates clean water.”
“But surely, the Wellstone is a myth,” Galena blurted out, “a bedtime tale for children!”
“Would that it were! Once the Wellstone disclosed its true value, it was set in a place of honor. The Wellstone is the blue gem in the Amulet of Rule, which was taken from around my neck in this very room four days ago. I need not tell you, knowing what you do now, that if it is not recovered, these settlements will be dead before the snow flies.”
The stillness of the grave held the chamber for a moment, before Jevanh connected it all together.
“That is why we are here, to find the Amulet?”
“If possible, but the Wellstone is paramount.”
“For myself,” Galena said, “you need merely tell me whose head to loosen, and it will be done.”
“Aye,” Jevahn agreed with a word.
“Alas, were it that simple. Four riders on batlike creatures flew directly to this room, landed on the balcony that is now sealed, and took it from me. They came directly here, committed only sufficient violence to obtain that one item, and departed with haste, and all this between visitors. They knew exactly what they wanted, and both where and when to come to get it.”
“But if they flew away, surely there is no hope,” Galena said, “for not even one of your vaunted foresters can follow a track through the air.”
“But he must try. We are not entirely without clues. I observed them as they departed. Their course is marked on the map here. If they came down for rest or meeting along that track, they may well have left signs that Jevahn can read.”
“Why not, then, send this young lady and all her camp mates, and make the forest howl?” Jevahn asked.
“It may yet come to that, but no one seriously believes our militia is sufficient to overcome all that lurks out there. After careful deliberation, we believe that stealth is our best course. What we cannot seize in the light of day, we may perhaps steal by dark of night. You two are the best hope of this council. You are known to us as a fierce warrior, and a gifted tracker, and loyal to a fault. Though I could order you both to go, a quest of this nature with your hearts not in it would be doomed to failure, so I ask you, will you undertake to save our people?”
“Every day, my life belongs to the people I protect,” Galena said. “It is an honor for me to even be asked.”
“And you?” Milaar asked, looking into Jevahn’s eyes.
“I do not object. For years have I made my rounds, wondering what might lie just beyond the map. This would seem my excuse to take a look. If stealth is our course, though, why send a fighter?”
“For the small battles. You may be set upon by three or four creatures out there, and then you will find our young Galena to be a worthy companion indeed. Beyond that, her experiences are far different than yours. Her presence gives you a counsel of options you would not otherwise have. And perhaps most importantly, it is a dark road you’ll take, and sometimes the best light for your courage is a brave companion. Believe me, I know of none braver. Do you agree, then?”
“Your Highness makes much sense. If your young heroine will have me, I’ll do what I am able.”
“I serve at my king’s command,” the woman said.
“Very well, then, it’s settled. The trail is four days cold already, so you’ll want to start as soon as you are able.”
“It’s late,” Jevahn said. “Tomorrow morning should serve.”
“There is still daylight,” Galena objected.
“Only a handful of hours,” Jevahn replied. “You don’t want to be caught near the Wall by night. Evil things tend to congregate there.”
“If you have no stomach for the task—”
“Let us not begin with harsh words,” Milaar cut her off. “If the forester’s wisdom says morning is best, we shall accept the counsel we brought him here to give.”
She looked down, chastened.
“Anyway, that will give you time to assemble what you’ll need, and you can start fresh with the sun. Use this evening to gather whoever and whatever you wish to take. I’ll give you a King’s Writ for all of it. Tomorrow, horses will be waiting to take you to the Wall. However you choose to go after that will be your own decision. I give you this caution. If you find yourselves unable to accomplish anything productive, return at once, and we’ll try some other approach. Time is the one thing we do not have to waste.”
“All right. Contact me at once if you need anything. My guards will be alerted to expect you. For now, this council is adjourned.”
“All rise!” this Chief Scribe shouted as Milaar stood up, and the council was over.
Chapter 2: A Strained Alliance
Jevahn stood in the pre-dawn darkness of a small private courtyard well away from the palace’s busy center. A few men-at-arms of the King’s Guard stood with him holding a fine-looking pair of chestnut horses. It was obvious from their postures that they waited for something of great import. Chill sea-fog curled over the stone wall, and one of the guardsmen pulled his heavy gray cloak tighter around his throat.
At length, a sound began to rise, passing from a long way along stone-lined streets and corridors, the flat, abrasive sound of feet shod in hobnail boots, and another sound, a flat, rhythmic clanking, as of a poorly made bell. The sound carried dramatically in the still, damp morning. Everyone now focused on the open gate of the courtyard, and after many minutes, the source of this odd symphony appeared.
It was Galena, walking briskly along the cobblestones, dressed in her gray and silver uniform, with an outsized backpack towering above her head. From the bottom of this contraption a tin mess kit dangled, its drinking cup swinging against a fitting on her belt to produce the clanking sound.
“I am sorry,” she said, taking in the faces staring at her arrival. “Am I late?”
“Is this how you intend to enter the Dark Forest?” Jevahn asked incredulously.
“You won’t be going with me, then.”
“I shall be doing what the king decrees, as will you,” she said defensively. “What is wrong with it, if I may ask?”
“The noise, to start with.”
“That’s the nature of marching with your home on your back.”
“Not outside the wall. Stealth is your life. You go out like that, you’ll be dead before you get to the shadows. What have you got in there, anyway?”
“Useful things for the road.”
“Extra clothes, shoes and liners, rations, water purifying chemicals, a tent—”
“Enough! I’m sure that everything in your home is useful, but you don’t bring it all with you every time you come out.”
“What, then? Instruct me.”
“First of all,” he said, walking around her to examine her dangling mess kit, “exposed metal is a talisman of death out there. Anything that glints in the sun draws attacks by swarms of valon.”
“What might they be?”
“Feathered lizards the size of a dove. They glide on stubby wings and bite with serrated jaws that remove a piece of meat the size of a pea. Have you seen children feeding doves with bread crumbs?”
“So do the valon swarm around shiny metal, but it isn’t bread they’re after. They’ve learned where to find fresh meat. The clanking produced by that cup will attract things much larger and more dangerous. Your chain mail shirt will serve you well, but you must needs keep it covered at all times.”
“What of weapons?”
“Either dull finished, like your sword handle, or kept hidden under clothing. The silver on your dagger handle had best be hidden as well. Now, as to this clothing itself—”
“I represent my king. Do not propose to tell me that I cannot wear his uniform.”
“You are invited to try. Some of the foresters have experimented with a dark gray livery. Most of those who have are now dead. The only proven coloration to wear outside the Wall is dark green with brown mottling. If you aren’t going to be too adamant about that, we can get you a couple of cloaks at my guild house on our way out of the city.”
“If I must.”
“I strongly advise it. You may also keep that pack if you must, but our road is unforgiving, speed is of the essence, and I don’t care how strong you are, a contrivance like that will wear you down as fast as a bleeding wound.”
“What would you have me do?”
“Decide what is essential, and leave the rest. Then carry the essentials in belt pouches. Perhaps a purse would serve you well. Roll the rest in your blanket and sling it over your shoulder. Anything beyond what you can carry in that fashion is not essential.”
“And a fine and proper vagabond you’ll look to anyone unfortunate enough to cross your path!”
“Much better, I’m sure, to be a handsome corpse in a fine and proper uniform. Do what you will. I have the king’s work to occupy my attention.”
Putting his foot in the stirrup, he swung himself up onto the larger of the two horses, nudging it into a slow walk toward the gate.
“Wait,” she called, and he halted. Their eyes locked, and a glare was on her face. After a moment, her expression softened, and she cast her eyes down.
“All right.” He swung down from the horse and walked over to her. “Let’s see what you’ve got here.”
The mid-morning sun had burned off the fog, and its heat was beginning to make itself felt on their skin as they reined their lathered horses to a halt on the outskirts of Aldeburgh. The Wall loomed before them. Sixty feet tall in this section, formed of light gray stone and finely worked to present no foothold to intruder or escaper, its top was a broad boulevard lined with battlements. Jevahn had brought them here because its sally port was only slightly over a mile from the direct line he wished to follow.
They swung from the saddle, the animals grateful for an end to the bone-wearying journey. Galena looked little different from Jevahn now, outfitted in a green and brown forester’s cloak, though she still wore her gray underneath. Taking the blanket roll from behind the saddle, she tied the ends loosely together to form a soft horse collar, and put her left arm and head through, settling it comfortably on her shoulder.
Stepping around his mount, Jevahn handed her a six-foot pole, topped at one end with a blued spear point, and a floret of one-inch spikes around the bottom.
“This is a bush stick,” he told her. “You can use it for a staff to help with your footing, but if you’re charged by a large animal, point the blade at it and let it impale itself. If a lot of little ones come at you, use it like a quarterstaff, and the spikes will settle with them.”
She hefted it in her hand, testing the balance.
“An interesting tool.”
By now, an officer and two of his men had walked over to regard them with interest. This wasn’t undesired, as they had to turn in their horses, and in any case, the soldiers would have to let them out through the sally port.
“Good morning, citizens,” the officer greeted them. “What can we do for you on this beautiful morning?”
“My friend and I are on an errand for the court,” Jevahn replied. “We’re foresters, as you can see, and we need access to the port. Also, these horses belong to the Royal Stable, and we have no further need of them. We hoped to turn them in here.”
“I see. Foresters, is it?” He looked closely at Jevahn. “I can see where you’d be a forester, but you!”
He rounded on Galena.
“You have the look of the cities about you.”
He pushed the fall of her cloak back at her waist.
“Since when does a forester wear the livery and carry a sword?”
“Since she chooses to,” Galena replied, meeting his glare in kind.
“I know you,” he said to those eyes. He pushed her hood back, exposing her fine ashen hair. “Aha! We met at Ventnor, methinks, or my name isn’t Agatos. You’re downright famous. What was your name? Something harsh, wasn’t it? Gambini? Gakoro?”
“That’s it! Are you still a sergeant, Galena?”
“Well, I’m still a captain. You’ll make a nice addition to my little garrison. Lose those rags and tidy up your uniform, girl. You’ll be on my roster by chow time.”
“I can’t do that.”
“And why not?”
“I’m on a vital errand for the king.”
“Oh? And what might this errand be?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
“You’re not going to be at liberty at all if you don’t move your ass, wench! I gave you an order. Now, jump!”
More of his men were gathering, drawn by the disturbance. She looked helplessly at Jevahn.
“Excuse me, Captain,” he said. “A word?”
“And who might you be?”
“No one, merely an ignorant civilian. Perhaps you can educate me.”
“I am always happy to educate civilians.”
“Good. Tell me then, does a captain outrank a king in these unsettled times?”
“Hah! That’s a good one. You aren’t really that ignorant, are you?”
“Well, then, here is King Milaar’s writ.” He handed over the folded parchment. “It explains that I’m on a vital errand for His Majesty, and it authorizes me to claim anything I need to ensure its success. One of the many things I have claimed is the service of this sergeant.”
Agatos took in this new development with a scowl, his gaze nearly burning the clothlike document in his hand.
“Anyone can present a parchment and say it’s from the king,” he said finally. “We’ll need to send a man to verify it.”
“The shadows will be long before he can return.”
“That isn’t my concern.”
“That’s where you’re mistaken,” Jevahn told him. “Time is vital to the success of our mission. If you cost us a day when you hold in your hand a writ with the king’s seal, and witnessed by his chief scribe, he’ll have your head on a spear.”
“Here, who are you to speak for what the king will do?”
“I was at his council yesterday evening, as was this woman. Use your head, man! You said yourself she was famous. Why do you think the king chose her from among hundreds, thousands of soldiers?”
Agatos stood, grim and silent, fingering the writ, eyes darting from point to point around them.
“We’ve ridden the king’s horses through the night to get here,” Jevahn pressed him. “Look at the brands. Would anyone dare steal those?”
Still no reply.
“A decision is upon you, Captain. How do you choose?”
Agatos slapped the folded writ into his free hand.
“On the Wall!” he shouted. “Foresters going out. Clear the port!”
“Corporal Bogor, stand ready to open the portal.”
Jevahn placed the reins of his horse in Agatos’ hand, followed by Galena.
“A wise choice, Captain.”
“A good officer sees his duty.” He offered the writ to Jevahn.
“Keep it, Captain. The things outside this wall don’t give a damn about seals and witnesses.”
They passed beyond civilization through a triple-hung doorway of eight-inch oaken beams. It was tiny, two feet on a side, and they slid through feet-first to find themselves beyond the boundary of human domination. Galena found her first unfettered view of the Dark Forest to be unsettling, like suddenly finding one’s self inside a cage with a dangerous beast. Jevahn quickly crossed the clear-cut area with her at his heels, and got into the shadows below the lush canopy.
“You were brilliant with the good captain back there,” she said, as much to quell her own nervousness as for anything else.
“No,” he said, examining the ground, “merely adequate.”
“Do you jest? You had him dancing like a trained pony!”
“Look,” he said, pointing toward the Wall. “We’re outside now. Thinking on your feet like that isn’t brilliant. It’s the bare minimum that’s required if you’re going to stay alive.”
“I just meant—”
“Sergeant, there is no book of regulations to tell you how to behave out here, and no officers to tell you what to think. You have to think for yourself, and act upon whatever you decide without hesitation. If you can’t do that, you’re going to be something’s dinner.”
“Is that supposed to be insulting?” she asked, following him as he started slowly down a game trail.
“No,” he said after a moment’s thought. “It’s supposed to give you an idea of what to expect out here.”
“I thought I had one.”
“Nobody does, not until they get out here and feel the finality of the isolation. Look, I’m not your superior, but if I was, and you waited for me to give you an order, you’d be dead before I could form the words. You’re a sergeant. You know how to give orders as well as take them. When things start to happen, just imagine what you’d tell your men to do, then do it yourself.”
He started to walk faster.
“I’m sorry to be such a burden to you,” she said sullenly.
“You’re nothing of the kind. Pick up the pace. We need to reach Bald Man’s Circle by noon.”
“This day is proving more than educational for me,” Galena said as she followed Jevahn along a barely discernible watercourse. “I had no idea all this was going on right outside the Wall. I’ve always felt that when I stood on the Wall I was at the outer edge of the world.”
He offered no response to this, but continued to study the ground intently as he picked his slow way through the leaf litter.
“I’ve always felt like I have more than my fair share of courage, as well, but I can’t imagine what it must take to come out here all alone.”
“Uh huh,” was all he said as he stooped to run his fingers over a patch of dirt, then lift a rotting leaf to his nose for a smell. He looked up into the leafy canopy, then stood and turned in a slow circle, studying every inch of the closely surrounding wood.
“You’ll have to try to be more quiet,” he said finally, and started off along the trail again.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
“Not that,” he said, “though an end to this chatter would certainly be welcome. I’m talking about those big, noisy boots. Can’t you be more aware of where you’re putting them down?”
She glared at him, trying to fathom his nerve.
“You haven’t been much of an instructor.”
“Nursemaid, more like. Do I have to teach you how to walk, too?”
Her mouth was forming to call him something both foul and odious when he said, “Oh, well, why not? Pay more attention to the ground. Try to step in the clear spots.”
“There aren’t many of those that I can see.”
“Well, use your foot to brush the leaves aside before you put your weight down. It’s those damned boots. Don’t you have anything softer?”
“I had my bedroom slippers, but you made me leave those behind.”
“Laskori’s balls! Never mind. Just try to be the least bit aware of what you’re doing.”
He turned his back and moved off again, going silently at a pace she couldn’t match without noise. She made some.
“Will you keep it down?”
“Well, try harder.”
“I’m only a soldier. I’m doing the best I can.”
“Well, it’s not good enough.”
He turned away again.
“Not so fast, you arrogant bastard!”
He turned back to see her cheeks flushed through her tan, and her burnished gold eyes fairly on fire.
“You just wait until we have our first fight. Then it will my turn to judge how you measure up, and you’d better be good!”
“The idea is not to have a fight at all. We’d be at a severe disadvantage, no matter what attacked us. Let’s see your feet.”
He knelt before her, examining her small boots, then opened his blanket roll and took out an extra pair of soft leather shoes. By holding the ankle cuffs and having her put her weight onto them, he found they would just slide over her hard military boots.
“There,” he said, studying his handiwork. “That may help. It certainly can’t hurt. Try your best, now. It may be some better.”
He rose and led off again, leaving her to pick her way in his wake, jumping at shadows and mysterious sounds until her neck and shoulders became sore from the constant tension. It would be a long time until dark.
She lagged behind him, sometimes ten yards, sometimes twenty, sometimes more. She had had enough of his attitude, his condescending pretense at helping, his smug superiority at some childish ability to walk silently without disturbing the leaves. Just wait until there was some real work to do. If he didn’t scream like a little girl, she’d eat his damned boots!
He slowed down, a fact made noticeable by the shrinking distance between them. She stopped, letting him move back out ahead, and then he stopped as well, kneeling, studying, every sense straining forward. Even from well back in the trees she could see the brightness just ahead of him, and realized that he was at the edge of a clearing. This must be Bald Man Circle, she decided. She studied him, thinking how very much like a prey animal he was, examining every rock, tree, and blade of grass before coming down to the water hole.
She carefully and quietly crouched down, then put her knees on the ground before her, giving her legs a welcome rest. She smiled at his antics, her anger at him letting her believe that he was going through a ritual of cowardice rather than taking sensible precautions, when a flicker of motion above caught her eye. She looked up in time to see what she thought was a black, leathery membrane fold itself behind the trunk high in a tree above Jevahn’s head.
Her teeth touched and her lips parted, on the verge of calling his name, when she realized just how bad an idea that was. Looking around, she located a small pebble. Laying it in the curl of her index finger, she flicked it toward him with her thumb. It snicked into the leaves beside him. His gaze snapped down to look at the tiny disturbance, and went right back to the clearing. Moving infinitely slowly, she picked up another and repeated the procedure.
This time she hit him in the back, and when he spun around, the look of rage on his face was frightening. Ignoring it, she pointed upward, then put her thumbs together, hands forming a bird in front of her chest. She flapped the “wings” to make sure he got it.
He looked up and studied the canopy for a minute, two minutes, then looked back at her and gave an almost imperceptible shrug. Risking a larger motion, she extended her arm and pointed directly at the offending object, which she hadn’t seen move again, and whose existence she was beginning to doubt herself. Best not to tell him that.
He looked up again, trying to discern the precise location of whatever had gotten her excited. Giving up, he looked back at her, pointed to her, then to his own eyes.
She nodded, placing her hand on the hilt of her sword. Jevahn stood slowly, turned, and walked into the brightly lit space before him. Focusing on the spot where the thing (the shadow?) had disappeared, she waited for it to follow him, exposing itself in the process. Nothing happened. She let time flow past her, a skill gleaned from years of watch-standing, her slow, even breaths inaudible, her heart noticeably slowed. Nothing moved.
She guessed it had been six or seven minutes since Jevahn had entered the clearing. She rose from her crouch and as carefully as she could, worked her way to the tree the thing had been in. Her gaze never wavered. Nothing showed itself. She moved around to the other side where she was sure the thing would be, but there was nothing to be seen. Just as she feared, she had jumped at a shadow. Letting her breath out in a long hiss, she joined Jevahn in the clearing.
After spending the morning in the dim, rancid atmosphere under the heavy-limbed trees, the sun and clean air assailed her senses, making her squint her eyes and wrinkle her nose. This could only be Bald Man Circle. A little round hill erupted from the forest floor, and for reasons known only to themselves, no tree would grow here. It looked for all the world like a middle-aged man’s balding dome, the surrounding fringe of hair precisely represented by the circle of brush at its base.
Jevahn stood at the crown, holding their map unfolded in the light breeze, and looking off to the east. Still watching the tree line behind her, she came up to join him.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I really thought I saw something.”
“What? Oh, you probably saw a watcher.”
“But nothing happened.”
“No. Watchers don’t attack. They serve to mark our position for the hunters. Once we’re torn to pieces, the watchers get their spoils.”
She looked around apprehensively.
“So, what happens now?”
“We go on with our business.” He pointed out some features on the map. “This is Bald Man Circle, where we are now. There in the distance, and here on the map, are Indumati and Hakora, the Sisters of Sorrow. See them?”
“The mountain peaks?”
“Right. And this is the line that King Milaar observed the thieves taking in their escape. If we keep our course between the peaks and the sunrise, we will cut that line here, almost on the river. It is logical to assume that if they have a base, or a stronghold, that it would be on what is, to them, a reliable source of water.”
“That seems true, but the king was grievously injured when they departed. He had taken a blow to the head. As a soldier, I can tell you that what you think you saw under those conditions isn’t always what actually happened. Even if his sight was true, their course may have been chosen for no other reason than to clear the Wall as quickly as possible. And after all that’s said and done, fliers can change their course on a whim.”
“All that you say is true, and yet me must hope your fears are unfounded, for we have naught else but the king’s vision. It is that we must follow if we are to have any hope at all.”
“And then there is the watcher.”
“Harmless by itself, and yet it may be the eyes for a hunter, or a pack of them. Still, it would be strange if nothing had cut our track by now. You need only keep alert and ready to fight, which I’m sure you have been since we came outside.”
“You’re right about that!”
“Look, I may have been unnecessarily harsh with you. I am accustomed to being out here alone, and I know my own skill. All I know of you is that you make a lot of noise, and that draws swift death out here. So much better it would be if I could find their lair alone, then whisk you to me with some trick of magic.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
“Yes. Well, I can’t, so I have a proposal for you.”
“A deal. You try to be more quiet, and I’ll try to be more patient.”
“And helpful, I hope. All my problems stem from my inexperience.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, you did well here, very well indeed.”
“But I never saw the thing again. I was probably just jumping at shadows.”
“Perhaps, but if a watcher doesn’t want to be seen, it generally isn’t seen.” He folded the map and tucked it into a pouch. “Are you ready to walk some more?”
“How are those shoes working for you?”
“They seem to be better. I can tell the difference.”
“As can I. Let’s go.”
With no further comment, he led the way off the little hill and back into the shadows of the Dark Forest.
Chapter 3: Magic and Might
The room was gray stone, not worked blocks, but a smooth gray surface that flowed like solid curtains in a natural-appearing cavern. Dimly lit by the slowly failing fire, the walls shimmered with green lichen highlights. The fire itself burned in the sort of fireplace that would have graced any house, giving lie to the idea that there was anything natural about this cavern.
There was nothing natural about the woman, either, though she had gone to great lengths to foster that belief. She looked out through the lancet window, studying the top of the forest canopy below. The first rays of dawn had begun to kiss the land, and the long streamers of mist and fog had grudgingly stopped their night-long advance.
“Where are you, my darlings?” she murmured, then turned back into the room. She took an ember from the fire with her long bare fingers and used it to light two oil lamps in their wall sconces. Bending over a large table, she traced her finger across a map showing the great human settlement as a featureless shape behind its wall, and the forest outside in much greater detail. “And where are you, I wonder?”
She strode idly back to the high window again, looking out over her wooded domain. She was willowy, elegant, with the look of a woman in the flush bloom of her maturity. Only the thin tracing of her antlers gave lie to that assumption. They had been difficult to grow and forced her to be constantly aware of where she was walking, but the power they gave her over the forest creatures made them indispensable.
As she stood watching the gray vista gradually whiten, a blur of motion caught her eye, barely discernible above the dark treetops. She stood aside from the opening, and a small bat flew into the room with the odd, jerky motion of its kind, and attached itself to the ceiling.
“There you are at last, my darling,” she greeted the furry night creature. “Are your brothers with you?”
It seemed to reply with a series of chirps, some rising above the threshold of human hearing. This woman seemed to have no difficulty picking out the sounds, however.
“They’ll be fine,” she told it. “What has them upset?”
More chirps and squeaks.
“Hunters in the forest aren’t news. The forest teems with hunters.”
Chirp, chirp, squeak, twitter-twitter, brrrrr!
“Men from the cities are no threat to you. They come out, they look around, they go back in. Sometimes we eat them.” She reached up with a finger to scratch the furry creature behind its ear. “But you are too upset to enjoy my little joke. Do not fear, little one. Rankaya will protect you.”
Tweet, click-click, bzz.
“We expected they would come in a straight line. After all, their very life has been taken from them. You cannot expect them to die without some pitiful attempt to save their world. How many are there?
“You must be mistaken, or perhaps these are not the ones we seek. Still, perhaps our friends, the Nodaav, should investigate, yes?”
“All right, have no fear. Cover your little ears.”
The bat folded its wings tight around its head and squeezed its tiny eyes tightly shut.
The woman took a long, curving horn of bonelike material from a stand beside the fireplace and walked to the window. Setting the bell on the sill, she inflated her lungs with a deep breath, and blew a long, mournful blast that made the hills ring. Twice more, she repeated the action, then turned back and replaced the horn on its stand.
“There, my darling. All finished. And soon, too, are they.”
“What in the five hells was that?” Galena stopped arranging her blanket roll and looked off toward the distant mountains.
“I don’t know,” Jevahn admitted, stepping to her side and following her gaze. “I’ve heard it twice before, but none in my order can set a name to it. Some great beast in its final torment would be my guess. In any case, it has never proven dangerous.”
Walking back to the fire he had just kindled, he picked up the evaporator, a contraption akin to a double boiler, and stepped into the undergrowth to collect some suspicious gray water from the pond he had seen yesterday evening. Coming back, he hung it above the fire, and unrolled a thin sheet of flexible metal which he set down among the now blazing twigs.
“A damned shame we couldn’t have had a fire last night,” Galena said. “This blanket’s poor accommodation against that fog.”
“Much warmer in a monster’s belly,” he said, cutting strips of salt pork and laying them on the sheet. “Too many eyes hunt at night, and nothing attracts the curious like a fire in the darkness.”
“You know best. Still… What day is this?”
“Kedala, I think.”
“The Day of Rest. There’s a thought.”
“Like everything else, the calendar of men stops at the Wall.”
“You must really have to abandon all pretense at socialization to live out here.”
He wrapped the block of pork in its waxed paper and foil, and began turning the strips above the fire.
“And women, too, I suppose. Or do you have a life-mate tucked away somewhere?”
“And that is something else you have no use for, I would assume?”
“You would be mistaken. I often feel as though I would like to have a son to carry on my line and trade, someone to teach the ways of the forest, but there aren’t many women willing to bind themselves to a man who already belongs to the Green Mistress.”
“They must be out there, or do foresters spring from the ground like flowers after the rain?”
“They’re out there, as you say, but not many. Imagine yourself tied to a man who’s around for a few days, then gone for weeks at a time, and if he never comes back, you never know why. All you can do is maintain your home as best you can, and hope.”
“A situation not unfamiliar to one in my line of work.”
“I won’t dismiss your attachments to your comrades, but they are not the bonds of a life-mate.”
“Anyway, such are the realities of the life I have chosen. One goes on.”
He took out bread, cut slices, and put the cooked pork across them. Making sandwiches, he passed one to her.
“Sorry. You can’t carry butter or sauces out here.”
“Hot food of any kind is fare of the Gods to a soldier,” she said around a mouthful.
“Good. By the time we finish these, the water will be ready. We can make good time today if the weather holds.”
“No reason it shouldn’t.”
“None at all.”
Other ears in the forest besides Galena’s took note of the great horn. One pair belonged to Ulik, a warrior-priest of the Yordana. A huge slab of bone and muscle, a giant made vaguely in the image of a man, he looked up from his labors and tried to pinpoint the source.
“Ulik hears you, o whore of the mountains, and soon he comes to bring your reward.”
He bent again to his work, filling in the last grave of his comrades. The things had come in the night, hybrid beasts of evil that could only have come from Her. Hunting cats with reptilian skins, long teeth, and eyes that pierced the fog with their magical sight, their death-blow was struck with a sting at the tip of their long, waving tails. The battle had been fierce and long, and the cost was high, but in the end, there had not been enough of them. Nine creatures had sprung from the darkness, and nine creatures now lay dead around and among the bedrolls. Ulik was alone.
He had gone around the killing ground after the long, bitter fight, and urinated on each of the filthy beasts in turn, defiling the bodies, and inviting scavengers to take them. Now he completed the task of burying the comrades felled by the lash of the devil-beasts’ tails. As he filled in the last of the four holes, he allowed his rage to simmer in mindless hatred of the evil one, the manipulator of devils who had taken the Hearthstone of his village.
The Hearthstone was his peoples’ soul incarnate. Without it, they had no voice in council, no rights in court, no basis to continue as a community. She knew these things. These reasons compelled her act.
Oh, not that she had committed the theft herself. She had sent her reviled Maderi raiders on their flying dragons to collect it. They had fallen from the sky, taken it from the town square, and disappeared into the green labyrinth of the mother forest. She had badly miscalculated. Everyone knew who the Maderi served, and the Yordana had no fear of the green ocean, and no fear of death.
Still, there was doubt. Ulik had buried his healer, buried his mage, buried two skilled warriors. Now he was alone, and he wondered for the first time whether he could do this. Only the iron discipline of the Yordana warrior enabled him to set aside his doubt and continue.
He laid the shovel atop the last grave. No need to carry that; there was no one left to bury him. The steel cable sinews in his three hundred fifty-pound frame stood out as he rolled the last of the four boulders into place on top of his fallen comrade. The scavengers thus closed out, he knelt beside the stone and bowed his head, ham-like fists curled in supplication.
“Great Yamena, creator of all things, hear me, the lowly Ulik, unworthy child of your whim. On the blood of my fathers do I swear my vengeance. While I live, the evil witch of the mountains shall know no peace. Her heartbeat will summon me like the watchfires of home. Her creatures will grace my plate. Only by securing my death will she find safety in closing her eyes. Bless my holy quest, o Father, I pray, and allow me to be the instrument of your terrible justice. By the love of your sacred flesh, let it be so.”
He stood then, a creature more dread and terrible than the one that had so recently knelt, and glared toward the distant mountains. He raised his clawed fist and held it out against those peaks, a deep scowl lining his weathered face. Ritual completed, he walked to his bed site, pulled on the furred leather vest that had turned the creatures’ venomous tails time and time again. On such small things hung the fates of empires. He slung his carrying bag over his massive shoulder and picked up his club, the trunk of a half-grown tree, three-inch spikes protruding around its business end.
“Now, whore, let Ulik find you!”
Galena followed Jevahn in what had become their marching order, he ten to twenty yards ahead, picking trail as the soldier watched the growth around him for trouble. She didn’t feel she was shunning him, as he discouraged idle conversation in any case. She felt much more comfortable than she had just two days ago, when she had been a literal babe in the woods. She had years to go to learn to live out here, but she had picked up a feel for the background sounds of the place, and had a fair idea of when a sound constituted a reason for concern.
Of more puzzlement to her was Jevahn himself. Rude and friendly by unpredictable turn, she never knew how he was going to react when she spoke to him. And that whole discussion about women! Yes, she had raised the subject, but she had raised many subjects, and most elicited little more than a grunt. She mentally shrugged it off, putting it down to a form of craziness brought on by this lifestyle.
She continued along in his wake, taking simple pleasure in her developing ability to follow a leaf-strewn path in silence. Oh, he had not paid her any overt compliment, and she harbored no expectation that he would, but he hadn’t railed at her since mid-afternoon yesterday, and that was the same thing, wasn’t it?
He stopped ahead, and she did also, watching him stoop, brush the ground with those trained fingertips, and look off to the side of the trail. Her gaze followed his, and she was surprised to see a smooth gray-green object the size of a beer keg back among the brush some twenty paces off the trail. As she looked, it split open lengthwise, revealing a row of nasty-looking teeth, wet with drool. She suddenly realized that he couldn’t see it from where he was.
“Jevahn!” she shouted at the top of her lungs, shrugging off her blanket roll and drawing her sword, two and a half feet of slim, double-edged steel.
Enraged at the ruin of its ambush, the thing turned a pair of beady black eyes on her, and launched itself in her direction. It was heart-stoppingly fast, covering twenty yards in three long bounds, and raking at her with the claws on its outsized hind legs.
She did the one thing it didn’t expect; she stood her ground, and took a vicious horizontal slash as it arrived, opening a sharp red line across the bottom of its foot. It howled in rage and jumped back.
She had no time to gloat, nor to follow up her advantage, as it had a partner which had followed from the opposite side of the trail, and arrived a heartbeat later. She threw herself down and to the side, and swung at it on the backstroke, but missed. The thing stopped on a dime, leaped into the air, and descended onto her, the big foot claws raking. All it found was her upraised sword, its own weight and momentum driving the razor-sharp steel up the inside of its leg.
She rolled away, glancing toward Jevahn. He would be no help, as a third one had pitched into him, and he was barely holding the slashing claws at bay with his long knife and the end of his broken bush stick. If anything, she would have to find a way to reach him. Twenty yards had never looked farther.
The first one was back upon her, gouging at her torso with its big hooked claws, but it was thwarted by her mail and hopped back, bellowing in frustration. She rolled to her feet, drawing her dagger, and threw it from ten feet with all the considerable power in her compact body. It struck the second one where its neck and shoulder met, and between the two of them, the predators-turned-prey made the forest ring.
Sword back in her right hand, she went to her two-hand grip and rushed the first one, slashing back and forth, forcing it back, feeling the blade bite once, twice, thrice. When the beast jumped back to get away from her, she broke off the attack and sprinted for Jevahn, screaming the battle cry of the City Guard.
The beast had him pinned down with its foot on his knee, snapping at him with its huge jaws as he fended off the head as best he could with knife and stick. It turned at her noisy arrival, but it had taken the weakness of these soft humans for granted, and it paid with its life as her keen blade slashed through its windpipe and jugular. It died thrashing in the undergrowth, its attempts to scream coming out as bubbling rushes of bloody air.
“Galena!” Jevahn shouted, looking over her shoulder.
She spun to find one of her attackers almost on her, but at the sight of her upraised sword and grim visage, it dug in its feet to halt, body rocking over the fulcrum of the massive hind legs.
She screamed again, and charged, winding up for a mammoth strike with her sword. The thing had seen enough of this golden-eyed devil, and bounded backward to open the distance, fell back into some shrubs, then sprang up and sprinted away in the wake of its surviving partner.
“Come back any time!” Galena shouted after it. “Let’s finish this!”
She turned back to Jevahn. He had his bow out and was nocking an arrow, but no further targets dared to present themselves. After a quick inspection of the surrounding brush, she turned her attention to him. His knee was swelling from being under the creature’s weight, and red scrapes on his hand and wrist showed where teeth had found their mark.
“How bad is this?” she asked, dropping to her knees beside him and fumbling for a cloth in one of her pouches.
“He almost had me. Got a nice mouthful of knife for his trouble, though.”
She wiped his arm, revealing three parallel gashes from the middle of his forearm to his knuckles. Fortunately, they weren’t deep, and the bleeding had almost stopped. As she dug through a pouch for the tin of balm she carried, he reached up and touched her cheek.
“I saw you. You are incredible.”
“I am a trained soldier, nothing more.”
“Nothing more? You are the Goddess of War come to mortal ken!”
“Hush. You will anger Fautine with your insolence.”
“But you were – AHHHHHH!”
“That’s better,” she said, smearing the brown, burning paste into his wounds. “Follow your own advice and do less talking.”
“These are nothing,” he said as he caught his breath. “It is my knee that worries me.”
“I’ll have a look in a moment. It doesn’t look broken.”
“It needn’t be broken to keep me from walking. Time is precious.”
“We’ll get back on the march, if I have to carry you.”
“I’ve no doubt you can. You promised you would critique my fighting skills when the time came. I suppose it has come.”
“I won’t be harsh. You live.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Thanks to us both. We are a team. I like a bigger one, and you don’t like one at all, but here we are. Let’s stand you up. We’ll see how that knee looks.”
She was old; nay, ancient. She wore her years like a badge of honor, and she strolled through the dangerous forest as comfortably as a queen might stroll through the gardens of her palace. She spoke words of enchanting beauty to gnarled trunks, and brushed soothing fingers over poisonous blossoms. The huge arachnid stalking her saw only an easy meal.
It was the size of a large dog, and it carried a deadly neurotoxin in its bite. Its eight multijointed legs could wrap up and pin even much larger prey while it sought out the best place for its sharp fangs to make their injection. Once that was done, it could begin to feed while its prey was still alive.
It crossed between two trees on a rope of silk that was part of the home it had built in this lush grove. The woman below showed no sign of awareness. They never did. It attacked from ambush, used deadly chemicals to subdue anything from mice to huge carnisaurs, and everything fell before it with paralyzed limbs, watching in horror as it began to feed. These white, hairless apes were the easiest prey of all.
It worked its careful, patient way to a point directly above the old woman’s head, attached one of its silken lines to its tree branch, and slid silently down for the kill.
It was mere feet above her when her arm extended from her side, and a bauble on her finger flared to brilliant white light. The nightmare beast felt its body stiffen and contract in upon itself. Control of its silk organs was lost, and it slipped past the helpless old woman to crash heavily on the forest floor. Its whole body felt consumed with a terrible cramp, and its perspective sank lower and lower, without letup.
It had no way of knowing that that was because it was shrinking to a size it hadn’t been since it was a nestling. Shrinking and changing, legs dissolving, body lengthening, appendages it had never imagined growing from one end of the cylinder it was fast becoming. It was an eating machine, without the imagination to comprehend what was happening to it; it was fortunate.
The old woman walked over, huge now, viewed from the level of the ground. It attempted to flee, but only managed to writhe the stringy roots that grew from the trunk its body had become. The last thing it heard was the woman’s voice saying, “What a lovely addition you’ll make to my garden.”
Her name was Piru, and in every language of all the forest tribes, it was the word for Fear.