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And now, the story…
The exhausted rider slowed his horse to a walk as dusk began to gather about him. The forest and safety tormented him with their distance, within sight now but hours ahead. He knew they would fade as the horizon shrank with the setting sun. He stumbled from his saddle, lay in the road where he fell while his chestnut brown gelding moved off to munch wild grass.
Terlik envied the horse. He had no food for himself, nor focus enough to trap some with magic after the long day’s hurried ride. With all speed he had to carry his message to the Forest People. They would shelter him, feed him. They would even take him in and continue his training while Terlik’s master, Gord the Maker, dueled his rival. They would take over and complete his training, Gord had assured Terlik, should his master lose.
But just then their ancient spells hid in that fading forest, along with food, and safety. Terlik had none of those things, for the kings of Yastil had long ago decreed such restrictions on all messengers. Officially their lack of weapons and provisions proved that they were not spies. Unofficially it was said that Naaron the Third of Velstadt first proposed the idea to ensure that messengers did not tarry in their duties.
Whatever the reason, for Terlik it meant that the Forest People would question the veracity of his master’s message if Terlik arrived armed or well fed. The use of small spells to skirt this restriction was overlooked for wizards – even apprentices – but Terlik had spent more time with books than on horseback, and he felt that lying on the rutted, broken dirt of the road matched the level of exertion he could still attain. The red clay would not stand out against his hair when he met the Forest People, and perhaps not even against his dusky skin, if he had but time to brush himself down before delivering his master’s words.
Terlik considered simply sleeping where he lay. Surely he could expect no riders by night, not when he had passed an inn only two hours past. His stomach grumbled at the thought of that inn: rich, thick stew with tiny globules of fat shimmering on the surface, rye bread so thick it must be dunked before chewed, the tang of the local salt beer….
Where did his horse wander off to?
Terlik sat up, groaning at the sad state of his abused muscles, but he could not see his horse. Had it gone north toward the foothills or south toward the … what lay south? Oh, yes, more foothills. Eagle’s Rest Forest grew out of the place where the Giant’s Teeth met the Dragon’s Spine.
No wonder few seek the Forest People, thought Terlik. If giants and dragons once dwelt in the great mountains near here, who would wager that they will not return? His body complained but rose at his urging to a standing position, nearly two yards tall and thin as a twig. Terlik’s master even referred to him as Terlik the Twig on occasion, and Terlik devoutly hoped that did not become his sobriquet when he someday earned his staff.
Terlik looked south, then north, but saw no sign of his horse. Perhaps, wiser, the horse had wandered back east toward the inn. “Merlach,” he called, then clicked his tongue in what he hoped was the right manner. Whether it was or not, Merlach the horse ignored him, if it heard. Terlik rubbed his dark eyes, his narrow cheeks and high forehead, but could not wipe away his enervation. He was too tired for magic, but he could not risk losing his master’s steed. He wished he could rest, just close his eyes for even a little while, but the light had already begun to fade. Terlik needed to find the horse now or not at all.
He stepped off the road and knelt in the Pose of Recompense, decided that he had made the wrong choice and shifted to stand in the Pose of Third Command. But that was wrong too. Terlik hung his head, fatigue wearing at what little focus he had. He ran his fingers over his tight curls, shorn close to his skull. A spell of finding was beyond him. He had to accept this. In the morning, perhaps, he could manage it, if the gelding were still in range, if nothing had killed it and no one had claimed it.
Terlik could not risk that. But what more could he do?
Then he had a thought. He had not the strength for a spell, but the horse might. Had Terlik left any binding stones in his saddlebag? Alas, no, they were all in his pouch. Still, Merlach was his master’s horse, his master’s rightful property. Terlik was his master’s apprentice, given the horse in trust on a sworn task. If the horse were Terlik’s, the bond of ownership would provide connection enough to tap the horse’s strength for a small spell. Perhaps Terlik’s connection to his master and his further connection to the horse – at least for this task – might create sufficient bond for an enchantment to take. Terlik rubbed his neck and considered. If the connection proved too tenuous, then given his current state, Terlik could likely look forward to intense pain followed by unconsciousness lasting until at least mid-day. But what choice did he have?
Terlik scraped a narrow sliver off of his flint with his hunting knife, the closest thing to a weapon any messenger was permitted. In his hand Terlik mixed the sliver with ground leaves from the hallah tree and a pinch of caro root. Over these he said the right words in Chaldish, the tongue of ancient Chalda Before the Fall, though his tongue stumbled as pressure from the spell rose in response to his words, beat through his chest, locked his limbs rigid until only his mouth could move. Even sweat could not drip down Terlik’s forehead as he chanted, however much his pores wished to cool his skin, grown fever-hot from his casting.
Were Terlik fresh and relying on his own resources, this simple spell would not have pressed him so, would have been finished and done in a single verse with no noticeable effort. But now the apprentice strained through three necessary repetitions: once for him, once for Merlach, and once for the bond. When the final syllable fell past Terlik’s numbing lips, the mixture in his hand flared and soared off to the north. Terlik gasped at the release and stumbled forward to his hands and knees, panting. Sweat now drenched him as though the tidal wave had broken the dam.
But he would find Merlach now, even under cover of darkness, for the horse would glow white with witch fire. Terlik could afford to sit for a scant few minutes. Perhaps even rest his head…
Terlik heard a decidedly human yelp come from the north, possibly the sound of a horse thief shocked at the sudden glow of his quarry. Terlik longed for a brief moment to let the thief have the horse and continue on foot. But Gord would expect Merlach’s return, and Terlik would be held accountable.
The apprentice moaned and forced his awkward way to his feet.
The horse itself might be easily found – even now Terlik could see the witch fire’s glow crest a slope a few hundred paces ahead of him – but the distant light did nothing to ease Terlik’s path in the deepening dark. Away from the road the ground grew rough, dried and broken by summer heat, though the rains of fall were only a week away, if Terlik had read the portents correctly. The moon above shed little light to aid him, hidden at this time of month down to a bare suggestion of itself. Every step challenged the weary apprentice and he nearly fell three times, including once that almost brought him down on a snake, which hissed a warning but wanted nothing to do with him. Terlik could not see it clearly, but he would have sworn that the snake’s belly swelled in the middle from an early dinner.
Even the snakes have food, he thought with a grimace.
The slope, when Terlik reached it, could not have risen more than twice his own height, but he resorted to scrabbling up on all fours, as though climbing a rock instead of hiking an inconvenience. The slower speed lent him stealth, and as he neared the top Terlik heard two distinct sounds. The soft chuckle of a stream thrilled his parched lips, drier even since his spell. But he forestalled his eager rush forward at the second sound: a soothing voice, as of one calming an animal.
A horse thief? One that would steal even a wizard’s horse? No one could mistake the witch fire for anything other than spell work, so this thief had nerve and experience. And probably a weapon. While Terlik had no sword – just as well for he had shown little aptitude for the weapon – only a hunting knife he could do nothing with beyond skin game and prepare tinder. Terlik’s minor host of spells lay beyond his current reach. He knew he could not even have managed a second witch fire spell without sleep, to say nothing of any enchantment strong enough to hinder a horse thief.
But the thief did not have to know that…
Terlik took a deep breath, drew himself to his full height with as much dignity as he could manage, fixed his face with what he hoped was furious rage, and strode to the top of the slope, doing his best to ignore the protests his body made at every step.
As he reached the top Terlik felt his expression crack. At the foot of the slope, Merlach’s reins in hand, crouched a warrior. She looked lean, deadly and half-crazed by the light of the witch fire: eyes narrow and a roguish scar set off against her dark cheek, her long tight curls wild and almost alive as she moved. Curved sword at her side and pliant, strong hide armor to protect her, Terlik knew he would present no more than a momentary distraction if he got in this woman’s way. He would have to bluff his way through this. Terlik tried to imitate the tone he had heard his master use to command spirits.
“Step away from my horse, thief, and I might—”
“I’m no thief,” she said, never looking away from Merlach. Her gentle tone seemed intended for the horse, but her arched eyebrow lent threat to her words. “And I’ve almost calmed your horse down after your thoughtless spell, so have a care.”
“My own horse is hobbled not two hundred paces north of here, where I intended to camp for the night. Make your next words respectful and you may share my fire.” She met Terlik’s eyes with a dead expression, as though further disrespectful words would prove fatal.
Worse, Terlik felt certain she could see his eyes, though she stood close to witch fire and Terlik dozens of paces away, shrouded by rising night. Terlik slumped, shoulders, knees and neck, too tired to continue his charade. “Thank you for finding Merlach,” he said, “and for the invitation to share your fire. I am called Terlik, apprentice to Gord the Maker.”
Though he kept his tone as polite as he could, he must have said something wrong, because he noted a tightness around her eyes and lips.
“You named your horse Merlach, after the ancient king?”
“My master named him. He says kings would rule better if others held their reins.”
“Very well.” She stood and let Merlach’s reins fall. “I am Vonetta called The Swift. Once Captain of His Royal Highness Draven the Fifth’s personal guard, now disgraced sword for hire. Now, come dine with me and we will discuss the tasks that bring us out into the night.”
“I am not to dine well,” Terlik said as he made his slow, unsteady way down the slope. “I serve as a messenger.”
“A fool’s restriction. Well, a half-portion will not break any oaths or royal decrees. Besides, you may wish to eat your fill while you can. For I have been sent to kill Terlik, apprentice to Gord the Maker.”
Terlik froze, too few steps from the warrior and her no-doubt keen blade. “I … I’m a wizard,” he managed, his words even shakier than his knees and his heartbeat.
“An apprentice,” Vonetta said with a sigh, “and right now not even that. Think, boy, you can scarcely walk much less fight. I may be in disgrace, but even I won’t slay the helpless. Now come, let us eat and rest by the proper light of a fire.” In a quick movement with her sword hand, perhaps to underscore her point, she grabbed Merlach’s reins and held them out to Terlik. “Can you manage two hundred more paces, or should I help you onto your gelding?”
“You’re not afraid I’ll ride off?”
“Half-dead from exhaustion and hunger on a horse that glows brighter than the moon?”
“Fair enough.” Terlik took the reins and Vonetta helped him mount by grabbing his collar and heaving him up. He tried not to think of the cleaving power an arm that strong must have.
They walked in silence, Vonetta guiding Merlach by the bit, until they reached her camp. Terlik wracked his fatigued mind to find some way out of his predicament, but nothing came to him, so he turned his attention to the camp, hoping to spy a way out. Before Merlach’s glow faded out Terlik saw four fish on a spit above an unlit fire, near a ready bedroll. A hobbled horse nickered a greeting to Merlach, who snorted something back. Nothing here Terlik could use.
As Terlik managed to dismount and rub down his gelding without help – for which he felt a kind of spent pride – Vonetta lit the fire and poured them each a cup of wine. She sat on her bedroll and broke a chunk of heavy-looking yellow cheese into two not-quite-equal halves. She handed the smaller chunk and a cup to Terlik as he sat on the ground just out of arm’s reach.
“To Destiny, the fickle bitch,” said Vonetta, raising her cup. “May we love her when she treats us well and escape her when she spites us.”
Terlik had never heard that toast before, but drained his cup to its spirit. In a better state he might have consumed half a bottle of wine – even a rich red Hrakashan vintage such as this one – before feeling its effects, but that night he felt the kick almost instantly: lightheadedness, with a hint of sleepiness in tow. Still, his stomach gurgled gratitude for anything at all, and Terlik gnawed at the sharp, heavy cheese while Vonetta refilled his cup and turned the fish.
Terlik fought to stay silent while they ate, and his stomach urged him to concentrate on the fine trout and sturdy cheese. But the wine had its way, and by the time Terlik finished his second fish, he almost slurred when he asked, “Why me? Why would anyone wanna kill me? I’m jus’ an apprentice.”
“And a messenger.” Vonetta’s words were quiet, but her tone almost intense enough to sober her listener. “You carry words to the Forest People. Evidently someone doesn’t want them heard.”
“Bah! ‘s jus’ news and a greeting. I’m half the message.” Terlik jabbed himself several times in the chest with one finger. “They’re suppose’ to teach me while my master duels.”
“Are you supposed to tell that to any stranger you meet?”
“Who cares?” Terlik waved his arms. “I’m gonna die!”
Vonetta blinked in thought. “Not just a message then…” Her words so soft Terlik had to lean forward to hear them. “An old alliance…” Louder – loud enough that Terlik jerked upright and fell backwards – she said, “Tell me. Who trained your master?”
“Jodiah, the Sky’s Vengeance,” he replied from his prone position, in the obvious tone of someone answering the color of the sun. Terlik tried to sit back up, wanted to know why that mattered, but it felt like entirely too much effort. Far better to stay lying where he was. Yes, he would just lie here right where he fell. Surely no rider in the night would trample him. Not so close to an inn….
Terlik awoke to the smell of roasting duck. A delightful aroma, but as knowledge of his predicament thundered back, the duck combined with his nerves and forced him to roll to one side and empty his stomach of last night’s repast.
“Rinse your mouth in the river,” said Vonetta in a gentle voice as she passed one more handful of spices over the spitted fowl. “Then sip a few handfuls to settle your stomach. If that’s not enough you’ll need some camp bread before you can handle the duck.”
Terlik mopped his sweaty brow on his sleeve and pushed to his feet, refreshed at least somewhat from his heavy slumber despite his rude awakening. He felt steadier as he knelt by the river and did as Vonetta suggested. He stood and stretched, and saw that Vonetta had a bow strung and a quiver of arrows next to her re-tied bedroll and a bloody arrow near the fire.
Terlik looked at the Eagle’s Rest Forest, still a good two hours ride from where he stood. He glanced at Vonetta, involved in preparing the duck. With direct access to the river from its bank, Terlik could call on a host of spells. Perhaps he could escape, explain the loss of Merlach later….
“Do anything that could be mistaken for casting a spell and I’ll put an arrow in your throat before you finish.”
Terlik considered whether this could have been an exaggeration, but had to admit that she seemed confident. Too confident. He sighed. He marched back and slumped to a seat beside the fire.
“Why feed me if you’re just going to kill me?”
“The duck can do without attention for a moment or two. I could kill you now if you aren’t hungry.”
Terlik’s recently emptied stomach gurgled loud enough for an answer. Just as well, because the tension singing through his body had clamped his jaw shut.
“I thought as much.” Vonetta gave Terlik an enigmatic smile. “Even King Draven would not deny a doomed messenger a roast duck leg.” She chuckled to herself.
Terlik pulled back from his fear through a single deep breath. A second breath and he had enough clarity to consider his options. This woman meant to kill him, and many a wizard had died at the conclusion to an unprepared fight. But Terlik yet lived, which meant he might find his way through this yet.
“I have money.” He dug through his pouch, scooping out a handful of bronze coins and a pebble. The pebble he tossed into the fire, but the coins he held up. “Not much, it’s true…”
“More than a tanner’s apprentice would have, but not enough.”
Terlik let the coins fall back into his pouch, plucked out a second pebble, then turned in disgust and threw the pebble into the river. “Information? We hear many things at my master’s tower. Perhaps…”
“Do not die begging like some fat merchant. Die a man worthy of respect. You’ve lived an apprentice, but you can die a wizard.” Vonetta sliced a leg off of the duck and held it out to Terlik. “A fed wizard.”
The duck leg was stinging hot in Terlik’s fingers, but the savory scent made his mouth water. He enjoyed a juicy mouthful before asking, “Why did you want to know who trained my master?”
Vonetta chewed on a chunk of breast meat that she had speared on her knife, and blinked at the question until she swallowed. “Old rumors,” she said. “Nothing that need concern you now.”
“Do you know what binding stones are?” Terlik took a small nibble while Vonetta shook her head. “I’m not surprised. Most wizards abandon them once they pass apprenticeship. Personally, I think I’ll continue to keep a few on me even after I earn my staff. Useful little things.” Terlik relished the pitying half-smile Vonetta gave him at his words’ implication but focused on the heat of his duck leg to keep his tone steady. “You see, most spells require some sort of connection to their target. Well, require is the wrong word…” Terlik chewed as he thought, noticing that Vonetta now had switched her knife to her off hand and allowed her fingers to move near her sword’s pommel. He continued, “But it’s like the difference between picking up a horse’s tail and picking up the horse.”
“And that pebble you threw in the fire…”
“Was a binding stone, yes, like the one I threw in the river. The one you mentioned connects me to the fire, which roasted the duck, which is even now in your belly.” Terlik stretched his lips in a smile. “See why I think they’re useful?”
“You ate the duck too.”
“I could explain the mathematics, if you like, but suffice to say my own spells can’t hurt me, even ones that kill you.”
“If you’re telling the truth then why haven’t you killed me?”
“You’ve been very hospitable for an assassin. Enough to make me think you really were the personal guard captain for King Draven—”
“I’m not the one with a reason to lie.”
“—which means that ‘old rumor’ you heard might be important to my master. What is it?”
“A snippet attributed to the king’s soothsayer. ‘When the scion of the sky falls, hope shall hide in the forest.’ Typical soothsayer garbage.” Vonetta rocked on her shins, and Terlik realized she could spring from that position. “Now, about your spell…”
Vonetta threw her duck covered knife and sprang to her feet, her sword seeming to fly into her hand. Terlik rolled backwards as the juicy missile sailed overhead. He spat two words in Aarkadian, waving one hand like fanning a flame. Damp smoke rushed out of the fire pit, filling the camp with choking darkness. The horses panicked, whinnying and stamping, though hobbled and unable to run.
Terlik, staying low, rolled and crawled toward the fire, certain Vonetta would head for the river. He held his silence for a slow twenty count, then called out, “Throw your sword in the river! Or I will kill you!”
Terlik pulled his shirt over his mouth to keep his air that much cleaner, but he knew how low the smoke should get and that, in theory, he was safe. He lamented the panic of the horses, but strained to hear any response from Vonetta. He drew breath to yell again, then heard a splash.
“There,” came Vonetta’s voice. “I’ve done it.”
“Swear it. On … on the life of your horse.”
Vonetta did swear then, but the oath she snapped out was no promise. Terlik heard a second splash, then, “There! I swear on the remains of my honor and on the life of Duwena my horse that I have thrown my sword in the river.”
“Stay where you are.” Terlik broke the charm and the smoke dispersed, not that the horses took much comfort from the sudden clean air. Terlik could see Vonetta now, ankle-deep in the river and no doubt close to her sword. Terlik stood and said, “You’ve seen my magic. You saw me touch the river and the fire through my binding stones. You know I can kill you. Do you agree?”
Vonetta gritted her teeth and gave a tight nod, her wild hair shaking with her rage.
“Then this is the price of your life: forsake your assignment. Keep to your camp here until noon, then go your own way. I’m going to take my horse, and your arrows, and ride on.”
“Disgraced as a captain, now disgraced as a sell sword. Perhaps you should kill me.”
“Perhaps,” said Terlik as he calmed Merlach, which did not take long because, though spooked, the gelding was not unused to magic. “But if you wish a third chance in life, ride for the tower of my master, Gord the Maker. Tell him who you are and what passed between us, and tell it true. Then tell him the rumor you told me. I’ll be shocked if he does not offer you a better alternative than death.”
As Terlik rode off, Vonetta had yet to leave the river. At his last sight of her, she looked contemplative. Terlik hoped Vonetta visited his master. Surely Gord the Maker could see the value in that prophecy, if it held any, and the value in Vonetta, who was perhaps not so far fallen as she thought.
Terlik pushed Merlach harder, hoping to spend both his own and his steed’s nervousness through exertion, even though his muscles still cried with soreness from yesterday’s ride. He wanted to gain as much distance as he could as fast as he could, in case it occurred to Vonetta that a binding stone might be too crude a tool to extend a thaumaturgic link from a fire to a meal cooked over that fire.
Wizards did abandon the use of binding stones for a reason….
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