Chronicles of Arborell, Copyright Wayne Densley 2008 All Rights Reserved
Tomas lay still. In the quiet of the afternoon he found himself wondering at the silence that now confronted him, and in that moment of solitude tried to make sense of what he had just witnessed. For most of the afternoon he had lain within the long grasses of the Surgis'Ka, waiting for the last of the surviving Hresh to leave. He had been witness to a great battle, and an even greater treachery, and as the winds of the afternoon sent long rustling waves through the grassland about him he could only thank Providence that somehow he had survived.
It was a survival that had come at a price however. Through the violent events of the day Trem'Alindae's soporific potion had maintained a tight hold upon him, but with the passing of the Hresh into the west he could feel its paralysing grasp beginning to weaken. He had not come through the battle uninjured though, and as the effects of the numbing brew withdrew from his limbs he could feel the burning insistence of a wound he had taken to his leg. The hand of Providence had worked quietly to keep him safe during the carnage of battle, but his luck had not held in its aftermath. Caught in the paralysing grip of the potion Tomas had remained a silent observer to the great events that had unfolded about him, and as he fought to regain a measure of control over his body he knew that he had just lived through a day that he would remember to the end of his days.
Much of the early phase of the battle had passed him by as a melee of sound. He had fallen at the first assault of the Kalborean cavalry, pitching into the soft earth as one of his litter bearers had fallen. The stretcher had followed, covering his body as Trem'Alindae had joined his crue to make ready for the battle to come. In the confusion of that moment the old Hresh gave little thought to the fate of his captive, and as the long bloody battle grew around him Tomas waited quietly, paralysed by the Hordim potion, unable to do anything but watch the battle of the Surgis'Ka unfold.
The Kalborean cavalry had caught the Hordim unprepared upon the open plain. From the north they had swept down upon the Hresh, forcing them to retreat towards a low saddle between two hills. From his hiding place he could see little, but the progress of the battle drew out as a grinding test of strength and courage from which neither side was willing to retreat. In the bare hour that the battle raged he could sense the determination of the Kalboreans to crush the Warband, but just as he could hear the first signs of victory in the air the tide turned, and it proved to be the cavalry itself that was trapped and destroyed. From the south he felt the tremors of a new crue of Hresh moving quickly towards the final stand of their brethren. Caught between two forces the cavalry faltered, their supporting troops lost to the discipline and tactics of the Hordim. In a tide of murder and butchery the Kalboreans were killed, executed to the last man and horse.
Without any capacity to help Tomas had been left instead to remain quiet, but as he did so a new sound arose upon the afternoon breezes. The Tomsk Hresh had barely survived the battle, and as they regrouped the Denmar turned upon them. Above the bluster of the winds came the sounds of treachery and outrage, and it did not stop until every one of the Tomsk lay dead as well. When all had once again become quiet it was only the Denmar who remained standing.
As the suns of Arborell turned towards the western horizon the Denmar Hresh moved purposefully upon the plain, collecting what they needed from the dead and shepherding their captives into the west. For a fleeting instant he caught a glimpse of Shemwe, her hair blown by the gathering winds as she and two others were pushed roughly out of his field of view. If he could have called to her he would have, but he had no voice and instead struggled against his paralysis, forcing movement into his fingers and toes.
It was only then that Tomas came under the scrutiny of the Hordim. A number of the Denmar Warriors had passed him by, scavenging food and equipment from both Hordim and Kalborean alike. Tomas could not realise it but one of his boots was protruding from the underside of the stretcher. With a cavalry lance the nearest of the warriors thrust it into his lower leg, cutting through flesh and driving the spear tip deep into the soft earth. Tomas could not feel the wound, only sense the tug and pull of the lance as the warrior tested if he was dead. Without cry or movement the Hresh probed no further, leaving the young Kalborean pinned to the earth. In that state he had remained still, listening for any sign of further danger, and dreading the inevitable weakening of his paralysis.
Time passed as Tomas did what he could to recover feeling and strength to his limbs. Whilst in the less than tender care of Trem'Alindae he had worked at reducing the effectiveness of the potion, and in that endeavour had gained a measure of control over its numbing effects. Given enough time he might have found some way to escape his captors, but dumped upon the plains he remained in no state to find his feet, or for that matter think clearly on what he should now do.
In the twilight he could feel the pain in his leg growing, and with its nagging intensity he knew he must attempt to rise. Carefully he pulled aside the tangled stretcher and turned his head to see what damage he had sustained to his leg. In the red glow of the dusk it proved far worse than he had imagined. The lance had gone straight through his leg, the edge of the razor-sharp blade cutting through the front half of his shin, cleanly passing between the bone and his calf muscles, pinning him to the earth. He had been lucky in that the wound had bled, but had then constricted around the cold blade, a pool of congealed blood stark evidence of the severity of the injury he had been dealt. For a short time he remained still, shocked by the sight of the cold iron piercing his leg, but then the reality of his position forced its way to the forefront of his mind. He had lost a lot of blood, and the use of his leg. It did not require wisdom to appreciate that out in the open he would be lucky to last the night.
With the pain building in his leg he raised himself on his arms and looked about the battlefield. In the spreading shadows he could see the plain covered in bodies, piles of equipment and weaponry scattered about, battle-standards jammed into the wet earth. Against the quiet breezing of the wind, and the unblemished arch of the deep blue sky, the dead spread out before him, tangled and ragged in their mortality. He could not think on how many had died, but as he gazed out upon the trampled grassland Tomas knew that his Shemwe was not amongst them.
The pain was now growing stronger, the Horde potion's effects lessening with each passing minute. If he was to do something about his leg he needed to do it before the numbness dissipated completely. Within arm's reach of his position lay the body of a cavalryman. The Hresh who had stabbed him had also rifled through the Trooper's few possessions, and one of those that had been discarded was a thick cotton shirt. Quickly he pulled it out of the grass and tied it tightly about his leg. He could still feel only a nagging ache in the limb, and with his tourniquet in place attempted to pull the lance. Slowly it came away, but as he pulled he realised that the lance tip was covered in clinging earth. To try and take it from his leg would draw dirt through the wound. For a moment he paused but there was nothing he could do. No matter how he tried to extricate the lance the risk of infection was almost certain. He had no choice and with one last effort took the lance from his leg. Immediately the wound began to bleed. Carefully the Kalborean tightened the tourniquet, and then bound the wound securely with strips of cloth torn from the fabric of the shirt. When he was sure the makeshift bandages were secure he slowly released the tourniquet, and to his amazement the bleeding lessened and then stopped. For the moment at least he would not bleed to death.
Feeling better able Tomas rose from the ground, using the lance as a support as he tried to gain a footing. Weak, and still disoriented by the potion he stood, taking in the scale of the disaster that somehow he had survived. At all horizons there was nothing but the dead, and the tattered remains of the violence that had killed them. Nothing moved, and as he surveyed all the grassland about him he realised that he had no chance of survival himself. Injured and alone his fate would be the same as those who had fallen about him. His was just going to take slightly longer.
It was as he considered the hopelessness of his position that he saw a movement amongst the bodies to his north. From a pile of dead Hresh an arm flailed out, taking a purchase upon the edge of the mound, pushing one, then another of the creatures away as something struggled to extricate itself from the tangled bodies. At first Tomas could only hope that it was one of the Troopers, somehow a survivor in the midst of such devastation, but the truth would soon prove to be far more threatening.
Before Tomas could move a single Hresh arose from the pile of dead. Horribly mutilated by a crushing blow to its shoulder, the creature struggled and then found its freedom. Staggering to its feet the warrior shook off its pain and picked up the nearest weapon it could find. Even in the lengthening shadows Tomas recognised who it was. In the gloom he stood before Trem'Alindae, and the old Hresh was not happy.
"It would seem," the warrior sneered, "that we have been given an opportunity to settle a debt, one that remains unpaid between us. Call to your gods vehmin, for you are going to need them."
There lay only a short distance between the two combatants and Tomas had nowhere to run. Supported by the lance he could not move, but he was not about the let the Hresh kill him without a fight. Balanced on one leg he swung his lance down and awaited the Hordim. Trem'Alindae could see no threat before him but he also had been badly injured. As he moved towards the young Kalborean his shoulder gave way and he collapsed to one knee as a great agony swept over him. It could not keep him down though. Wracked with pain he staggered back to his feet and rushed Tomas.
Across the grass he ran, swinging a long scimitar as he bore down upon the Kalborean. Tomas raised his lance and stood his ground but the Hresh was too big and far too strong. With one blow the Hordim threw aside Tomas' blade and barrelled into him, knocking him back into the grasses. Trem'Alindae stood on Tomas' right arm and pinned him to the damp earth, a look of malevolent satisfaction on his face as he raised the scimitar above his head. In the ruddy light of the dusk the metal of the Hordim's weapon glared red and Tomas had no energy to resist. It would take only one blow to end his life and he waited for the scimitar's fall, but it did not come.
Through a fog of pain Tomas looked up to find the Hresh motionless, the flaming scimitar dropping slowly from his upraised hands. Without word or cry the warrior fell sideways, his body limp. In the gathering mists of a delirium Tomas thought he saw the slight form of a girl standing at the Hordim's back, two long-bladed daggers in her hands. And then he fell into darkness.
When he awoke there was nothing before him but stars. Flickering points of light spread in a wide arc about him, and it took some time for Tomas to realise that he was lying on his back, the world darkened by night. In those first few moments he blinked and tried to remember where he was, and recover some memory of what had happened to him, and why he was alive. Then he remembered the girl. Carefully he raised himself from the ground, and propped himself on one elbow. In the darkness he could see only the stars, and the dark outline of a figure sitting hunched in the grass only a short distance from where he lay.
"So you are awake then?" came a voice out of the darkness.
Tomas pulled himself to his feet and brushed himself down. "I do not know how you did it, but thanks." He said quietly.
About him the wind had started to pick up and he could see a line of cloud moving quickly from the north. Lightning arched out in the distance, an accompanying rumble a warning that a storm was on its way.
"You have no need to thank me. I have done nothing more than find you here, asleep within the midst of this great carnage."
Tomas shook his head and approached the girl. He could see now that she was indeed young, maybe no older than her late teens, and in the dark she appeared very vulnerable. "I saw you save me from the Hresh, and for that I am in your debt."
The girl stood quickly and replied. "I am afraid Kalborean that you are mistaken. I found you at dusk delirious with a strange fever, and have simply waited here to pass the night. As you will see with the coming dawn there is nothing here to be saved from."
For a moment Tomas stood quietly, taken aback by the girl's remonstration. In his mind he clearly remembered the girl and her daggers, but he was not about to press the issue. He was alive, and for some reason the girl did not wish the thanks that were hers to accept. Her presence upon the plains however, was something she could not deny as easily.
"If this is so may I have your name instead?" He asked weakly.
The girl shrank back from him and reached for one of the daggers that remained sheathed at her side. She did not draw it, only rested her hand upon its handle.
"I am Sil, daughter of Padma, a merchant of the Faeyen."
The declaration of her name gave Tomas reason to pause and consider her response. He had been a traveller most of his life and he knew the Faeyen well. Of all things they treasured most it was their family name, and Padma was not a surname. Sil had not given her family name, and there was only one circumstance upon which it could not be given. It was something that he needed to confirm with her if he was to understand why the girl should be out in the wilds alone.
"How was your father murdered?" he asked carefully.
Sil stiffened and took a step towards Tomas, her disposition no longer that of a vulnerable girl. "You ask too many questions Kalborean. What business is it of yours?"
Tomas stooped to pick up a broken lance shaft. He did not wish her harm but he needed to keep the Faeyen at a safe distance, at least until he could understand her appearance so far from civilisation.
"Stay at arms-length girl. We have no business being in conflict. There is much here that makes little sense, and it is best that we start with an answer as to why you are here."
Sil halted her advance and smiled. "The same could be asked of you Kalborean. Perhaps you might explain why it is I should find you upon the edge of a great battle, smelling like you have been living with the Horde half your life. Perhaps if you give me a straight answer I might forego slitting your throat and leaving you for the crows."
Tomas gave her what she wanted. He had no need to be anything other than truthful.
"I am Tomas Cael, a metal-smith of Callenfrey. Fate brings me here as a captive of the Horde, and an act of Providence appears to have set me free. Whatever your reasons for being here I can tell you truthfully that I have only one. Somewhere to the west runs a crue of Hresh, and in their possession they have my fiancee. I mean to get her back."
The girl straightened at the mention of the Hresh. In her eyes there burned a hatred that Tomas could almost feel tingling against his skin. In a moment of decision she sheathed her dagger and turned instead to the west.
"More than three weeks ago I was with my father on the road between Gainsrow and Millerain. We had just completed a successful tour of the coastal towns of Kalborea when the Hresh found us. It had been the end of a warm day, and we had decided to camp in a small roadside clearing. At midnight the first scouts of a warband stumbled upon our campsite. My father did not stand a chance, but I ran and in the darkness barely eluded them."
For a moment she paused, then turned back towards Tomas.
"You ask me how my father was murdered. Well I can tell you that it was at the hands of the Hresh, and it was a cruel end. You may wish the return of your fiancee, but I am here for a more deadly outcome. I am going to kill the Hresh that took the life of my father, and ensure the death of every other that travels with him. Once this is done I will be free to use my name again."
They were strong words, but Tomas understood the reasons for her determination. The Faeyen were looked upon by most in the Kalborean Union simply as merchants and craftsmen, as indolent people of wealth, that lived their lives far from the concerns of ordinary men. It was a truth that the Faeyen had built massive citadels in the far west of Kalborea, and there had shut themselves away, venturing out only to ply their wares and conduct the business of their many guilds. In his business dealings Tomas had known many however, and he knew the strength of their societies rested on the importance of reputation and family honour. It was a custom of the Faeyen that a murdered man had more than just his life taken from him. Until a blood relative could avenge that man's death the murderer had also stolen his good name. In the eyes of the Faeyen it made the crime all the more potent, and one that had to be measured with swift retribution. It was Sil's responsibility to prosecute that justice. For Tomas however, her quest seemed even more implausible than his own.
"Forgive me Sil, but how do you propose to complete your goal." Tomas looked around the darkened plains and shrugged his shoulders. "Neither of us appear well-prepared, and I doubt we will even be able to find the warband again."
As he stood in the long grasses Tomas found his resolve faltering. Without food or equipment he had no way of continuing on, and no idea where the Hresh were going. He only knew that they had left the battlefield and moved into the west. They could be anywhere, and Shemwe was with them.
In the darkness a roll of thunder shuddered out of the north. Both Faeyen and Kalborean turned instinctively towards the sound and then looked at each other. The approaching storm was to be more than a simple downpour. For Sil it was her call to action.
"Look Tomas Cael, you may doubt your capacity but I do not. I have been tracking the Hordim for three long weeks and I am not about to let them get away. You have only one decision to make and its simple. You either turn around and go home, or you join with me and we find the warband. Believe me Kalborean, I will not stop until I have retrieved my father's good name. It is your choice to come along, if you are brave enough."
For a long moment Tomas weighed up the consequences of travelling with the girl. She exhibited a confidence that was completely at odds with her size and preparedness, but if she was to be believed, had survived weeks pursuing the Hordim. It was experience the young Kalborean did not possess, and it swayed him quickly to a decision. Tomas nodded his head and smiled. "You are right. We will go together and see what the hand of Providence might bring us."
Out of the north a huge arc of lightning lit up the grasslands. About them the detritus of battle began to move as the blusters of a rising wind heralded the tempest to come. Sil made the first move.
"Come then Kalborean. The Treachersa approaches and we need to find food and equipment amongst the remnants of this great battle before it arrives. Take what you need and we will depart."
Together the two figures scavenged the battlefield. Amongst the dead Tomas could find little, but he did recover a pack, a leather jacket and a small measure of food. As he searched the scattered bodies he came across a cavalryman half hidden beneath the weight of his horse. Both had met a gruesome end, but it was the man's boots that gave Tomas pause to stop and look at his own. He had worn his old pair since the attack on Callenfrey and they had not weathered captivity well. In the gathering dark he wondered if he should take this man's footwear in replacement. It was then that he stopped in his tracks. A memory of agony crept into his consciousness and he shook his head, struggling with a strange inability to focus his thoughts. For a moment he felt himself becoming disoriented, then he gasped as a vision of a lance tip protruding through his lower leg returned to his memory. Something was desperately wrong.
"Sil!" he called into the darkness. From out of the east the figure of the young girl emerged from the gloom, a long cavalry lance in her hands. As soon as she was within arm's length he grabbed her and knocked her to the ground. Before she could get up he placed his booted foot on her chest and held her against the soft earth.
"Do you notice something wrong here?" It was an accusation, one for which he demanded a swift answer.
"What are you talking about Kalborean? You better have a good reason for this assault or you are a dead man."
Tomas pressed harder. "The last thing I remember before falling into unconsciousness was you standing over the Hresh, and feeling the agonies in my wounded leg overwhelming me. How is it that I now stand over you with no injury or infirmity. What did you do to me whilst I was asleep?"
Sil squirmed under his weight, then grabbed at his boot and twisted it violently to the side. Her strength took Tomas by surprise and he fell sideways. Before he could react the girl brought her boot down upon his stomach, forcing the air out of his lungs. In a fit of pain and breathlessness he tried to get up but the Faeyen rolled over onto his chest, and slowly pulled a razor-sharp dagger across the skin of his throat.
"You are a fool Kalborean. What manner of creature do you think I am? I found you as I said, unconscious and delirious. I cannot account for what you remember, nor take responsibility for your obvious shortcomings. I know only that if you attack me again I will kill you where you stand."
Tomas could not believe her. Too keenly he had felt the pain of his wound, and he could not believe it was simply a dream. In that moment he relived all that had happened to him and there was no way it was a product of delirium. There was something about this girl that required caution, but for the moment he could only see their fates intertwined for a common purpose. He had made a mistake by letting his anger get the better of him. In the darkness he shrugged his shoulders and relented.
"If what you say is true then you have my apology. I can only think that I must have been suffering a side-effect of the potion forced on me by my captors."
Sil stood and let Tomas raise himself from the ground. She seemed satisfied with his retraction, and Tomas quickly went about the remaining business of preparing for their pursuit of the warband. He had food and a sturdy jacket and that was enough for the moment. With the storm brewing menacingly in the north he called to Sil and they left the battlefield.
In the dark hours the two forms ran swiftly across the grassland. With only the fleeting illumination of cloud-obscured moonlight to aid them they followed the westerly heading of the warband, and watched anxiously as a monstrous tempest grew at their right shoulders. Across the northern horizon a wall of lightning and impenetrable cloud scudded towards them, and overhead the crowns of huge towers of cloud roiled and flashed as the companions tried to put distance between themselves and the carnage of the Surgis'Ka. In the late hours of the night the first outriders of the storm overtook their position, a wild wind that blew icy-cold sheets of rain upon them.
"We cannot remain in the open Sil. This storm will kill us if we do not find shelter." yelled Tomas through the blusters of a growing gale. "We need to find cover quickly."
Sil nodded and pointed to a jumbled pile of boulders capped by the gnarled remains of an ancient tree. It was less than a few hundred metres from their path and together they ran for it. As they made for the stone pile a huge blast of lightning hit the ground, spewing large mounds of smoking earth into the air. The first was followed by another, and then a staccato of bolts that tore up the earth, leaving wide depressions of scorched soil as they ran. The Treachersa had arrived.
In a flurry of driving rain and chill winds the storm rose before the two fleeing figures. Tomas made the stone pile first, but it was Sil who dove into the narrow space between two large boulders at its base. Tomas followed and to his surprise found a small space within the pile that would serve well as a shelter from the maelstrom.
"How do you know of this place?" he yelled over the roar of the rising gale. Sil shrugged her shoulders and pointed to the thick roots of the tree above them.
"In the forests of the Faeyen I have found many such secret places. The roots force the stones apart and animals use them as shelters. It just seemed possible that one could be found here as well."
Tomas moved to speak again, but a huge thunder clap shook their refuge, dropping a layer of dried vegetation and loose stone over them. Sil immediately cleared a small space between the two of them and collected pieces of the detritus as tinder for a small fire. From her clothing she produced a set of flints and soon had a few fingers of flame brightening the tight confines of the shelter.
In the light the Kalborean could see clearly the nature of the hole they had sought sanctuary within. The walls were nothing more that slabs of fallen stone held tightly by a sinuous network of old roots that extended from the roof above deep into the ground below. At some point it had also been the home of at least one animal, most likely a predator as a collection of split and gnawed bones littered the floor. These proved the best fuel for the fire, and Sil spent her time slowly placing the yellowed pieces into the flames.
It was the girl herself that provided the greatest mysteries for Tomas. Outside the storm raged, a constant attack of light and sound that tore at their meagre shelter. In such circumstances they had no ability to talk, but he had his first opportunity to properly consider the nature of the strange companion he had found on the plains.
In the flickering illumination of the bone-fed fire he could see that she was indeed a Faeyen. Like her brethren she was thin-limbed and slight of build, but he had felt an enormous strength within her and he could not fathom it. She was dressed in tight fitting travel clothes, and had her ink-black hair braided into a single pony-tail that extended a good half of the way down her back. Her complexion was tanned and healthy but it was her face that struck Tomas the most. He could not deny that she was the most exquisitely beautiful girl that he had ever seen. Her features seemed almost crafted, a perfectly formed visage without blemish or fault. In the firelight she sat crouched against the stone, her legs pulled up so that her chin rested on her knees. For Tomas it was the greatest incongruity of the girl. Within the tight confines of the animal den she was a vision of frail beauty. He could not understand how she could possibly have survived the weeks of hard travel needed to keep pace with the Hresh warband. There were many questions that needed to be answered, but in the midst of the storm they would have to wait. Without a word said the two sat within the cramped confines of their makeshift shelter and listened to the tempest rage across the plains. Such was the manner in which the night passed and soon Tomas fell into sleep.
In the first light of a grey morning Tomas awoke to find himself alone. For a moment he collected his thoughts then tried to move, wondering where the girl had gone, but more concerned with a body stiff and sore from the cramped conditions of their sanctuary. Outside he could hear the rustling of a light breeze upon the grassland but there was little else to be heard. Carefully he crawled out of the hole and straightened. The dawn had only just grown into daylight and a high overcast covered the sky. Looking around he could not tell where the girl had gone, but he thought it unlikely that she had simply left him and gone on alone. Whatever she might be doing he decided the best thing to do would be to eat. Sil would turn up in her own good time.
With his back still stiff he found his pack and organised a small amount of food for his breakfast. He had not been able to find much in the short time he had been given to scavenge from the dead, but he had found a few things and in the cool morning air ate some bread and dried meat. It was not much, however it had been days since he had eaten anything and it did not take him long to finish it. As he placed the last piece of meat in his mouth Sil appeared from behind the stone-pile.
"It is good to see you awake Kalborean." she said as she slumped onto a flat stone at his side. "The warband is no more than a few hours ahead of us in the west. They will have a rearguard so it will be best that for the moment we let them move on. It will serve our purposes best if we allow them some distance."
Tomas looked at the girl and wondered at her confidence. "You talk as if you have a plan, yet I have heard nothing of it. Is it best that we wait? Surely the Hresh could go in any direction?"
Sil shook her head and pointed into the west. "The Hresh are making for the Forest of Meshaal. It is in their nature that they will keep to the timberlands as much as possible, and I can tell you Kalborean that there is only one path they can take once they have left the Meshaal."
"And that is?" Tomas asked.
"North of course." answered Sil, "To attack a settlement is one thing. To take prisoners and keep them alive, even though they have been under attack, is something else entirely. There is a purpose to their actions, and it must require that they get the prisoners back into the wastelands of the Sanhar. To that end there is no other way. They must go north, and then find their way back across the mountains of the Great Rift."
Tomas raised an eyebrow at the mention of the Warband's prisoners.
"What do you know of the prisoners? Have you seen them?" Memories of seeing Shemwe roughly treated gave a raw edge to his voice.
The Faeyen stood. In the wakening daylight she seemed as fragile as a river reed, but there was a look in her eye that only barely veiled a murderous hatred.
"Yes, I have seen the prisoners. In the dark of night I have crept into the heart of their encampments and stolen food and water. I have seen them, alive and cared for, and it perplexes me as to their survival. Never in my life have I heard an account of the Horde taking any prisoners. Certainly it is their way to kill any encumbrance to them if attacked, and I do not understand why they should covet those Kalboreans above all others. Do you know why?"
Tomas shrugged his shoulders. "You are asking the wrong man. I can give no enlightenment of this except the coincidence that we all possess red hair. And before you ask I can also tell you that such a coincidence makes no sense to me either."
Sil remained quiet for a moment. Tomas could see her thoughts momentarily overwhelmed by a revelation that had stared her in the face without realisation. Whatever she had found in Tomas' words she kept to herself. Instead the Faeyen gathered her few belongings and prepared to leave.
"It is now that we must make a decision on our way forward." she said as Tomas shouldered his pack. "The Hresh will be making for the Meshaal but we should not follow them there. Within the confines of the forest the Hresh will have too great an advantage over us. They will be posting rearguards and always be looking to the possibility of pursuit. It is my thought that we do not follow them in. Instead we should head to the northwest, across the open plains to the northern edge of the Meshaal. Between the edges of the forest and the Black Hills we can lay in wait for them and hopefully achieve both our goals. All that is required is the speed to make it there first. What say you Kalborean. Are you up for a bit of a run?"
Tomas could see the sense in waiting for the warband to come to them, rather than conduct what might be a dangerous chase into unknown terrain. How the girl could be so confident of their path he did not know, but he was smart enough to accept that he was way out of his depth and needed a clear plan. It was an easy decision to make.
"Until such time as I recover my Shemwe I am with you Sil, daughter of Padma. May we both survive our obvious recklessness."
Sil laughed and crossed from the stony ground surrounding the stone-pile onto the long grasses of the plain. With Tomas at her shoulder they ran, and in the full light of morning disappeared into the north-west.
Two days passed quickly upon the grasslands as Tomas and Sil ran. Before them they saw no sign of the Hresh, and within the embrace of worsening weather they kept to their course, making for the northern edge of the Meshaal forests. On the first day of their pursuit the sky had remained fine, but by the evening of that day a dull overcast had grown in the north, descending upon the plains as a harbinger of mists and heavy rain. Within the cover of the downpour they ran, and in the misting gloom of the day passed unnoticed beyond the boundaries of the Surgis'Ka.
On few occasions did they stop for food or rest, and then only for the shortest time. It was not until they ran onto stony ground that Sil drew them both to a halt.
"We must take care here Kalborean. Before us lies the outer borders of the Warrens, and although they are uninhabited they provide some danger to the careless. Keep to my back and tread only upon my footfalls."
Tomas peered into the mists and could see little. Before him the long grasses of the Surgis'Ka had disappeared, replaced with a barren landscape of broken stone and bare earth. Amongst the wind-blown fogs he could also see the barest of flattened mounds, many of them collapsed at their centres. Above all he could feel a brooding malevolence that reached out for him hungrily.
"What have you brought us to? What manner of place is this?" he asked, his breath laboured from the exertion of their run.
"As I have said it is the Warrens. Here can be found the oldest delvings of the Ancients. It is recorded in the library of the Faeyen at Teth, that these mines and workings were laid down in a quest by the Trell to find the source of the Shan'duil. It is said they failed, leaving only these great holes and mounds as evidence of their passing."
Tomas looked at the girl and wondered at what she was talking about. "I have no idea what you mean. I ask only if they are dangerous."
Sil nodded and began to move further onto the hard ground. "Dangerous enough Kalborean. For a while at least we must walk, and tread carefully enough. Stay close and you shall not discover how deep some of these delvings really are."
Carefully Sil began a slow navigation of the stony ground. The entrances to the Warrens opened up before Tomas as huge gaping holes in the earth that disappeared quickly into unfathomable depths. He had seen delvings of similar type before, mostly around the iron mines of Kal Mannion, but he had never seen anything on the scale of what he found here. Laid out in a haphazard patchwork were openings on a massive scale, deep workings that were so wide that he doubted he could have thrown a small stone across them. With each was partnered a tailings mound, a huge pile of broken rock and earth dug out of each hole. These mounds he found to be wide and flat topped, covered in coarse grasses and large enough to be considered as small hills in their own right. The young Kalborean could not conceive of the labours that must have been endured in the creation of the delvings, but as Sil moved closer he was surprised to see that smaller holes had also been dug into the tailings mounds themselves.
"Wait up a moment." he whispered to the Faeyen. As she turned to him he pointed to the smaller holes. "You say these Warrens are the product of some ancient search. What then are these smaller holes dug into the mounds? They appear to be only recent additions."
Sil smiled and leant close to his ear. "You ask a lot of questions Kalborean, but I do know the answer to that one. Before the coming of Men into the world this part of Arborell was heavily forested, similar in fact to the Meshaal in the west. In those days the forests of eastern Arborell were the dominion of the Morg, and these delvings were their Kraal. It was only with the retreat of the great forests that they abandoned the Warrens and moved northwards into the Great Rift. Consider yourself lucky. If they were still here they would have tortured us to the edge of death, and then eaten the remains alive. With such happy thoughts in mind it is probably a good idea that we move on."
Tomas agreed, and followed as Sil trod a careful path through the Warrens. It was in the last hours of daylight that Sil once again called them to a halt. The weather had not improved and in the faltering gloom of the day she paused, listening carefully into the mists ahead.
"What is it?" Tomas whispered.
"Someone is coming, moving from the north at the run." She looked around quickly and pointed to the nearest mound. "It will be best that we hide. There is no benefit in meeting those who now come towards us."
Together they ran for the mound and forced their way into the first hole they could find, retreating within until complete darkness embraced them. From their vantage they waited, and it was only a matter of moments before two creatures came into view. Tomas drew in his breath as he realised that they were Jotun.
In the dark he watched as the huge creatures came to a halt barely fifteen metres from their hiding place. Both wore armoured breastplates, heavy leather tunics, and sported long white pigtails of braided hair. He could not judge exactly, but they looked as if they might stand at least twice his height, and even in the gathering dusk he could see their ochre skin glistening with the sweat of their exertions. They looked like they had come a long way.
Neither of the Hordim spoke, and it was only a pause that lasted long enough for one of the Jotun to adjust the strapping for a huge warhammer that he held fastened at his back. Before Tomas could see anything more the creatures returned to their journey and disappeared quickly into the mists to the south.
In the confines of the crudely cut entranceway the young Kalborean found himself sweating, even though the air ran a keen chill across his skin. The Jotun had been huge, and he had expected that, stories of the giants told of their immense strength and their considerable height. To see one so close however, left him wondering how Men could ever have stood against them. From his vantage they seemed indomitable.
"Should we move on?" he whispered to Sil in the darkness. The Faeyen shook her head and sat back against the wall of the tunnel.
"I do not know that we should just yet. It is getting dark, and although the edge of the Warrens lies only an hour to the north it is not a wise course to try traversing it at night. Perhaps we should stay here and take advantage of the shelter. I don't know about you but I would appreciate a night out of the rain."
Tomas looked about the dismal confines of the Morg tunnel and decided that it was better than spending another night in the continuing drizzle outside. There was something about the rough earthworks that gave him the creeps though. Perhaps it was the idea that Morg once lived within its crude walls, but the girl had said that they were long gone, and without further consideration began to organise himself for the coming night. It was as they put together the tinder for a fire that Sil began to talk openly about herself, and her life before the death of her father.
Before a small blaze the two ate what food remained to them and talked on the circumstances that found them in their present condition. At first Sil had described the journey that had led herself, and her father to the northern towns of Kalborea. It had been a long, arduous endeavour that had seen her father Padma concluding a series of contracts for the provision of fine cloth all along the coast. The success had saved their trading house from bankruptcy, and her expectation had been that they would return to their home in Caravanserai with the first touch of the warmer seasons. Then the Horde had attacked their small convoy and her world had changed forever.
Tomas listened, realising that there was much in common between the girl and himself. She now found herself alone in a dangerous world. It was the same position that Mallen and himself had endured for many years, and he began talking long into the night on the many journeys of their youth, and the circumstances that had led to the opening of their store in Callenfrey. It was an easy conversation that flowed equally between the stories of both, and in that dark hole they struck up a solid friendship. Only as the first rays of dawn spread across the Warrens outside did they finally sleep.
Neither stirred until the early hours of the afternoon. Outside the rains of the past days had retreated to the south, and with their passing the sky remained as a patchwork of scattered cloud propelled by a brisk northern breeze. Tomas was the first to awaken. Carefully he pulled himself up from the hard floor of the tunnel and tried to coax some life out of the embers of their fire. As he did so Sil awoke and ran her fingers through her hair. It was full of dirt and detritus from the tunnel floor, and as Tomas found some tinder she went about combing what she could from her tresses. A quick search of their bags provided no food and little water.
"I fear," Tomas said as he packed his jacket away," that we are in need of food and without a quick means to acquire it. If we are to maintain our pace we will have to find some soon."
Sil nodded and shouldered her own small pack. "Food we will have Kalborean. The Warrens will provide nothing of value but the edges of the Meshaal will give us what we need."
Tomas was surprised at her change in plan. "I thought we were staying clear of the forest. Is our objective not to lay in wait for the warband in the north?"
The Faeyen shrugged her shoulders. "Unfortunately our need for food will force a small diversion. We are near enough to the northern edge of the Meshaal to take the time to penetrate its border, but our objective should remain the same. It will take just a bit longer that's all."
Tomas was happy with that. Once again Sil led the way and in the bright light of the afternoon began the arduous process of negotiating the dangers of the Warrens. In the daylight the young Kalborean watched closely as the girl trod a careful path around the many delvings that lay scattered across the landscape. Quickly he realised that it was not the wide maws of the delvings that she was concerned for. A wide berth of their crumbling edges was easy to maintain, but it was the many cracks and depressions between them that kept her focus on the ground at their feet.
"What is it you are looking for?" he asked.
Sil pointed to a shallow depression in the ground ahead and began to skirt its boundary. "The delvings are wide and unmistakable, but the ground between hides areas of subsidence and unstable earth. To walk too carelessly will leave an unwary traveller standing upon a sinkhole or a partially collapsed tunnel. To go safely we must avoid them all."
Tomas nodded and looked all the more carefully at the ground ahead. Between mounds and dark delvings the Faeyen led the Kalborean roughly to the north-east. It was a path strewn with hazards, the Warrens a maze of old workings that the weather had not made any easier to negotiate. The rain of the past days had left the ground a curious pattern of shallow pools and soft bogs, that fell away into deep pits at the slightest disturbance. Between huge dark holes and sinking meres Sil made her path, and found the safe passage that eventually brought them back to solid ground.
By the mid-afternoon they had passed beyond the Warrens and once again stood upon the open grasses of a wide plain. Tomas could now see the distant undulations of what Sil had called the Black Hills to the north, and the dark line of a forest extending to the west. He could not help but notice also the first tendrils of another stormfront advancing from the north. In need of a rest Tomas pulled Sil to a halt and looked to the billowing clouds.
"Another storm rises in the north, and by my reckoning it should hit us some time during the night. Can shelter be found within the forest from such a tempest?"
Sil considered the storm and pointed to a part of the forest just slightly north of west. "There we can find both shelter and food, but I warn you we should not venture too far in. The warband will probably spend time within the sanctuary of the forest and there will be scouts everywhere. If we can we should get the food we need and then move immediately northwards. Shelter can be found within the forest if and when it is needed."
The Faeyen did not wait for Tomas' agreement. Instead she began to run, making a straight line for the distant forest. Tomas took a deep breath and followed.
The remains of the afternoon became lost in the rigours of the run into the west. Ahead of them lay the thick line of the forest's edge and Sil did not stop, her determination a seemingly endless source of energy that kept her running. For Tomas it was almost too much to maintain. The ground had become easier, but the Faeyen's inexhaustible need to avenge her father left him straggling behind, trying to keep up a pace that seemed beyond the capacity of any man to endure. The long hours dragged on, and in that time the terrain changed. No longer did the long grasses of the Surgis'Ka lay beneath them; instead the ground had hardened, patches of bare ground spread within a sparse plain of coarse bushes and acacia trees. Within this bushland the girl weaved a path towards the forest, and it was only in the last light of day that they met the edge of the Meshaal. Only then did she stop.
Upon the hard edge of the forest Sil came to a standstill, glistening with sweat, her hands on her hips as she struggled for breath. Tomas came to her side a few minutes later and then collapsed onto the ground, exhausted. At the boundary of the Meshaal he had taken his last step, and for a short time could speak no word to his companion. Sil however, was not yet done. Carefully she surveyed the edges of the forest and then bent to her prostrate companion.
"Wait here Kalborean. I shall return in a few minutes."
Tomas lifted one arm and waved weakly for her to go. In his own mind he could not care for what she might be doing, but watched anyway as she made for the undergrowth at the forest's edge, and then disappeared within its embrace. The young Kalborean lifted himself onto one elbow and shook his head. Never had he seen such endurance, and he was not sure that the run had been in either of their best interests. As he lay exhausted upon the hard ground he felt the need for at least a day to recover, and worse still, he could feel the wet irritation of blisters along his ankles and toes. For a while, he believed, he would be going nowhere.
Good to her word the Faeyen appeared out of the forest only a few minutes after fading into its gloom. In her hands she held a small pile of brightly coloured fruits and seemed very pleased with her find.
"What have you found Sil?" Tomas asked as he grabbed for one of the fruits.
The girl pulled away from the Kalborean and instead took one of her daggers to the soft pulp of the largest fruits. "This is a Nahla fruit Kalborean. If you were to eat it raw it would kill you as surely as taking poison. To take advantage of its special properties it needs to be prepared properly, and cooked into a form where it can be eaten without harm. We do not have the time to do so, so we must make the best of it as we can."
As Tomas watched Sil took one of the red and yellow coloured fruits and sliced off a piece of its flesh. Between her fingers she squeezed out all the juice she could from the pulp, and then stuffed the flesh into the remaining water she had in a small waterbag at her waist. Quickly she shook the waterbag and sniffed at its contents before handing it to Tomas.
"Take but a small swallow Kalborean, anymore and it will go badly for you."
Tomas took the waterbag and sniffed for himself. It smelled not unlike cinnamon but had a sour edge. He was not convinced it was a good idea to swallow it. Sil smiled and took back the water.
"Come Kalborean, do you need convincing that this draught will do nothing but good? Take off your boot and I will show you something that will amaze you."
Before Tomas could consider her strange request the Faeyen turned to his feet and quickly removed his left boot and sock. Exposed to the cool air his foot arched with the pain of his uncovered blisters. He knew he would not be walking anywhere for a while. Sil did not balk at what she did next.
From her side she picked up the remains of the Nahla fruit and squeezed its juice over the blistered underside of his foot. For just a second a numbing ache spread across his lower limb, then before his eyes the blisters shrunk and then hardened into callused areas of thick skin. Sil appeared well pleased as Tomas grabbed at his foot and searched for some sign of trickery or illusion.
"How did you do that?" he exclaimed, unable to believe his eyes. Sil pulled at his other boot and administered the same rough care to his other foot.
"I swear Kalborean, that you think everything is my personal doing. I did nothing. The Nahla fruit is the most potent regenerative medicine to be found anywhere in the known world. It is so potent that it requires care in its consumption, but it has its uses and we will be well advised to keep the remaining fruit in case they are needed later. Now drink the damn water and let's have no more argument. I have Hresh to kill."
Tomas felt well chastised and took one swallow of the liquid. It tasted much as he had expected, and as he gagged on the sour aftertaste he felt a sudden rush of warmth through his body. Before he could react the potion took a hold upon his being, forcing out any fatigue in his limbs and clearing his mind like chilled mountain water. In a matter of moments he was able to stand, and within a minute he had pulled on his boots and was ready to continue.
"What is our path now?" he asked. Although he felt much better, there was a strange unsettling effect that the potion had upon him. He felt both enervated and edgy, as if he needed to work off the potion's effect before it began to harm him.
Sil turned her head to the forest. "Whilst I was searching for a Nahla tree I found a set of tracks heading into the north. They are two Hresh rearguards making for a rendezvous point with the main warband. I intend to find them."
Tomas shook his head and took hold of her arm. "Find them? Wasn't the plan to avoid the forest altogether and lay in wait for the warband further north? Tell me Sil, what has changed your mind?"
The Faeyen hardened her visage and advanced on her companion. Tomas realised then that he had no say in what Sil might be planning. "We will find them because it is the best way to kill them. In a large group they have the advantage. Two alone in the forest can be disposed of, and they are two we will not have to worry about later."
The Kalborean shook his head and tried to calm her down. There was something in her demeanour that had changed, no longer did she seem to care for the plans they had made.
"Sil, I understand your pain but you are only one against many. Surely it would be better not to tempt Fate by trying to meter revenge just yet?"
Sil smirked and turned towards the forest. "Come if you wish, otherwise go home and leave me to my work." With that she began to run again, diving into the undergrowth without regard for her own safety.
"Oh damn." sighed Tomas. The girl was going to get herself killed and he could not in good conscience leave her to her fate. Before he lost sight of her completely he ran for the trees himself and was quickly swallowed up in their dark embrace.
Night fell quickly and in the blusters of the approaching storm Tomas ran after his troubled companion. In the darkness he negotiated the trees, keeping close to the trail left by the Faeyen as she ran for some as yet unknown point within the forest. In was a break-neck run, charging through the dense undergrowth, weaving a complex path between huge trunks of trees that seemed as old as the world itself. It was dark yet he could see clearly, all his senses heightened by the strange effects of Sil's potion. About him he could hear the scattering of creatures, and the rush of air around the wings of birds as they made flight before his headlong pursuit of the girl. Above him the canopy whipped and thrashed in a growing gale, and yet he could still hear the muffled footfalls of the Faeyen just ahead of him.
Without rest they ran until the storm loomed high overhead. Tomas could feel the air changing, a keener chill blowing with the gales from the north. He knew it would not be long before thunder would herald the arrival of the tempest, but he hoped there was still time to catch up with Sil and talk some sense into her. In the closeness of the trees she remained elusive though, nothing more than a shadow that would not answer his whispered calls to stop.
Around midnight he found the tracks that had spurred the Faeyen to her deadly path. Along a narrow animal trail he discovered two distinct sets of prints, and they were definitely Hordim. But therein lay a mystery that he could not fathom. It had taken hours of hard running to find the trail, yet the girl had been in the forest no more than fifteen minutes before returning with the Nahla fruit. He could not see how she might have found the trail of the Hresh so quickly, and in the growing energy of the storm he realised that she could not have. There was something uncanny about his new-found friend, but he could not say at all what it might be. It was beyond the understanding of a simple metal-smith.
Carefully he checked the bootprints in the soft earth and found that they were heading exactly north. Beside them he found also the smaller prints of Sil, and with this as his guide he turned along their path and began to run after them.
Overhead the storm grew, the first rumblings reverberating through the forest as he followed the trail. Within the energy of the coming storm he felt a growing disquiet building within him. He had travelled the roads of Kalborea for most of his youth and he had met many characters in that time. His brother Mallen had quickly developed a talent for avoiding those that might be dangerous, and taking the help of those who honestly wished to give it. It was a talent that had kept the brothers safe, but never had Tomas met anyone like Sil. He wondered what Mallen might have made of her, and it was the thought of his brother that brought him to a halt.
For a moment he stood quietly in the darkness and listened to the wind thrashing through the branches above. What must Mallen be thinking he pondered. Did he think his brother was dead, lost to the cruelty of the Horde? What was he doing now? In that moment he realised how isolated he was from all the familiar things of his life, and yearned to find his Shemwe quickly. It was a curious thing but he wondered if Mallen blamed him for the destruction of the workshop, and if he had started to rebuild it. Perhaps he would one day find out.
When he started to run again the storm quickened its pace. Lightning lashed out in the east, and dull rolls of thunder spread like waves through the forest. In the distance he could hear the approach of a wall of rain as it moved through the treetops, advancing from the north. It was only a matter of time before they would be caught within its power, and he ran all the faster to find the girl. When he located her she had already found her quarry.
The Faeyen lay hunched within a growth of thick bushes, looking out through the trees into a wide clearing. Within the open space stood two Hresh warriors, their arms extended in some kind of supplication to the roiling sky above. Sil took no notice of Tomas as he moved to her side, then pointed abruptly towards the Hordim.
"See," she whispered, "these two are rearguards for the main warband. They are two Hordim who will not see the sunsrise."
Tomas grabbed the girl by the arm and forced her to look at him. "You do not need to kill these warriors. They will lead us directly to the warband if we simply let them be."
Sil snorted and pushed him back. "What do you know of such things. I fear Kalborean, that you have been a captive of the Hresh for too long. When they are dead I will worry about where the warband might be."
Tomas moved to speak again but a crash of thunder prevented him. He could only watch as the girl drew her daggers and then advanced out beyond the treeline and into the open. With no weapon of his own he did not know what to do, but he could not let Sil face the Hordim alone. Searching the ground he picked up a long piece of fallen branch and ran for the clearing. In all the days that would remain of his life he would not forget what happened next.
In the advance of the storm Tomas could not hear what Sil was shouting at the Hresh, but it made them turn to face her. Upon the open ground she was a diminutive figure, dwarfed by the huge muscled creatures that quickly drew weapons and ran at her. Tomas struggled through the undergrowth and then realised he would not be in time. The first Hresh reached the girl and swung its scimitar in a wide arc, hoping to cut the Faeyen cleanly in two. Sil retreated and then slipped behind the curve of the blow, finding the Hresh's back exposed. In two quick movements she buried one of the daggers in the creature's back and then drew the second along the side of its neck, neatly cutting its throat. The warrior hit the ground, its life gone even as it fell.
The second warrior came to a halt, and then began to circle what it now recognised as a worthy opponent. Sil held back, her blades dripping with blood as she taunted the Hresh. Tomas could not make out what she was saying for it was in a language he had never heard uttered before. It had an immediate effect on the Hordim. Swinging its scimitar from side to side it responded in a similar tongue, and as the two combatants circled each other an argument erupted, a strange interrogation between the two where neither seemed to be finding satisfaction.
The Kalborean stopped at the edge of the clearing and watched as the dance continued, but then the Hresh saw Tomas and for a short moment its attention settled upon him. It was the opening Sil needed and she moved like a stroke of lightning to take advantage of it. Before the warrior could move to defend itself the girl slid in under its reach and kicked out with both legs, landing a booted heel against the kneecaps of the Hordim. With a crack that could be heard above the growing storm the creature's legs buckled and the warrior fell backwards onto the wet earth. Sil was on top of her opponent before Tomas could take a step towards them, and in the gloom all he could see was the flash of her dagger as she neatly slit the Hresh's throat. When she stood she was covered in blood, her arms and face mottled with the dark liquid. Tomas ran towards her and then stopped as he looked into her eyes. In the darkness her eyes were as fathomless as midnight and for just a moment he thought he saw something else. But then she smiled and turned towards the north.
"The Hresh says that the warband is no more than a league ahead of us. We should move on quickly."
Tomas ran to her side and pulled at her arm. "How do you know this?" he said, trying to bring her to a halt.
"The Hresh told me." she replied simply.
"Why would he do that?" Tomas asked incredulously.
"Because he was an arrogant fool. I asked him and he responded. What harm is there in telling a small secret when you think you are going to kill the listener? He just wasn't that good a warrior."
Tomas let go of her arm and hesitated. Sil ran into the farthest borders of the clearing and once again disappeared into the gloom. In the face of the storm the young Kalborean was left alone, standing between the bodies of the Hordim. In death they were no less intimidating than in life, but for a moment he paused to consider the ease in which they had been killed by the Faeyen. Quietly he picked up one of the Hresh's scimitars and looked at it. It was a beautifully worked piece of shaped metal, and as a metal-smith he could appreciate the care and attention that had gone into its creation. He decided that the weapon would be his own and took its matching sword belt from the Hresh. Then he turned to the north.
It was then that Tomas heard the sounds of other creatures running through the forest from the south, making for the clearing. Thinking only that they could be Hordim, perhaps another rearguard, he began his pursuit of Sil. The girl had just killed two Hresh warriors and was on the hunt for more. He was not sure what he should do. He knew only that he had become afraid of her, and that for better or worse he needed her.
It took a good ten minutes before Tomas caught up with the Faeyen. She had found a wide animal track and was using its clear path to make for the position she had said they would find the Hordim warband. On both sides of the trail the forest crowded close, and as he made her side the sky opened up with the full force of the storm. Caught in its power Sil slowed, a strong northerly wind carrying a driving rain that hit both of them like a physical blow. Above the crash of thunder and the pounding staccato of the rain Tomas yelled into Sil's ear.
"There are more behind us. It may be best that we lay low in the undergrowth and let these pass."
Sil seemed surprised and stopped in the centre of the path. With the rain splashing around her she peered back into the deluge, looking for some proof of Tomas' words. Then she dove into the undergrowth and found a position near the track's edge. Tomas followed, his hope that the girl would finally listen to him and remain hidden. It was a hope short lived.
Before he could utter a warning two figures appeared out of the darkness. One was about Tomas' size, the other huge against his companion. Both were running hard against the rain, and neither seemed prepared for the attack that erupted from the undergrowth at their side. The Kalborean yelled to his companion when he realised that one of them was Mallen, but it was too late. As a fleeting shadow she attacked. Two daggers flashed through the gloom and both struck their target.
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