Chronicles of Arborell, Copyright Wayne Densley 2008 All Rights Reserved
In the turmoil of the storm Gremorgan ran behind Mallen, his eyes searching the edges of the trail. The tempest had hit at the moment they had left the clearing, and in a growing torrent of rain and wind the two had forced their way northwards through the trees, following the indistinct path left by Tomas and his unknown companion. As they ran the Dwarvendim could not quell the feeling that they should move with caution, but Mallen could feel his brother's presence ahead, and he was not going to slow his pace for anything.
Within the wild ferocity of the storm Gremorgan knew that a crossroads was approaching. For a reason that he had not yet fathomed completely the hand of Providence had put the young Kalborean into his care, but it was now only a matter of time before he would be reunited with his brother, and he wondered on what that would mean for his own future. He had followed the trail of the Warband, knowing that the Denmar Hresh were part of a greater plot to overthrow the Mutan of the Clavern'sigh; and somewhere in the secrets of that conspiracy he would find answers to his own quest. He had found an important part of that mission hidden within the song of the Hra'gora, but the remainder could only be found by taking advantage of the curious machinations of the Denmar, and of the Jotun of the West. In his heart he knew that only Providence would show him the way.
Out of the sky came a great arc of lightning, a booming clap of energy that left Gremorgan wincing in pain at its proximity. But it was not the storm that gave the LoreMaster cause to falter. The tempest was no Treachersa and although he never liked being so exposed to the elements he could sense that there was something ahead he could not identify. Mallen's brother was going to be found, of that he had no doubt. He could feel the strong connection between the two, and Mallen's determination only made that connection stronger. But there was something else as well. For too long he had known the touch of EarthMagic, and there was an entity ahead that he could feel radiating strength, wrapping itself within the power of the storm. He did not know what it was, but he could feel its closeness in his bones.
"Mallen!" he shouted into the storm, his voice barely audible above the thrash of the winds. The Kalborean turned and halted. Gremorgan had one hand firmly planted upon the ground and was concentrating hard on the space between his fingers.
"What is it Gremorgan?" Mallen yelled. Against the torrent of rain he could see little except the dark form of the LoreMaster.
"There is something ahead Master Cael, and it veils its presence from me. I cannot tell you what it is but it wishes to remain undiscovered. I believe we should move forward with caution."
Mallen looked up the trail but could see nothing except the thrash and roil of the storm.
"What must we do?" he asked, unsure as to what it might be.
Gremorgan stood and scratched at his ear. "We must find your brother, for that is our goal, but I fear that his new companion may hide secrets that will prove dangerous to us all. It is my counsel that we mention nothing of my nature or history to Tomas, or whoever travels with him. Make no mention of my vocation or abilities, or anything of our journey so far, except perhaps that it has been difficult. Trust me on this Master Cael. Let me answer any question regarding myself, and until we find Tomas let me take the lead."
The Kalborean nodded and looked again to the path ahead. Gremorgan moved off quickly and Mallen followed. Against the driving rain they ran steadfastly forward, following the remains of the trail into the north. Quickly they met a narrow animal path and upon its sodden ground found a clear set of bootprints. One of the prints was clearly Tomas' and it could only have been a minute old. Spurred on the two men increased their speed, focused to the task of finding Mallen's brother. It was then that the attack came.
As a glimmer of movement in the darkness a form detached itself from the forest's edge. Before either Mallen or Gremorgan could react two daggers rose before the Dwarvendim and fell upon him. In that instant Mallen heard also the voice of his brother crying out for the attacker to stop, but his own eyes were focused on the imminent danger to his friend. The assault came without warning, and in the driving rain played out before the Kalborean could move to Gremorgan's aid.
The first blade arced towards the Dwarvendim's collar-bone, its razor sharp edge flashing in the dark as it drove down upon its hapless victim. Gremorgan could not react fast enough and felt metal cut across his shoulder but the blade did not go deep. Over the LoreMaster's thick travel coat lay the strapping of his shoulder bags, and the steel blade turned against their dense weave, slicing instead down the length of his heavy coat.
The second blade came at the Dwarvendim from behind, a lethal blow aimed at driving its tip into his underarm. Without thinking Gremorgan spun on his heels, flinging his shoulder bags out in an attempt to knock the assailant off balance. One connected with the dark form's arm, deflecting the force of the blow further along his back, and driving the blade deep into his backpack. It was then that the tide of the assault turned.
With his arm straightened the LoreMaster swung out at his attacker, hitting the shadow across the chest and throat with his forearm. Stunned, the young girl, for that was what Gremorgan could now see his foe to be, fell back and then attacked again, leaping at him with an unnatural speed. Gremorgan had no time to unfasten his axe, and in desperation loosed one of his shoulder bags and swung out with all the force he could bring to it. With a sickening thud the bag, full of tools and devices, hit the girl squarely in the head, knocking her senseless to the ground. In the driving rain she lay still, a crumpled mound on the pathway.
"By the Gates of Hallen'draal what is this?" he shouted into the darkness. Anger grew like a stain across his visage and he answered its insistent call by advancing upon the hapless girl. At the very least he was going to beat some life into her and get some answers.
"Stop!" Came a cry through the driving rain. Out of the gloom Tomas ran to stand between the Dwarvendim and his attacker.
"She did not know who you were. I told her that Hresh were on the path behind us, and she took that as fact. It was not an assault intended to do harm to Men!"
Gremorgan looked at the Kalborean and then turned to Mallen, his anger dissipated. "I assume that this must be your brother then. Quite frankly I don't see what all the fuss is about."
Mallen laughed and ran to his brother's side. No matter what the circumstances of their meeting he had found his brother. Tomas did not move for a moment. The Dwarvendim was huge and he would not leave his position between the two protagonists until he was sure Sil was safe from harm.
"Do not worry about Gremorgan, Tomas. He is a man of honour, one I trust with my life."
Tomas looked hard at the huge Dwarvendim and then turned back to his brother, a wide grin across his face.
"Mallen, it is a wonder that you are here."
With that the brothers embraced, the fatigue of long days of travel draining from them as they took account of their reunion. It was some moments before they parted and it was Mallen who spoke first.
"Before we give proper explanation of the paths that have lead us here I must introduce Gremorgan Hedj, a Dwarvendim of the Stone Kingdoms, and my companion through the hard days that have brought us to this reunion."
The LoreMaster came to Mallen's side and bowed slightly. "I have heard much of you Tomas Cael. It is unfortunate that we should meet under such violent circumstances."
Tomas nodded and looked to the still form of Sil. "I am sorry for the actions of my companion. She is a girl of stubborn mind and I had no opportunity to try and change it. I fear that she has done you damage though, and I have no idea how to repay it."
Gremorgan smiled and checked his coat. A long slit ran down its outer layer from shoulder to waist but it could have been worse. If the girl had cut flesh he would have been in serious trouble. "It is not your damage to repay. I believe that we should find shelter and wait out the trailing edge of this downpour. It seems only fitting after the labours of this journey that we take the time to rest, and let you both tell the stories of how we have arrived here."
Mallen agreed. The rains fell as thick veils, and within their embrace the trail had disappeared into mud and water. Until it ended there could now be little use in going on any further.
As the two Kalboreans watched Gremorgan took a short piece of rope from one of his packs and bound the prostrate form of the girl. It was Tomas who then lifted her from the mud. Even in her sodden clothing she weighed almost nothing, but there was little time to consider her apparent helplessness, or the truth of her lethal nature. It was a story that he would have to tell his brother, and it was one that would be hard to believe.
"Where should we go?" Tomas asked into the rain. Mallen looked to Gremorgan and the Dwarvendim pointed into the north along the remains of the path.
"We are at the northern edges of the Meshaal. If my memory serves me there should be the ruins of a small hunting cabin only a short distance out of the trees. If the Hordim have not taken it for themselves it should provide us with the warm enclave we seek."
Against the wind and rain the three men moved northwards, keeping to the path and discovering quickly the truth in Gremorgan's recollections. Only a few minutes upon the trail brought them to the northern borders of the forest, and a dark expanse of open ground beyond. Deliberately the Dwarvendim pulled his axe from its fastenings and extended its haft. In the darkness he whispered for Mallen to draw his sword and together they moved forward. Ahead there could lay either shelter or the Warband, and in the gloom they could see nothing.
With Tomas carrying Sil at their backs the two men made for a shallow depression in the ground ahead. As they got closer the plain rose to a deep saddle between two hills, and upon the western slope of the nearest they found the remains of a wooden hunter's cabin. Torn by wind and tempest the building was a collection of fallen walls and collapsed stonework, but there was shelter to be found within its crumbling ruin and the three men took it gladly. Carefully they pushed their way beneath a portion of broken roofing and found within its darkness a small sanctuary from the incessant rain.
"Nothing grand I'll warrant, but better than being out there eh?" Gremorgan opined as he pulled flint from one of his packs. "I think a small fire will do us a world of good right about now."
Mallen looked about their small cover and found a collection of sticks and other wind-blown tinder. As he passed it to Gremorgan the Dwarvendim whispered into his ear. "I'll put together a meal for all four of us. You should find out what you can about this girl before she returns to consciousness, and determine how they have come to be here. Remember Master Cael, say nothing of myself."
Mallen nodded and turned to his brother. Tomas sat hunched against a length of fallen timber, the head of the girl cradled in his lap. About them the wind buffeted their shelter, the rain a pounding beat against the thin wooden shingles that protected them from the full embrace of the storm. Carefully he edged towards his brother and placed a hand upon his shoulder.
"It is good to see you again Tomas. It was my only hope that we might find each other. It still amazes me that we did."
Tomas smiled and nodded his agreement. "I tell you Mallen, no one is more surprised at our reunion than me. How is it that you come to be here, in such lonely lands?"
Mallen made himself comfortable in their cramped enclave and answered. For the next hour the two brothers talked, Tomas describing the events of the attack on Callenfrey, and his promise to Madame Sandofel; Mallen the circumstances of his return to the town, and the destruction that followed the retreat of the Hresh. Of the long journey to their reunion Mallen kept his comments brief, mostly talking on the hardships of the chase and the cunning nature of their quarry. It was Tomas however, who spoke most. With the winds howling about them he told of his capture and the circumstances of his escape. There was much said on the brutality of the betrayal upon the grasslands of the Surgis'Ka, and most of what he could remember of his finding by Sil.
On the cunning nature of the Hordim Tomas could not help but agree. He had been a witness to their endurance, and a helpless victim of their malice, but there was much that he did not understand, especially on the need for the captives they took from Callenfrey. It was a question that would remain unanswered as Gremorgan handed out three wooden bowls of steaming stew.
"There you go Gentlemen." Gremorgan said as he gave out the bowls, "On a night such as this a hot meal will do much to ward the cold."
Tomas accepted his eagerly, and savoured the strange spicy smell of the food. There was something familiar wafting upon its vapours and he smiled slightly as he recognised it.
"Is there Nahla fruit in this stew?" he asked, looking to the Dwarvendim.
Gremorgan nodded. "It is not the fruit itself, but a small amount of Nahla bread that I have stirred into the broth. It is something not normally recognised by Kalboreans. How is it that you are familiar?"
Tomas pointed to Sil. "My angry companion introduced its wonders to me earlier on the journey. I had no idea such things existed in the world, but I can say that it does amazing things for blistered feet."
Mallen looked to the girl, and then put down his bowl. "Tomas, what do you know of this girl?"
His younger brother replied without hesitation. "I tell you Mallen that I would have died on the plains of the Surgis'Ka but for her intervention. Even though she will not admit it I was badly wounded and would not have survived for long. I do not know what she did, I only know that I have her to thank for it. On her unreasoning temper and uncanny skill with a blade I cannot give any comment. She confounds me with her apparent fragility, and then chills the blood in my veins with her need to kill those that have taken so much from her. She is an unnerving creature to say the least."
Mallen nodded and leant close to his brother. "Do you trust her?"
Tomas shook his head in answer but said nothing. He did not wish to condemn her with words but he could not lie to his brother either.
"And what of you Gremorgan." Tomas said louder. "How is it that you should arrive in this place with my brother?"
Gremorgan placed down his own bowl and considered his answer. "My journey starts long before yours, and most of it I fear would provide little entertainment. I can say though that my own travels have become much the lighter for meeting your brother. He has proven a amiable companion and an excellent tracker."
Tomas smiled at that, however the huge man was obviously not a simple hunter. "And what is your purpose here? It is a lonely wilderness that you travel with my brother."
The LoreMaster nodded. "It is true that I have a purpose. The truth is that I seek something, and it is my belief that the Hresh you now follow will show me where it is. Just as you now pursue the Warband for reasons of your own, I also have a need to find them. Is it not strange how Providence has brought us together?"
The younger Kalborean smiled again and agreed. "I have no doubt that there are forces at work here Gremorgan. I just don't understand why the Hordim have taken my Shemwe and the other villagers. It is a mystery to me..."
Just as he was about to continue the first stirrings came from Sil. As they ate she had been laid carefully to one side and now began to rouse. With a wince she opened her eyes, then waited as her sight returned to her. When she was sufficiently awake to realise that she had been bound she struggled briefly against the ropes, testing their strength and her own determination to free herself . Above all she was not happy.
"What is this Tomas? Have you turned against me now, leaving me to the whims of these strangers?"
Tomas moved to her side and took one of her daggers, his intention to cut her bonds, but Gremorgan gave him reason to pause.
"Just one moment Master Tomas. This creature has attempted harm upon me, and I do not feel obliged to give her freedom until there is some assurance that she will not try to finish the job. It is better that she remains this way until those assurances have been made."
Tomas stopped and instead sat at her side. "Sil, these men are known to me. Here is my own brother Mallen, and his companion on the trail Gremorgan. These are no strangers worthy of violence. These are friends. They do not wish you harm, only a promise that you shall not harm them."
Sil pulled herself up from the ground and found a position with her back against an old piece of roofing. "What assurance do I have that these vehmin can be trusted?"
Gremorgan's eyebrow flickered slightly but he remained silent. Tomas pressed on.
"Remember Sil it was you who attacked them. If there is any need for trust it must prove itself first through you."
The Faeyen fell silent for a moment, and then shrugged her shoulders and relented. "Indeed it must. I am sorry Dwarvendim for any harm that has befallen you. Accept my apology and you have my word that I will cause no further harm."
Tomas looked to the Dwarvendim and Gremorgan nodded. Both Gremorgan and Mallen sat back and watched as the younger brother carefully cut the girl's bonds. Mallen could not help but wonder at the curious paradox that could be seen in the Faeyen. For a moment she readjusted her clothing and ran her hand over the side of her face. She had taken a heavy blow and there was considerable swelling along her jaw-line. Even so he could see that she was a mesmerisingly beautiful girl, as fragile and petite as any young Faeyen. But he had also been witness to the speed of her attack on Gremorgan, and in the feeble light of the Dwarvendim's fire he could not reconcile the two.
His brother's new companion was not the only mystery to be uncovered with their meeting. In talking with Tomas he had discovered that his brother had left the Surgis'Ka and travelled into the north-west, making for the northern edge of the Meshaal Forests. Gremorgan and himself had followed the Warband directly into the west, making straight for the nearest edge of the ancient woodland. They had found Tomas' bootprint in their pursuit, but that was not possible. At the time they had discovered evidence of his brother stamped into the wet earth of the plains, Tomas had been far to the north, by his own words sheltering within the gloom of the Warrens. He had never gone into the west, and yet a trail had led them to the Taal, and then northwards to their reunion. It did not make sense.
Gremorgan had also picked up on the inconsistency in Tomas' account. The Dwarvendim had said nothing, but Mallen had noticed his silence as Tomas had given a truthful rendering of his travels with the Faeyen girl. There was no doubt in Mallen's mind that Tomas had told the truth, yet both men knew they had found his trail upon the western edges of the Meshaal Forest, at the same time as Tomas and Sil had taken refuge in the gloom of the Warrens far to the north. There was no way that Tomas had left the tracks they had followed into the forest. It seemed that they had been on the trail of something other than Tomas, being led by a hand other than that of Providence to their meeting with his brother.
As Mallen watched, the girl adjusted her clothing and tried to straighten out her long black hair. Although he wished to give her the benefit of the doubt, he could not help the suspicion that was forming in his thoughts that the Faeyen had something to do with their fortunate meeting. He could not however, be sure that it was for good or ill that she had now joined their number and chose to remain undecided as to her intentions. Mallen was sure though, that Gremorgan would not take his eyes off her.
Rubbing her wrists Sil sat upon the ground and motioned towards the small pot of stew that steamed upon the fire.
"Any chance of a bowl? I could eat a horse right now."
Gremorgan pulled a bowl from his pack and poured a small portion of the stew into it. In the cold of the coming dawn the hot meal was accepted eagerly by the girl and all three men watched as she ate.
"So what's the plan then?" she said between mouthfuls, "Are we to make after the Hordim, or will we spend our time sitting around this fire wondering if it is a good idea to trust the bad girl?"
Tomas shook his head in disbelief. "Sil, why must you make so light of our..."
Mallen stopped his brother with a touch to his arm. "It is of no matter Tomas. Sil is merely testing our intentions, but she does put forward a good point. Whilst we wait for the storm to abate we should consider what it is we are to do now. For my part I left Callenfrey with only one goal, the return of my brother, and I have now found him. I could return home in good conscience that I have fulfilled that objective. I believe however, that Tomas has another view."
For the younger Cael there was no question as to what he would be doing. "I will not return home until I have Shemwe. I cannot leave her in the hands of the Hordim and I will not. It is as simple as that."
Sil looked to Gremorgan and challenged him for his opinion. "And what say you? Is your mission here complete?"
The LoreMaster did not reply to the girl's question immediately. Instead he poured the last dregs of the stew into a corner of their makeshift shelter and then gave his answer.
"It is my view that I will follow whatever Mallen and Tomas Cael decide. It is a fact that I follow the Warband for reasons of my own, but it was an act of Providence that brought us all together, and I will take whatever path that may lead us to."
The Faeyen looked at the Dwarvendim and snorted. "That is no answer. What reasons do you have for being here anyway? We three are here because the Hordim took something of great value from us. What harm have the Hresh done to you?"
Gremorgan smiled and turned to look the young girl directly in the eyes. His voice carried all the menace of a predator.
"I have been told that you are an experienced traveller of the wilds Sil. Yet you do not seem to have learned that anyone to be found in such lonely lands as these always has a reason for being so. The Hresh have taken nothing from me, but they have something of great value that I want. What that might be is for me to know, and for others to be told of only when I wish it."
For just a moment Sil bristled with anger, her body becoming taut as she prepared to rage at the Dwarvendim, but Gremorgan was not about to let the situation degenerate into an argument.
"Come Sil. It would seem that we are resolved to our course without a need to argue on it. Master Tomas must recover his fiancee, and I know that his brother will follow with him in that endeavour no matter what the dangers. You have the need to recover your family's good name, and if for no other reason I will stand with my friends in pursuit of Shemwe Sandofel, and follow where they may lead. As far as I can see we are all going the same way, but we will not be able to delay much longer."
"At the most the Warband can be no further than a half-day's march ahead of us. There is little merit in continuing until the rain has moved into the south, but when it passes over we will need to move quickly. I say that we should rest as we can until the rain has gone and then take up the chase again."
Both Mallen and Tomas agreed, but Sil looked curiously at the Dwarvendim. Mallen noted that it was if she was trying to look inside him, attempting to divine what his motivations really were. In the end it was Sil who laid her head down first and slept, then Mallen and Tomas. Gremorgan did not sleep, instead he lost himself in thought, thinking on the young girl and of an old legend he had heard many years before.
The rain persisted as a constant steady downpour that remained through the dawn and into the early morning. It was a delay that could not be helped, but the LoreMaster knew that rest was needed. Nahla bread could only take a man so far, and after the rigors of their pursuit an opportunity to recover had to be taken. In the solitude of his thoughts the LoreMaster watched his companions sleep and considered what he should now do. In his own mind Gremorgan had become firmed to his course. He had told only a partial truth to the Faeyen girl, his reasons for going on much more definite than a need to see what Providence might put before them. It was true that the Hresh held something of value he wanted, but it was information he needed, and the leader of the Warband would be the creature to provide it.
For a short time he stretched his legs and tried to relax. He could not think on how many years he had been in pursuit of his King's commission, and there had been few times that he had allowed himself the pleasure of simple relaxation. For decades he had searched the lands of Arborell, looking for the few pieces of evidence he needed to uncover a great mystery, one that had evaded the Grand Circle of LoreMasters since their inception upon the summits of Araheal.
Upon that sacred peak a bargain had been reached between the Dwarvendim and the Shan'duil. To return balance to the world the River of Life had granted eleven of his people the right to harness EarthMagic, and in doing so provide a check to the unrestrained power of the Clavern'sigh. In Gremorgan's mind it had been a clever bargain. Any new power exercised by the Mutan had to be measured by the fact that it would automatically be given to their enemies, the LoreMasters of the Grand Circle. The Dwarvendim had accepted the Doctrine of Araheal gladly, but it had only been over time that they had realised the true cost of their agreement. No side could ever get the better of the other. The Shan'duil above all things required balance and that had been achieved, in a confrontation based on EarthMagic no side could ever win, no side harm the other. It was a stalemate.
For the Grand Circle it was a frustrating realisation. They had bargained for the right to EarthMagic on the basis that it could help them in their fight against the Hordim, who at that time greatly outnumbered the Men of the Four Nations. Immediately they began to search for an answer, a loop-hole in the Doctrine that might give them the edge over their Nemesis. Eventually they found it.
Upon a temple wall in the far south of Kalborea a small piece of text was unearthed, outlining the Word of Creation, the Oera, that had been used by the Trell to create the first Hordim. The Word of Creation had long been known to the LoreMasters, but the text also made mention of a further spell, a Word of Dissolution. Although most of the text had been lost it had been possible to discern that the Trell did not trust their new creations, and had given themselves the power to unmake their slaves if the need should arise. The ancient writings gave no clue as to the Word itself, but did mention that to be effective it must be intoned at the source of all EarthMagic. Such an utterance would remove all the Hordim from the world in one unalterable dissolution.
To solve the mystery would give the Dwarvendim, and Men in general, an advantage over the Hordim that the Mutan of the Clavern'sigh could not defend against. It was a great prize, and the song of the Hra'gora had given him the first part of its unravelling, but it was only the first step. To find the remainder would require a journey deep into the cold lands of the Horde. It was something that required time and courage to obtain, and he needed the Hresh to achieve it.
As he rested Gremorgan surveyed the sleeping forms of his companions and wondered at the strange vagaries of Providence that had brought them all together. The two brothers were good men, noble of heart, committed to each other, and restless for the return of everything they had lost. He knew that he would protect them to the end of that quest, and then he would find his way into the west and the lands of the Jotun.
For a moment he studied the sleeping form of Sil. The Faeyen girl was another matter altogether. Within her diminutive body he could sense there resided a danger far greater than the Warband that they pursued. He had not yet determined what the real nature of the girl was, but he had his suspicions, and he knew that it would make itself known in the fullness of time. When it did he would have his hands full.
Against the old shingles the rain patted loudly, the world outside their small haven a mire of mist and swirling rain. Under the ruin that had become their shelter Gremorgan watched his companions sleep, and as they rested he quietly pulled the small Dirge-compass from its wrappings and chanted softly across its metal face. Slowly the device came to life, its disc flickering with tiny pinpoints of light. Carefully he moved it from the north into the east, and watched as the glimmering speckles moved across its surface; but he was not looking for anything beyond the confines of their shelter. Sure enough the young girl arose as a bright blue point of light at the centre of the compass, one that did not move as he turned it from north to east, and then back again. Whoever this girl might once have been she had become something else, and now the LoreMaster knew what she was. In the gloom beneath the old roofing he put the device away and considered what should be done.
By mid-morning the last of the rains had passed into the south. To the sounds of Gremorgan preparing a small breakfast the remainder of the party awoke, the cold of the day felt keenly in stiff limbs as they made ready.
"The weather has fined." observed Tomas as he put on a long coat offered by Mallen.
"Aye," answered Gremorgan. "but there is a chill in the air that will not pass quickly. I fear that we have reached the change of season, and from now on it is only going to get colder."
Mallen made himself busy, helping Gremorgan with the breakfast, and then searching through a large bag of clothes that the LoreMaster had found stuffed into a jagged hole in the old cabin's brickwork. Most of the cloth was unusable, but some could be used as padding to insulate them from the growing chill. A few pieces of this clothing he offered to Sil.
"It would be best if we take measures to remain warm." he said as he gave over the rags. Sil smiled and declined the offer. "If I need anything I'll ask for it. Look to your own comfort if you must, I prefer to remain unhindered by any extra weight."
Mallen shrugged and gave over the rags to Tomas, who packed them around his waist. By the time they had prepared for the day Gremorgan had finished cooking the breakfast. What he had left of the stew he doled out carefully.
"I am afraid that this is the last of our food. From now on we will need to rely on what we can find on the march, and what I was able to take from the Jotun."
Mallen remembered the large parcels that the Dwarvendim had retrieved from the giant creatures. "What is it that you have Gremorgan?"
The Dwarvendim reached into his pack and pulled out one of the parcels. It was a package wrapped in thick yellowed paper that smelled heavily of spices.
"In a way it was fortunate that we stumbled upon the Jotun. Our food could only last a short time and the finding of these was a boon I was not prepared to ignore."
Tomas took the parcel and steadied himself under its weight. Whatever it was it was heavy.
"What is it?" he asked.
"It is Nahla cake. Just as Men use the Nahla fruit as an additive in bread, so do the Hordim use it to make these large, and I have to say heavy, cakes. They are not as refined as the breads but they will do the job just as well. I believe we have enough cake to sustain us for around a month, providing we use it sparingly."
Both Tomas and Mallen were unsure as to the safety of eating something Hordim-made, but watched as Gremorgan unwrapped a corner of the package and pulled a small piece of the cake away. Immediately their shelter was filled with the pungent smell of Nahla fruit. The Dwarvendim broke the piece into four equal parts and put one in his mouth, then offered the remainder to each of the party.
"You will find," he said as he chewed, "that the Nahla cake has one interesting property not found in our usual breads."
Mallen took his piece and Tomas followed. Together they ate their offering and quickly discovered what Gremorgan meant. From the first swallow they felt the enervating effect of the Nahla and then something more. Across their shoulders there came a warmth, permeating their bodies, spreading like warm flowing water across their skin. Within a few breaths their entire bodies were wrapped in a vibrant energy that kept the chill of the air at bay. It was as if they were standing in sunshine on a windless day.
"This is a wonder." whispered Tomas as he found any fatigue that remained to him falling away.
Both men could not move for a moment, but as the effects of the cake drew deeper into their bodies they found themselves restless and in need of movement.
Sil laughed and picked up a makeshift slingbag she had tied together from some of the old rags.
"We better get moving. These two will be eager to burn off some of that energy, and I fear the Hresh are already on the move."
All agreed, and with packs prepared they carefully made their way out into the open.
To the south the plain was a patchwork of wet ground and shallow pools. At either side the hills lay sodden, their thin cover of grasses flattened by the persistence of the drenching rain.
"What is to be our course? Mallen asked as he straightened the tension out of his spine and shouldered his backpack.
"For now we must travel north." answered Gremorgan. "The rains will have smothered any trail left by the Hordim, but the Warband will be on the move, and we should be able to intersect their path if we are quick enough."
Sil nodded and pointed to the rear of the ruin, and the rising ground that lay beyond.
"Beyond these small hills lies more open ground, but a half-day's travel further north will take us into the Black Hills. There can be found huge sand hills, devoid of water or vegetation, that leave an easy trail underfoot for any creature traversing them. We will find their tracks upon those shifting dunes."
There was no need for further discussion and as one the party moved off into the north, leaving their shelter behind as they made for a series of rises in the ground ahead. Mallen and Tomas took the lead, Sil ran a few paces behind, but Gremorgan held back, taking up a station a short distance to the rear. In the fullness of time he knew he would have to confront the creature that had become Sil, but for the moment he would be content to keep a close eye upon her. He had no doubt that all their lives depended on it.
The day wore on as the four companions ran into the north. Overhead the sky had cleared, the cloud and mist of the past days replaced with the deep blue of fine weather. Under an azure sky the fleeting figures crossed over the hills that had given them a haven from the storm, and then moved onto the wide expanse of a further grassland. This open ground proved hard underfoot, bordered in the south by the green hills they had passed through, and the dark shadow of the Black Hills to the north. Mallen looked to these strange hills and felt the same trepidation as when he had been running towards the Meshaal forests. He could see little of them, only the sharp line of a series of undulations ahead, unreal and depthless against the horizon.
As they ran, each of the four became quiet, concentrating on the effort of the chase, and pondering the hardships that were to come. Mallen knew little of the terrain ahead, and what he understood of it gave him little cause for hope. He knew that the Great Rift lay far to the north, and as a mountain range it was practically impassable. He had heard also stories of the Shan Valleys that nestled in the shadows of those great mountains, and of the dreaded Keln'Kraag, a smaller mountain range that extended from south to north, reaching towards the larger Rift beyond.
For Mallen the chase had been long and arduous. Since leaving Callenfrey, and the familiar countryside that had been his home for so long, he had found himself in lands unknown and dangerous. As he considered what might lay ahead he realised that all their chances of success lay with the knowledge of Gremorgan and the yet to be proved trustworthiness of Sil. It was hard to acknowledge that himself, and his brother, were novices in such an endeavour, but he had faith in the LoreMaster, and to a lesser extent the guiding hand of Providence that had brought them together.
On they ran, keeping a northward track as the strangely dark hills rose up before them. It was in the hour after midday that Gremorgan called them all to stop.
"How long before we reach the hills?" Mallen asked when they came to a halt.
Gremorgan made a gesture for silence and dropped to one knee. By instinct so did everyone else, the party crouching quietly in the cool afternoon sunlight.
"To answer your question Master Cael, we should be there by dusk, but we have other concerns for the moment."
Carefully he rose and looked hard into the north-west. Mallen could see that there was something out there, lying within the grasses ahead.
"What is it?" asked Sil, her natural impatience growing as she reached for her daggers.
Gremorgan shook his head and adjusted his bags on his shoulders. "I don't know, but we had better take a look."
Quickly they moved off towards what appeared to be a bundle of old rags some two hundred metres north-west of their position. It was only as they got much closer that they realised it was a body.
Tomas immediately broke into a run. He had not unsheathed his weapon, and Mallen shouted to him to be careful as he drew his sword and made after him. By the time Gremorgan and Sil arrived the two brothers were standing solemnly over the ragged remains of a man.
"Who is it?" asked Gremorgan.
Mallen knelt beside the body and tentatively rolled the man onto his back. The striking braided red hair was familiar, even if the emaciated and bruised face was not.
"This is Calmus Truvo, a man of good heart who lived not two streets from our metal shop. I believe his family had only just begun a journey to establish a farm in the far west of Kalborea near the Faerron flats. I remember him saying that it was his intention to remain behind and finish off the last of their business dealings before leaving himself. It would seem that he tarried too long in town."
Quietly they all considered the body before Gremorgan inspected it more closely.
"There are no mortal injuries on this man. Judging by his condition it is most likely that he died of exhaustion, run to death by the Hordim. Tell me Mallen, did this man's family have any beliefs that might hinder a quick burial?"
Both of the Cael brothers knew the Truvo family, and they looked to each other before answering.
"The Truvo's did not talk on such things." said Tomas. "It is my belief that they considered themselves men and women of reason. It would be best if we buried Calmus here, and marked his grave with a cairn of stones. There is a chance that they might wish to retrieve the body later."
Gremorgan nodded and pulled a small hand shovel from his equipment. "It is best we start then. Because you knew him it will be left to the Cael's to prepare the body for burial. Sil, you can keep a lookout as we work."
The Faeyen had remained quiet during the discussion but found the attention they were about to give to the dead more than she could bear.
'You're not going to waste time on this are you? The man is dead, and burying him is not going to put us any closer to the Warband. Surely we should be moving on. I say leave him to the elements and let us get on our way!"
Mallen stood, but it was Tomas who gave answer.
"Sil, we cannot leave the body to the whims of weather or scavenger. It is a delay, but one that any one of us would expect for a member of our own families. We must do this because we cannot one day stand before his family and say that we did not. Surely you would wish such consideration for yourself?"
Sil shook her head and pointed into the north. "And what of your Shemwe? Will she appreciate such a diversion whilst she remains in mortal danger? What if we never find the Hordim because of this?"
Tomas took Sil by the shoulder and turned her from the body. "I know my Shemwe, Sil. Well enough in fact to know that she would not begrudge this man his last shred of dignity. If Shemwe has indeed survived for this long, she will find a way to survive a few more hours."
The Faeyen shrugged her shoulders. "If it is what you wish." she said dourly. Quickly she walked to a position a short distance to the north, and took watch from a rise in the ground that gave a better view of their surroundings. Tomas stood for a moment and watched as the girl made for the knoll. He had a feeling that it was not the last that he would hear from her on this matter.
The process of burying the remains of Calmus Truvo took most of the daylight left to the three men. Gremorgan started digging the grave and soon discovered that the ground was as hard as any he had encountered. The rains of the past days had had no effect on its resistance to his small shovel, and the day wore on as he carefully dug the barest of shallow graves for the man's interment.
For Mallen and Tomas the preparation of the body for burial required both strength and ingenuity. Calmus had died within the day before having been found, and the rigor of death had left him rigid upon the cold ground of the plain. For the two brothers it proved a struggle to remove his shirt and the remains of a long coat that they would use as a shroud. The customs of Kalborea demanded he be buried appropriately and with the clothing removed from the body began the task of making the man's last covering.
Although neither of the men knew the origin of the custom, it was accepted that no body could go into the ground without first being encased in a sailcloth shroud, weighted at one end with a heavy stone. They had no sailcloth, so began instead the task of cutting and sowing the remains of his outer garments into a serviceable shroud. Gremorgan held within his bags both needle and thread, and with these items Calmus Truvo was both fitted, and then sown into the cloth.
By the time Gremorgan had finished the grave, the brothers had the body tightly bound into its covering. Without any further ritual Calmus Truvo was lowered into the hole and covered with earth. A layer of stones, and a small cairn as a grave marker finished his burial. It was a simple interment, but one the three men knew would be appreciated by Calmus' family if ever they came to retrieve his remains. For a moment they gave their respects at the graveside and then moved to organise their equipment. All that could be done had been, and now they needed to make up the time they had lost.
Quickly each of the men packed their equipment and shouldered their bags. Upon the open plain they considered for a moment the strange emptiness of death and then turned to the north. It was Tomas who noticed that Sil had disappeared. Loudly he called name but his hail when unanswered. At all four directions she was nowhere to be seen.
"Where has that girl gone now?" asked Gremorgan.
Tomas pointed to the rise in the ground. "She was on the crest of the rise ahead only a few moments ago. She must have seen something and moved on to have a closer look."
"Shouldn't she have let us know what she was doing first?" questioned Mallen angrily.
Tomas smiled and shrugged his shoulders. "I think that Sil has a mind of her own, and currently no motivation to talk or listen to anyone. I fear that in quieter times her household must have been a nightmare."
Gremorgan laughed, and then made for the higher ground. Although the plain was a wide expanse of open ground they were now close enough to the edges of the Black Hills to find a series of low undulations rolling towards the north. Upon a rise almost a kilometre ahead Mallen could see the diminutive form of Sil waving her arms towards them.
"Well I was right about one thing." said Tomas. "She has found something."
Gremorgan squinted into the gathering gloom of the dusk and shook his head "Aye, it would seem so, but we had better get moving. The light will only last a few hours more, and it will take some time to reach her position."
As one they started down the slope. Although the distance was less than a kilometre, it took some time to make the rise upon which she waited. The ground proved deceptive in the late afternoon light, its apparent level surface a series of shallow depressions filled with tangled briars. Their quick run soon slowed to a careful negotiation of the vegetation, finding a path through the thickets as they were forced to descend into, and then climb out of the clinging brush. By the time they found a place at the Faeyen's side the twin suns of Arborell were hanging low against the horizon. Sil stood in the face of the setting suns and watched as the three men ran up the hill.
"Well you took your time." she observed as all of the men stooped to recover their breath.
Tomas was the first to answer her.
"You know you could have waited for us. Saved us the need to hurry to catch up."
Sil shrugged her shoulders and turned her back on them. There was something upon the far side of the hill that demanded her attention.
"Perhaps, but you asked me to keep watch and I saw something glinting upon this rise. You can imagine my surprise when I found this..."
She pointed down over the crest of the hill and Tomas followed the line of her outstretched arm into the shadows. Even in the dimming light he could see clearly what she had discovered. Upon the slope, and down into a shallow gully had been discarded a huge amount of equipment; clothing, armour, tents, weapons and food supplies lay in piles, scattered randomly over a wide area. The young Kalborean recognised it immediately as belonging to the Hresh.
"Well this is unexpected." murmured Gremorgan as he stood beside Tomas and looked down into the gully.
"Has there been a battle here?" asked Mallen. It was a question he immediately discounted. There were no bodies and no blood.
"I think," Gremorgan opined. " that we should have a closer look before we rush to any judgement here."
Together they all moved into the shadows of the decline and picked through the discarded belongings. It was apparent to all that no violence had been committed, only a deliberate move to throw down anything not of use to the Hresh. The essential equipment of an entire Warband lay scattered in disarray, and there seemed little reason for it.
"I for one have no idea what this is all about." ventured Mallen. "How can the Hordim maintain their escape if they do not have their gear? It doesn't make sense."
Sil picked up a discarded greave and threw it further down the hill. "I don't know about you, but it seems obvious to me. They now realise that they are being pursued and wish to travel faster, it's as simple as that. I can see no breast-plates or primary weapons here, just what a warrior would not need if it was their intention to make a run for safety. Somewhere ahead they will be moving all the quicker, probably with no more than the food they need for the remainder of their retreat, and the weapons they need to defend themselves. It is going to be very hard to catch them now."
Gremorgan sat on the ground and looked northwards towards the barely visible peaks of the Rift Mountains. "That may well be Sil. It does not explain why they should do it here though. The Hresh aren't stupid, they would have known that something was up when their rearguard did not meet with them at their rendezvous points."
The Dwarvendim pointed to the far mountains. "They are at least seven days from the foothills of the Rift, and it would take at least a further fortnight to traverse the mountains themselves before they are safe. It seems too soon to make a sprint for their own lands. It would have been more effective to wait in ambush and kill whoever might be following. But then the commander of this Crue has shown he has a plan for everything..."
Sil snorted and grabbed up one of the Hordims' discarded packs. Carefully she placed her own few belongings into it and adjusted it to her shoulders.
"Ansolon'Denmar is nothing more than a murderer, one who will still feel the sharp edge of my blades. We can consider this all we want, but as we idle our time here the Warband moves further from our reach. I am not going to wait any longer."
With that the Faeyen turned to the north and began to run. Gremorgan called to her, but she gave no hint of hearing, instead her dark form merged quickly into the gathering darkness and then she was gone.
Tomas shook his head. "That girl is too reckless. It is a wonder that she has survived this long."
Gremorgan nodded and rose from his resting place. "She may well be, but she is also right. If we thought we had seen hard days before, we will look upon what is to come and consider those that have passed as blessings. There is nothing for it now. We must run down the Hresh and do it before they reach the mountains. If we do not their captives will be lost to us."
In the last long shadows of the day the three men made their way down the slope, and then crested another rise. There they found before them the first vestiges of the Black Hills, and the faintest trail of a girl's footprints heading into the darkness. As one they followed.
Three days passed quickly. Under a clear blue sky the three men ran into the north, following the trail left by Sil as she pursued the Hresh. Within a few hours of burying Calmus Truvo they hit the edges of the Black Hills, and then ran the remainder of the night, navigating by the stars and the silver illumination of the twin moons. In those dark hours there was little to be seen of any sign of the Hordim, but in the chill cold of the night they wound their way through a landscape of huge sand-hills and salt-pan flats, hoping that with the rising of the suns the trail of the Warband would be found.
Morning brought with it the realisation that the Black Hills were unlike anything that could be found anywhere else in Kalborea. As Sil had described, the hills were indeed a series of huge sand dunes, marching into the north, devoid of vegetation or water. Against an azure sky the dunes sat dark as tar, comprised of a curious black sand that glistened in the sunlight. It was easy Mallen surmised, to forget that the world had any colour in it when one was deep within the Black Hills. The clear line of the sky found its match against the smooth curves of the dunes, and as the men struggled upon the sands of its marching undulations there was only the diminutive footsteps of the Faeyen before them as a sign of any other life in the world.
It was in the early hours after sunsrise that the men met the trail of the Hordim. The Warband had entered the Black Hills at the same point as themselves, but had veered to the west to take advantage of less arduous ground. In the darkness the men kept to the tracks left by Sil and it was her bootprints that in the light of day turned them to the path of the Hresh.
Between two high dunes the disturbed ground left by many running warriors proved an easy mark of their passing. For only a moment they stopped, searching for any clue that captives still ran with the Warband. They found no sign and continued on, running in the wake of the Hresh, following the churned sands as the Hordim made their way northwards.
In this fashion the men pursued the Hordim over the following days. It became clear as they pursued their quarry that the Hresh knew the terrain well. Keeping to the gullies between high dunes the Warband maintained a path that ran to the north-west, only ascending the dunes themselves where they saw a dip or saddle that did not require great effort to overcome. In this manner they were able to keep a rough track into the north, and find a path that lead them ultimately to the northern edges of the Black Hills.
Beyond the dunes the ground hardened, turning quickly to a scrubland of thick acacia stands scattered within wide fields of hard wiry grasses. For a time they followed the trail of the Hordim before it disappeared completely upon the hard ground. Three days of running had brought them beyond the sand-hills, but with the prospect of travel across open ground before them Gremorgan brought the two brothers to a halt.
"I fear that the trail has dissipated, and that the Hordim have broken up, making their way northwards in smaller groups. It can be the only reason why their sign has been lost to us."
Mallen kneeled upon the hard ground and looked carefully for any evidence of the Warband's passing.
"I can see nothing. Once again it is as if they have simply disappeared." He stood and kicked at the dirt with the toe of his boot.
"It is not surprising though. The ground here is like iron, and there is little plant-life to give witness to the movement of the creatures. Until we can pick up their trail again we will have to guess at their progress."
"What can we do then?" asked Tomas anxiously. "We dare not guess incorrectly or the chase will be lost."
Gremorgan looked at the younger Kalborean and shook his head. "Do not be overly concerned. Do you see the peaks of the mountains ahead?"
He pointed directly into the north and both Tomas and Mallen followed the line of his finger.
"Although the peaks of the Great Rift reside at a greater distance to the north, the summits you see before you are actually those of the Keln'Kraag Mountains. I can tell you for a fact that the Hordim will not enter their shadows, and we can be sure that they will make a heading to the north-west to avoid them. For the moment we should be safe in taking that path ourselves."
Mallen looked at the LoreMaster and saw an opportunity. "Can we not cut through these mountains and try and get ahead of the Hresh?"
Gremorgan shook his head. At the aftermath of the battle upon the Surgis'Ka he had looked into the minds of the Hresh with the Gatheringstone, and had seen fragments of their intentions scattered within the turmoil. He had felt also their dread of the Keln'Kraag.
"There are good reasons why the Hordim do not enter the mountains of the Keln'Kraag, Mallen. It is said that there are nameless beasts roaming the dark places of those ranges, who consider all Beings of this world as easy meals. I have heard also that no-one who enters ever leaves. It would be best that we do not test the truth of such myths."
Both Tomas and Mallen looked carefully at the mountains ahead and then turned to Gremorgan. They had no intention of determining the truth of such fears either.
"To the north-west then?" asked Mallen.
"Aye, to the north-west." responded Gremorgan.
Upon the open plain the men continued their pursuit. Day drew quickly into night, and then passed into a succession of days that took them deep into lonely lands. They stopped only for a few hours of rest per night, and fuelled their pursuit with the Nahla cake of the Hordim. In the midst of their fatigue the silent summits of the Keln'Kraag moved slowly at their right shoulders; watching as the three men struggled against the rigors of the chase. Mallen could not help but sense the malevolence that had come to pervade the air, and which carried itself upon the growing winds. At times he was sure he could hear voices murmuring within the gusts and breezes, urging him to turn back or take dire action against his companions. It was both disturbing and indefinable.
As they rested within the sanctuary of a thick grove of acacia he could almost taste the anger and frustration that filtered its way through the trees.
"How is it that there can be such a feeling of unease here. Are they not just mountains like any other?" he asked.
Gremorgan cut himself a small piece of the Nahla cake and sat back against a gnarled trunk.
"Perhaps it is not the mountains at all. You have been witness to many things on this journey Mallen, and you know that not everything is exactly as it seems. The Hordim fear the mountains, but perhaps their myths are founded on something far less tangible than monsters lurking in the dark."
Mallen did not understand what the LoreMaster meant. Tomas understood even less.
"What do you mean?" he questioned. "What is it that my brother has witnessed that should lead him to believe the world is anything other than what can be seen?"
Mallen grabbed him gently by the arm and made him sit. "Do not worry on that now Tomas. Gremorgan is a man of great knowledge, and you may depend on what he says, but..." he then turned to the Dwarvendim, "what did you mean?"
Gremorgan looked out towards the dark forms of the mountains and replied.
"What I am saying is that all of the mountain ranges of this world hold dangers and the Keln'Kraag is no different. This feeling of brooding unease is something quite strange and completely unlike anything I have felt before. You can feel it working at your confidence, whispering dark warnings in your ear as you travel, telling you softly that danger lies at every turn. I am just wondering if there might be other reasons for its malevolent spirit. Stone itself holds no such properties."
Mallen turned to his brother who smiled weakly. "Well I'm glad he cleared that up. Anyway we should get on the move again. In a few hours it will be sunsrise and we should be able to make some distance before the day grows too old."
Quickly the men organised themselves and returned to the chase. In the cool hours of the night they ran into the northwest, skirting the foothills of the Keln'Kraag until the first rays of dawn broke across the sky. The mountains lay as a massive silhouette to the east, and as they ran a new peak grew upon the horizon ahead of them. Quickly they realised it was not a peak at all but a spire, a huge weathered tower of stone that thrust up from the plain as a needle might rise through a piece of cloth. Separate from the mountains it stood alone on the plains, a solitary landmark at least a day distant from their position, worn by weather and crumbled almost to a state of collapse. About its summit there circled huge flocks of birds, and upon the plain at its base the ground appeared scarred and broken. There was nothing about it that seemed natural.
"What have we found here Gremorgan?" asked Mallen.
Gremorgan considered the towering piece of stone and scratched at his head. "I have never been in these lands before, but I believe this is the Eagle's Reach. How it comes to stand here is unknown to me. I cannot say that I know its purpose, but it might explain a few things."
Carefully he pulled his nightglasses from his bag and peered at the tower for a few moments, then without saying a word put them back in his bag. Without any hint as to what he might have seen he turned back towards the Keln'Kraag. In the light of morning it was possible to see that the mountains now turned to the north-east, and that they had found the far western edge of their reach.
"We must change course now." Gremorgan said thoughtfully. "The mountains veer into the north-east and we must follow their borders still."
"How can you be so sure?" asked Mallen.
Gremorgan pointed at the ground and smiled. "Someone is leaving us a hint, and for the moment it seems prudent to follow."
On the ground Mallen could see an arrow drawn in the hard earth. It pointed along the edge of the mountain range. The Kalborean knelt and inspected the edges of the mark. It was fresh, no more than three hours old.
"Sil." he said as he rose. "She appears disposed to help us even if she cannot abide our tardiness."
"Aye," replied Gremorgan. "I can tell you both freely that I do not trust her, but she has the scent of the Hresh and for the moment it serves our purposes to follow where she leads."
Mallen took another look at the marking and then followed its track into the distance. Ahead stood the monolithic Eagle's Reach. At their right shoulder marched the peaks of the Keln'Kraag, cold and desolate. In the haze of the horizon ahead the insurmountable summits of the Great Rift lifted in jagged lines. Dark grey and snow-capped they were the farthest border of the lands of Men. Anything beyond lay as the domain of the Horde, and Mallen hesitated slightly with the realisation that with each passing hour they were getting closer.
Together the men returned to the chase and for the remainder of that day kept a course into the north-east. At regular intervals further arrows appeared, dug into the iron ground, changing the direction of the party as they followed the border of the mountains. Only when night fell once more did they rest.
A further day passed beneath their pounding feet as they kept to the arrows left by Sil. Slowly the markers changed, turning the men north. By the end of that day they reached the broken ground of the Eagle's Reach and then came to a sudden halt. In the last light of dusk the plain ahead of them stood littered with bodies.
"Down!" hissed Gremorgan as he knelt and drew his axe. Both Mallen and Tomas complied, drawing their own weapons.
Without a word Gremorgan ran forward, the two brothers at his shoulder. Carefully they approached the dark lifeless forms, and discovered quickly that they were Hresh. At least ten warriors lay strewn about the ground, and all had died with their weapons unsheathed.
Mallen ran to the nearest body and pulled the warrior onto its back. The Hresh had no wounds other than the neat line of a dagger cut across its throat. All the other bodies proved to be the same.
"Who could have done this?" asked Mallen. Carefully he checked the ground for sign, but there were few clues to be found.
Tomas had no doubt as to who their foe may have been. He had seen it all before.
"This is Sil's work." he said quietly. "I have seen her dispatch warriors such as these with no concern for either their size or number. I fear that her hatred fuels a cruelty that cannot be easily contained."
"But ten Hresh Tomas, how could a girl achieve such a feat of arms?" Mallen shook his head and turned to Gremorgan.
"I have seen you pondering the nature of the girl. What have you divined of her true identity?"
The Dwarvendim shook his head and considered the lifeless form of the nearest warrior. It was a question he knew the answer to, but one he did not wish to divulge in full just yet.
"I can tell you Mallen that she is no ordinary girl, but then that is probably obvious. I fear though that she has allied herself with us only because it suits her purposes at this time. I would not like to find myself as her enemy if she chose to change her allegiance."
Mallen nodded and looked into the north. "I wonder if we will be finding any more of these." he said to himself as he pondered the bodies of the Hresh.
"If Sil is true to her word there will be many more." answered Tomas.
Together the men returned to their pursuit of the warband. As a brisk wind began to blow from the north they struggled on, first following the scratched markings of Sil, and then the faintest of tracks that began to appear upon the hard ground. By the late afternoon the terrain had also begun to change, the earth proving softer and the hard dirt plain giving way to a wiry grassland interspersed with large areas of thick brush. Within this patchwork the three men ran and in the last rays of daylight found themselves too tired to continue.
"I think that we should take rest." said Gremorgan. "The weather grows cold and this bushland will provide both the fuel and the cover for a small fire."
Both Mallen and Tomas could not think of a better reason to halt, and in the failing light of the day foraged for enough dry wood. For days they had survived only on Nahla cake and their night's meal would be no different, but the fire was a welcome balm to cold limbs and steaming breath. Together they made their camp and rested.
About them the world turned to sleep. Overhead the stars appeared quickly in the sky, myriad pinpoints of light that would shimmer bright until the rising of the moons later in the evening. Upon the open bushland Mallen could see the dark tower of the Eagle's Reach in the west, and the march of the Keln'Kraag mountains at his right hand. Even in the darkness he could see that they remained an unbroken barrier rising into the north, before turning again to the north-west. It seemed that they had a long way yet to go.
With their fire blazing within a circle of stones Gremorgan turned to Mallen and indicated he wished to speak privately. Tomas was lying on his bedding, and seemed too tired to notice as the two men stood and moved a short distance into the darkness.
"What is it Gremorgan?" asked Mallen.
"Remember earlier when you mentioned the strange coldness of the Keln'Kraag." answered the LoreMaster.
Mallen nodded for he felt the same dread as a constant insistence at his back. "Do you know where it comes from?"
Gremorgan pulled his nightglasses from one of his bags and gave them to the Kalborean.
"You might recall that I was not so sure that the mountains themselves were the cause of the ill-feeling. Look towards the Eagle's Reach and you will see the real reason for our discomfort."
Mallen put the glasses to his eyes and sucked in his breath. About the summit of the dark monolith swarmed thousands of spectral forms. In the darkness he could not tell if they were indeed solid or trails of thick vapour, but all were spiralling in a chaotic tangle about the stone edifice.
"What in Arborell are they?" he whispered. Almost as soon as he laid eyes upon them he could feel their attention moving towards him, as if he had somehow alerted them of his presence.
"Remember as we waited for the Hresh to move on from the Taal in the Meshaal Forests that we spoke of the Powers of the world?" Gremorgan took the nightglasses from Mallen and surveyed the scene for himself. "Well here can be found the servants of the third Power. For a reason I do not know the Eagle's Reach allows them to find a path into the world of the living, and it is a curious thing indeed."
"You see Mallen these are Dreyadim, servants of the Dreya Tree, Master of the Underworld. Each of the shades that you see circling the Reach are reflections of the scourged souls of Hordim who have been deemed unworthy to return to the lands of the living. They are thralls to the Dreya and cannot be released until they have proven themselves. It is a fate that may last the life of the world itself."
"And what is the Dreya? Can its servants harm us?" It was a question looming large in Mallen's mind as he watched the frenetic chaos of the swarming vapours.
Gremorgan took the nightglasses from Mallen and placed them back in his bag. "On your last question I can tell you that the Dreyadim have no power in the world of the Living and therefore are not to be feared. They can no more harm you as you might harm an early morning mist, but they are not to be discounted lightly either. No servant of one of the Powers should ever be dismissed, for it is impossible to tell what their purposes may be. We can only leave them to their devices, and hope that they leave us in peace."
The Dwarvendim turned and looked to the eastern horizon. Against the dark masses of the Keln'Kraag the soft glow of moonlight lay as a growing aura along the silhouetted peaks. For a moment he stood silently then continued.
"The Dreya Tree is something difficult for Men such as ourselves to fully comprehend. It is a manifestation of the power of EarthMagic that only affects the lives of the Hordim. Their fear of it orders their lives, and it is the Code of conduct it created that gives purpose to their existence. I believe it is difficult to underestimate how much the Dreya has shaped the way the world is today. But it was not always so."
"In ancient times there was only the Silvan Tree and the Shan'duil, maintaining the balance of life in the world and forging the powers of EarthMagic that have become so intertwined with our own existence. For millennia such was the way of things until the coming of the Trell. It was the meddling of the Trell; and their creation of the Hordim, that forced the Silvan Tree to create a reflection of itself, a Power concerned only with death. The Trell created the Hordim and under their dominion the Horde had but one purpose; to live in slavery and tend the needs of their Masters. With the rebellion that destroyed the Trell all control over the Horde dissipated, and without purpose or leadership they turned upon each other."
"In that time of turmoil great numbers of the Horde died, the sparks of their existence set free in a world that had no place for them. It was the Silvan Tree that saw the need first, and created the Dreya to take those souls and turn them to a more effective purpose. In doing so the Underworld was brought into being and the Code instilled into the spark of all those who passed under the Dreya's gaze."
"Just as the Silvan Tree brings life and hope into the world so it is the Dreya Tree that takes it from the world and reforges the sparks of creation that they might be reborn. It is the Dreya that holds dominion over the Underworld, and it is that Power that tests all who stand before her. If a Being is found wanting they suffer the torment of Dissolution and become servants to the Tree itself. It is an end no Hordim can endure willingly."
"And these Dreyadim are the reason for the oppressive malevolence of this place?" whispered Mallen. Without the glasses he could not see the swirling vapours but he could feel their presence keenly.
"Yes." replied Gremorgan. "The Eagle's Reach is the focus of their energy, but it echoes off the mountains of the Keln'Kraag like a mirror does bright sunlight. There may well be monsters to be found in the dark places of those mountains, but I believe it is the Dreyadim that draw the shivers down our spines. It will be good to move on with the morning, and put distance between ourselves and this place."
Mallen agreed. Quietly they returned to the camp to find Tomas sound asleep, the fire a pile of dying embers threatening to extinguish itself from neglect. Carefully the Kalborean added extra fuel and urged the blaze back into flame. Around him the wind began to build further and under a clear sky of stars he settled to find what sleep he could. For a moment though he lay beneath his covers and considered the nature of his world. He did not know if it was within their power to find and rescue Shemwe. It was his hope that they would all find their way back to Callenfrey and the life they had lived before, but he knew he could never look at the rolling hills again without wondering what secrets might lie beneath them. Not for the last time did he think that it was more than a simple Metalsmith should have to consider. With the fire sputtering in the gusts he pulled his blanket over himself and fell into sleep.
End of Episode 13
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