Bremmy poked the dying fire with the handle of his axe, and watched as a few sparks broke free of the ash. There wasn't much life left in the fire, and it was bitterly cold. It seemed strange, he thought to himself, that only a few hours earlier he'd been complaining about the heat- but Rhutalath was like that. Intensely hot during the day, despite the fact that winter was nearly upon them, yet unbearably cold at night. He shivered, and pulled his fur cloak tighter around his shoulders. He watched the last wood in the fire bending in the heat, occasionally popping violently. He was very much aware of his boredom. It was too dark to travel, yet too early to sleep. He poked the fire again, dislodging a branch which brought the entire fire in on itself. He cursed as the last ember was smothered.
He looked up at his companions, none of which seemed to have noticed the fire go out. Morandor, the old wizard, was sat cross-legged facing him, studying a red leather-covered book intently. Next to him was Grendel, Morandor's apprentice, virtually mirroring Morandor's posture. He too was reading a book, a hefty volume with pages yellowed by age. The two wizards turned their pages at exactly the same time. It would have been comical to Bremmy if he wasn't so bored. Grendel hadn't realized how much like the old Wizard he had become. It was uncanny, in a way. Bremmy remembered when he had first met Grendel, only a year before. He had been so much different back down, a struggling apprentice, naive in the ways of the world. Now his magical prowess was increasing in leaps, and Grendel was gaining a reputation as a skilled adventurer. He had already been to more places in twelve months than Bremmy had his whole life. And he'd met Elves. And Dwarves. That was one reason he'd wanted to accompany them on this trip- Grendel spoke with wonder of all the things he'd seen, and Bremmy wanted the chance to see them for himself. He shivered again as an icy wind swept down from the mountains, blowing his hair in his eyes and blowing his cloak off his shoulders. He wrestled with his cloak, whilst glancing over at Grendel and Morandor again. Both seemed undisturbed by the cold, and their robes were still, despite the wind. Bremmy sighed, and wished he was a wizard.
He wondered briefly whether he should wake Maree. She was curled up next to Grendel, asleep, wrapped in the apprentice's cloak. After all, he had no need of it. She sighed softly as the wind blew around her, covering her blue dress in yellow autumn leaves. Of all his companions, Maree was the one he knew least, even less than the enigmatic Morandor. She was friendly enough, but she hadn't lived in Doromir long, and arrived only shortly before Bremmy had left the village to work on his father's galleon, The Ke'Rana. Yet Mep and Grendel knew her well, so he guessed it was about time he made the effort to befriend her properly. He shook away that thought; if he woke her, she was likely to give him an earful rather than friendship- she had the tongue of a demon if you upset her.
His stomach rumbled loudly, and he cursed. Maree seemed to stir in her sleep and he wondered if the rumbling had disturbed her. By Bri'ginza, he was hungry! He was cold, hungry and bored. He picked up a stone, and idly began to roll it in his hand. He wondered whether he should go hunting- that would probably solve all his problems. Yet he didn't want to leave his companions alone. It was probably stupid- Morandor could certainly look after himself, and he was sure Grendel probably had a few tricks of his own up his sleeve. And Maree.....well, even Bremmy wouldn't risk a skirmish with Maree. But still he didn't like leaving them. This was Rhutalath, a dangerous country indeed, especially for wizards. He sighed in resignation and tossed the stone in the fire.
Bremmy yelped as the stone ricocheted off another stone, and he squirmed as it collided solidly with Morandor's forehead. The old wizard dropped his book, and scowled at Bremmy.
"If you're bored Wilhaet Brem, I suggest you find a pit of demons to throw yourself down!" Morandor scoulded. "Or better still, go and help Master Mep to collect the firewood." he said.
"Sorry," Bremmy murmured, glancing over at Grendel. Grendel grinned at him, putting the book in front of his face to stifle a laugh. Bremmy grinned back, happy that at least something could get through Morandor's magic. He stood up, bracing himself against the wind. If Morandor insisted, who was he to refuse? Where had Mep got to? He'd been gone nearly an hour. Mep was the worst person to send for firewood- he was a half-dryad and, worse, a druid. He had a dozen different laws for each tree. According to Mep, Oak could never be burned- to do so would be to invoke a curse. Eldar could only be burned on the full moon. Ash, only on days sacred to some primitive and all-powerful nature spirit. Rowan, only on days when it rained frogs. Well, maybe they weren't the real rules, but Bremmy had grown bored after the first four and five, and stopped listening. Not that that stopped Mep; the little man could talk for ever, and he'd happily recited over a hundred trees before Bremmy screamed in frustration, downed his ale, and hurriedly left the Wizard's Rest inn. Worse, apparently you couldn't take wood off a tree, it had to be naturally fallen. And even then it involved some bizarre ritual in which you asked the tree's permission to take its fallen branches. Bremmy wasn't sure what the ritual entailed, but he was sure it would include a lot of chanting, nudity and tree-hugging. He smiled. Mep had been gone an hour, and he'd probably have only collected three branches.
Bremmy unhooked his axe and gave it an experimental swing as he reached the edge of the forest. With any luck, he might chance upon a deer or a boar whilst he was here. With even more luck, he might not run into Mep!
Mep sat on the river-bank, his feet dangling in the cold water. He smiled happily to himself, humming a small tune he used to sing to his sheep, and watching the ripples expand outwards from his feet. He was glad to be back in the forest. When he was back in Doromir, he used to spend most of his days sat in the nearby woods, climbing trees, or just lying in a glade with the sun on his face. But since they'd been forced to leave, urgently following Zardock, he'd had little time to just sit and commune with the trees. He was the first to admit that the forest was strange- he didn't recognize a lot of the trees, most native only to Rhutalath's warmer climes, and most seemed a lot less welcoming to humans- but it was serene. This forest was bigger than any of the small copses around Doromir, and rarely visited by Man. It was vast, it was untouched and, it seemed to Mep, it was magical.
He looked at the small pile of firewood he'd collected. He was a little nervous of it- most of the trees were new to him, and he wasn't sure if they were safe to burn. He feared the curse of the trees' spirits. But he feared Bremmy more, and Bremmy hated the cold. Slowly, whistling to himself, he stood up, water dripping off his feet. He supposed he'd better hurry back- if he was gone too long, his friends would all be bickering and arguing. Without Mep there to brighten their spirits, they'd probably be throttling each other. He picked up his boots with one hand, and lifted the small pile of wood with his other. There'd be plenty of time to dry his feet in front of the fire- for now he'd enjoy the feel of the grass between his toes.
Distractedly, Mep made his way back to the camp. He found it hard to pay attention to what he was doing- everything here was new to him- the sounds, the smell, the different shades. He found himself mesmerized by a new variety of fern, or a strange blue-feathered song-bird. Even the moss seemed new and exciting. He couldn't wait to tell his friends about it- they loved to hear about his discoveries. Especially Bremmy. He could just picture Bremmy's face, as he told him about the reddish moss. He smiled at the thought.
His musings were interrupted by a noise. Not a loud noise, but still Mep was familiar with the usual sounds of the forest. A branch breaking, as if it was stood on. To confirm his belief, the trees suddenly seemed agitated and excited. Mep found it difficult to understand these strange trees, but he got the general gist- there were three people approaching. The trees seemed fearful, and a little angry at being disturbed. Mep tried to calm them, talking to them softly, but a sudden flight of blue-feathered birds heralded the strangers' approach, and the trees retreated into themselves.
Mep peered around curiously, hiding behind the trunk of a great conifer. He smiled to himself. It had to be his friends. They probably missed him, and had come looking for him. The forest was quite isolated, and they'd seen very few houses in the past few days. It had to be his friends. He let out a whoop of glee- he would surprise them.
Mep placed both his palms on the trunk of the conifer, and pressed gently onto the smooth grey bark. At the same time, he reached out with his mind, projecting his thoughts toward the spirit within. The skin of his hands began to take on the same rough texture of the bark, and, in a moment of pure fascination, Mep realized that the exciting red moss was actually growing between his fingers. Slowly Mep began to merge with the tree. His hands disappeared inside the trunk, enveloped completely by the large pine, and followed swiftly by the rest of his body. Mep was now inside the tree, part of the tree, and linked with the forest in a way that no human could ever hope to achieve.
They were closer now, he could hear their voices. He frowned as he listened- connected as he was to the forest, he could hear them clearly, and sense the trees' apprehension. They were speaking a language he didn't understand. They weren't his friends. Curious, he cast his mind out, transferring himself to another tree nearer to the group. Peering cautiously out, he saw them in the distance, picking their way round the large roots of a gnarled oak. It was difficult to see in the gloom of the forest, but he noticed they were wearing black armour, with long trailing cloaks. More worryingly, the moonlight reflected off something metallic in their hands. Swords. Whoever they were, they were ready for trouble. Mep watched the three men as they headed in his direction, their heads looking around for any trouble. They were whispering. Mep looked towards the camp in the distant trees. Luckily the glow of the fire seemed to have died down- that was lucky, as it would surely have been noticed by the soldiers. Soldiers, that was what he'd convinced himself they were; with their armour and swords, who else could they be.
Mep retreated back into the tree. Morandor had been adamant that they weren't to be seen. Rhutalath was never hospitable to foreigners, but more importantly, they were ruthless to magic users. According to the old wizard, they had an uncanny ability to detect magic being used. He wondered if that was what had brought these soldiers to the forest. He had no choice- he had to get back and warn his companions. Leaving the firewood where he left it, he began to head back to the camp, via the trees, just as the forest warned him that another man was approaching.
Bremmy stopped and crouched as the deer looked his way. He said a silent oath- he was out of practice. All that time on the ship had marred his hunting skills. Slowing his breathing, he waited, hoping the deer would return to its grazing. He praised his good luck to find a deer in a forest like this, especially so late at night. Maybe the gods were smiling on him after all. The deer looked around once more, trotted a couple of steps, then bent its head to graze at the long reeds at the foot of a large pine. Slowly, Bremmy crept forward, his axe raised, ready to be thrown. The deer seemed to have settled now, having a last snack before it retired to the depths of the forest. Bremmy stroked his moustache, as he always did when he was concentrating. The trick was to time it just right.
Judging his moment, Bremmy leapt out, screaming his fierce battle-call. One of the tricks was to scare the deer senseless, and kill it in the moment of confusion. The deer looked at him, its eyes full of shock, before turning to run. Bremmy smiled and brought his axe back, preparing for the kill. Concentrating solely on the running deer he brought his arm forward swiftly, hurling the axe with lethal precision.
Unfortunately the precision was about three feet to the left of the deer, owing to Bremmy getting his boot stuck in the raised oak of a tree. His foot stayed where it was, his momentum carried the rest of him forward , and he landed face first in a pile of yellow and red leaves. His axe landed in a thorn bush a short distance away, as the deer fled. Muttering a line of expletives, Bremmy stood up and brushed the forest's waste off his tartan-kilt and flesh. He was definitely out of practice. He marched, full of pride, towards the thorn bush, knowing he had lost his prey. His plaited hair was in disarray, and he fumbled with it as he reached deep into the bush. He groped around for a while, unable to see the axe in the bush's thick branches. He swore a couple of times as the thorns ripped at his skin. Eventually, his groping hand found the handle and he grabbed the axe out of the undergrowth. He allowed himself a little smug smile. He'd found his axe- it was only a small success, but he needed one right now.
"Lower the axe."
Bremmy turned around, curious that someone had spoken to him in his own native tongue. He turned into the gaze of three dark faces, all dressed in black plate armour. All of them carried long blades, and their cuirasses were emblazoned with a white eagle. He swore again- three men had managed to sneak up on him- he really was out of practice.
Bremmy responded in common tongue, unwilling to speak Mor'ha to men who obviously weren't his kind. "Did you see a deer run past?" he asked.
The three men looked at each other, before one, obviously the leader by the gold trim on his armour, took a step forward. "It is rare to find one of you Bri'kana in these parts. Where have you come from?" his tone was insolent, and suggested that Bremmy was little more than dog.
Bremmy bristled at the 'Bri'kana' insult. "From out of that bush, there." he said, just as insolent. "And which whore did you come from?" Bremmy smiled.
The leader's face didn't change, nor did his tone. "Ursani dog!" he said contemptuously. "We should have wiped your people out when we had the chance. Now tell me where you came from, and why you're out here, far from your pit!" His accent was strange, and Bremmy had a little trouble making out the words.
"I am not 'Ursani.'" he said. "I am Lurpani. I am a citizen of Ardadain, and at the moment I'm quite calm." he said threateningly. "As for why I'm here- I came to murder three hundred of your men and rape three hundred of your women, so I can break this stupid curse." He was cursed; that was it. That was why he couldn't kill a stupid deer.
One of the guards looked shocked at that, but the other smirked. The captain growled. Bremmy suspected he hated all Morrim, all foreigners, and probably everything else. "We are looking for two wizards. They're around here somewhere. Are they with you?" The captain's tone was patronizing, as if he was speaking to a child.
"Yes," Bremmy said. "They're right here in my pocket."
The smirking guard scowled at Bremmy. "Captain, there's a town ten miles south of here. Stonegate, I believe. Lets take him there- there are a group of Inquisitors there; I'm sure they'll make him talk!"
The captain shook his head, and pulled out a knife. "No need for that, Juan, there's more than one way to make a Morrim Demon talk." He held up the knife, grinning wickedly.
Bremmy was beginning to get annoyed now. "I'm not a Demon." he said, smiling.
Suddenly Bremmy's axe swung round in an arc, ripping into the captain's throat, and pinning him by his neck to a tree. The captain gargled something incomprehensible, his eyes went wide, and then his head slumped forward. Blood dripped from his neck down the steel blade of Bremmy's axe and the trunk it was imbedded in. The body hung lifeless. "But I am a Morrim." Bremmy added.
The two guards crossed themselves quickly, whilst Bremmy grinned at them, his eyebrows raised.
"You assaulted one of his Eminence's Storm Crows!!" The non-smirking guard exclaimed. "The penalty for that is death!" He was backing away as he said it.
"So, the turkey has a tongue!" Bremmy smiled. "And I didn't assault him, I killed him. What's the penalty for that?"
The smirking guard moved, his sword raised, and leapt at Bremmy. He was fast, but not as fast as a Morrim warrior. Bremmy ducked under the guard's sword, grabbed his arm and twisted it until he heard a snap. The guard yelped in pain and dropped the sword. As Bremmy twisted round the other guard dived at him. Bremmy picked up the dropped sword and brought it up quickly, fending off the attack. The forest echoed with the sound of the swords meeting. Swiftly, Bremmy pushed his weight into his sword, forcing the guard's blade upwards. Bremmy then rammed his fist into the guards unprotected neck. Momentarily stunned, the guard faltered. Bremmy took advantage of the inactivity by thrusting the sword into his throat. The guard slumped to the floor, his back grazing along the trunk of the tree which held his captain.
The guard with the broken arm had pulled out a knife and was now running towards Bremmy. He wasn't smirking anymore. Bremmy smirked though, just to annoy him, and pulled on his own sword. It wouldn't budge. It was stuck in the dead man's throat. He pulled again, and it shifted, but it was too slow. The guard dived at Bremmy, his knife flailing violently. The momentum of the charge knocked Bremmy over, and then the guard was upon him. Bremmy hit him in the face, struggling to get up. The guard's head went back as his nose exploded, but the weight of the steel armour kept Bremmy pinned. The knife came down and slashed Bremmy's forearm. Bremmy hit him in the face again, and again, feeling bone crunch under his fist, but the guard still fought. He rammed the knife down towards Bremmy's head, missing only because the Morrim had half-blinded him with the punches to the face. The guard's leg moved quickly, pinning Bremmy's only free arm. Bremmy struggled but he couldn't move the steel-clad man. He was helpless. He watched, fascinated, as the guard raised the knife, watched it hovering over his face. He saw in the man's eyes, that the moment had come, and he watched the knife plummet towards his face.
The knife never made contact. The guard squealed in shock and indignation as two arms stretched out of the tree and grabbed the guard by the throat. Flailing wildly, the guard looked around wide-eyed, not understanding why the tree had suddenly sprouted limbs. His wonderings were cut short as the tree opened up and his head was dragged inside. His screams muffled as the trunk began to envelop his head, and Bremmy stood up, a little dazed, wondering what was happening. The guard's desperate screams stopped as the trunk closed itself on the man's neck, severing the head from the rest of the body. The decapitated body flopped to the floor, its blood oozing over the yellowish grass. Its head was no where to be seen.
Bremmy shook his head, wondering if he'd really seen what he thought he had. He walked over to the tree and looked at it quizzically. There was no sign of any opening, or any arms. Yet the guard's body was there, headless. He frowned and felt around the trunk. It seemed whole enough.
Bremmy leaped as a two hands grabbed his shoulders. He turned around quickly, fear on his face, to stare into the grinning face of Mep. "How did y...What..?"
Mep smiled again.
"You scared me half to death!" Bremmy said.
"That was pretty much the point." Mep grinned again.
Bremmy nodded, surprisingly happy to see the man. It was strange, he thought, that even here in a forest, Mep's smell of damp compost seemed out of place. "Nice work." he said simply, indicating the headless corpse.
"You too." said Mep. He looked at the carnage, of a man pinned to a tree, and two corpses at its base. He squirmed slightly. "Did you have to axe the tree?" he asked.
Bremmy smiled, and yanked the axe out of the trunk. "Sorry." He said simply. "How long were you there?"
"The whole time. Well, I jumped around between trees for a while. Especially when that axe struck."
"And you didn't think of helping me?" Bremmy asked, though in truth he knew Mep had.
"You seemed to have it covered." he said simply. "Nice hunting, by the way."
Bremmy cursed. "Shut up." He had been silently hoping that Mep hadn't noticed his failure to kill a deer. That was a pipe dream- Mep noticed everything in a forest. "Hope you've got plenty of firewood. We were forced to burn your staff!!" Bremmy said, cutting off a bit off the captain's cloak with his axe. He wrapped the rag around his bleeding forearm.
Mep blinked a few times, before realizing that Bremmy was joking. He smiled. "Guess we'd better hurry back," he said, whilst picking up the firewood from where he'd left it. "We'd better warn Morandor."
"One minute." Bremmy said. He was hungry, and the hunting hadn't gone as well as he planned. Maybe the guards had had some food on them. He knelt down next to the first corpse, and began rummaging through the packs on his belt. "What do we do about the bodies?" he asked, whilst he worked, nodding towards the other two corpses.
"Leave them for the wolves." Mep said, simply, putting on his boots.
"There are wolves here?!?" Bremmy asked, a look of fear on his eyes.
"Of course." Mep said.
Bremmy quickened his search. He hated wolves.