child_m.gif (3208 bytes)ale of Light

CHAPTER 10: PREY

 

Alyssa carefully applied the salve to the old man’s head, being careful not to waste any of the rare fluid. The man groaned as the cold liquid was applied to the wound.

"It’d be best if you kept him here," she said to the man’s wife, a fidgeting old woman named Clora. "Don’t let him get up until the wound is completely healed. I’ll leave you the rest of the Druid’s Hope- make sure you apply it daily."

The old woman nodded, smiling maniacally. "Thank you, thank you!" she said. "How much do I owe you?"

Alyssa shook her head. "Nothing," she said simply. She hadn’t left the safe confines of Salasia in order to make a profit- she merely wanted to help people. Besides, Ira, the woman who had apprenticed her, provided Alyssa with accommodation, and ample food. "It’s my job."

"You must let me give you something. Even if only to cover the cost of the berries," Clora insisted.

Alyssa sighed, and leant heavily on the wooden frame of the bed; the wound had been sceptic, and it had taken most of her power to heal it. She felt a little exhausted. She had been warned on numerous occasions not to use her gift in Rhutalath; the locals, apparently, frowned on such talents. Yet Alyssa refused to believe that the Rhutalathians would fear such a gift. After all, she saved lives and helped the sick- surely that could not be misconstrued as ‘evil.’ At first she’d been careful, using her power only when really necessary, but no trouble had ever come from it. So lately, she’d used it more and more frequently. No trouble, so far, but it did leave her exhuasted!

"Maybe just one of your bottles then. Some of your good stuff," Alyssa replied with a smile. Clora and Lomez Findera owned a particularly fine vineyard just outside Ost-Firir, and the wine was reputedly excellent. Alyssa had not tasted good wine she had left Salasia. Nor had she eaten decent food. But that was the price for travelling, she guessed. She didn’t regret leaving Salasia, for all its fine foods and handsome men; she had felt trapped and confined in the city, and longed to see the outside world. Yet people beyond the Dolen Vale seemed a lot less.....jovial. There were festivals and fiestas in Rhutalath, true, but they all seemed subdued in comparison to those of the silver city. Women were discouraged from drinking, and sex was positively frowned upon. A strange culture, but who was she to judge?

"Of course, of course," said Clora excitedly, happy to be repaying her debt. "Wait right here, I’ll see what I can find in the cellar. A good bottle of 54, no doubt- one of our best years." Clora went out of the room, moving with a speed that astonished Alyssa, and a few seconds later she could hear the woman’s heavy footfall on the wooden cellar stairs. Alyssa smiled to herself, and slowly began to pack away her things into her small leather bag. Lomez groaned slightly on the bed, but didn’t open his eyes. Alyssa liked Clora- she was eager to please, and eternally optimistic. That seemed to be rare in this country. Most people were sceptical and paranoid and, worse, didn’t seem to have any qualms about lying and hurting others. In the two months she’d been here, Alyssa had had her pockets picked twice, had been mugged of all her possessions, had been assaulted in an alley and been lied to on many occasions. The people here were corrupt, for the most part. Didn’t they have some kind of religion or belief or anything, to dictate proper behaviour? In Salasia dishonesty or violence of any kind were major sins, and if you tried to steal you’d find yourself hung and left to rot away on Halan’s Rock. Still, she’d left Salasia to experience other cultures, and she couldn’t complain if those cultures were not as civilized as she’d like.

Still, perhaps it was time to move on, maybe see another country. Ardadain perhaps? She’d heard great things about that land. Or maybe Ilmanor, the original motherland of the Salasians?

Once she’d packed the things away, she stopped to regard herself in the tall dressing-mirror the Finderans kept in their chamber. She frowned at the image that looked back at her; in Salasia she had had long red hair, which reached to her lower back, and beautiful white robes, revealing but comfortable. Since arriving in Rhutalath she had been forced to change her appearance; her clothes were considered outrageous and indecent in this pious land, and she had adopted more suitable attire in order to escape the lusty leers of the deprived Rhutalathian males. Even her long red hair had attracted attention, and so she had dyed it black and cut it short. She laughed at the irony of all the effort she made to escape lustful glares- in Salasia, it was not unknown to walk around the streets naked, if one so desired. And if a man found her attractive, then so what? Salasians had very few taboos about sex, and didn’t frown on a woman enjoying herself. That last thought reminded her that now, in the Dolen Vale, they’d be celebrating Founder’s Day. There’d be great festivals in the streets, and a procession around the vale, and all-night drinking. And afterwards, the younger Salasians would all gather around the great lake, and join with their loved ones.

Alyssa suddenly felt homesick, and cursed herself. When she’d been in Salasia she’d hated everything about the isolated lifestyle, and now she’d left she wanted nothing more than to be back there. Stupid girl, she chided herself, if you ever work out what it is you want, you’ll be dangerous!

The sound of the door opening made Alyssa turn, expecting Clora to have returned. Instead, in the doorway, stood a man dressed in Inquisitor robes, a large black sword in his hand. He smiled at her, a ghastly grin with no teeth. One eye was covered with a patch, and he had a vicious scar down his cheek. Alyssa gasped. It was Francisco.

"Well, well, girl- I knew you’d give yourself away sooner or later. You’ve been quite clever, I’ll give you that."

Alyssa backed away, towards the window, wondering what she could possibly have done wrong. And how long had Francisco been an Inquisitor? She had seen him a few times, in the local inn, regarding her. And once he had come into Ira’s with a nasty sword wound on his arm, and Alyssa had healed it. He’d never mentioned that he was an Inquisitor.

"Master Francisco," Alyssa stammered, dropping a quick courtesy, "I had no idea you were part of the priesthood. How can I help you?" Alyssa was sure she had done nothing wrong, but the Inquisition rarely made social visits.

Francisco smiled again, showing his toothless maw. "You’ve been a naughty girl, Alyssa. I’ve been watching you. You’re a witch. A dirty witch."

Alyssa began to panic, wondering if the Inquisitor had been offended by her using her power to heal. But why would helping someone be seen as such a bad thing? "Master Francisco, have I done something to offend you? Tell me, if I have, and I’ll do my best to make it right." Alyssa dropped to her knees and looked up at the Inquisitor deploringly. Behind the priest she could see four men in black armour.

"That’s a start, yes it is my pretty," said Francisco, staring down at her. "On your knees, yes. A start." The priest slashed with his sword suddenly, cutting the straps of Alyssa’s dress. She gasped, first in fear, then in embarrassment as her dress fell down, displaying her breasts. She suddenly recognized the look in Francisco’s eyes- it was the same look that all men seemed to give her. She struggled to pull the dress back up, but the priest pushed her arm back with his blade.

"Please," Alyssa said, "Mistress Clora will be back in a minute," she said. "And Ira will be worried about me."

"You dirty witch," Francisco sneered, "Neither of them will give you another thought. You are tainted, my dirty one, cursed, and they know it. Everyone knows it."

"What can I do to make it right?" Alyssa said, holding back a sob. "I just want to help people." Alyssa looked to the doorway where she’d left her staff, and wondered whether she could get to it before the priest hacked her down. She thought better of it. Besides, she couldn’t strike a priest. And violence went against Melina’s Teachings.

"Nothing, my naughty girl, nothing. You cannot make it right. The horned one has you! But I can make it right. I can do it for you. All you have to do is come with me." Francisco smiled, running the cold point of his sword slowly around her breast. Alyssa went still, trying not to breath lest the sword cut her. "But why should I help you, witchy? What’s in it for me?"

Alyssa stared stubbornly up at him, her meekness and fear replaced with anger and embarrassment. How dare he treat her like this! What gave him the right. "I do not want your help, Francisco, nor am I going anywhere with you," she spat. "Leave me be, I have people to help!"

"And how do you help them, whore?" Francisco said. "Little dirty witch. How do you help them? Like this....." The Inquisitor grabbed Alyssa’s head, pulling her towards his groin. Alyssa, angry, brought her head forward hard, colliding her forehead with the priest’s groin.

The Inquisitor paled, and slumped to the floor, though he was laughing insanely. Alyssa jumped up quick, and ran towards the window. The sound of swords being drawn behind reminded her of the four armoured men. No time to even open the window! Covering her face with her arms, she dived through the second-floor window, feeling her limbs sting as shards of glass ripped at her skin. She fell to the ground with a grunt, landing in a pile of broken glass, but managed to roll as she hit the floor. It still hurt like hell though, and she yelped as she twisted her ankle. She hadn’t the time to heal herself though, and broke into a limping run even as the glass still cascaded down.

Behind her she could still hear the priest laughing loudly, though she didn’t turn to see if he was watching her. She had to get back to town, and then get away. Maybe Ira would help. She ran, gritting her teeth against the pain, and trying to salvage some kind of decency from the dress. She cursed herself- you’ve lived in this damned country too long, if you’re more worried about decency than staying alive! To hell with the lot of them! I’m Salasian, not some uptight Rhutalathian mare! To hell with them, to hell with their food, to hell with their chastity crap! And to hell with a boring life! She laughed, as she ran, feeling free for the first time in a month.

And behind her the priest laughed. "Run, my naughty little witch. You won’t get far!! I’ll catch you, and when I do you’ll beg me to help you!"

 

The sun began to climb high in the sky, bathing the land in an intense heat. Even this late in the year, the Rhutalathian sun was hot. Maree stopped at the top of the crest she had been climbing, to catch her breath. She looked around at the landscape, a lot greener now than the dry plains of the Rhutalathian outskirts. No longer were they plagued by dust-storms and harsh winds, nor by wide shade-less plains; the countryside had become a lot more inviting, and the long grass and tall pines reminded her of the Mir Valley, and she felt a sudden pang of home-sickness. She had been travelling for nearly a month now, every night sleeping rough in the fields or, if lucky, in a strange inn, where strange foods and wines were served. She missed Doromir, and the farms, and the Wizard’s Rest and smiling Mister Grumm. She missed good Kingshead beer, and Mir Valley Cheese and the tender mutton that used to come by wagon from Dudley. She sighed, and sat down, resting her feet.

Grendel stood a little further along the ridge, staring down at the bulk of the Forest of Mists; they had entered its outskirts a few leagues back, as indicated by the tall pines which grew haphazardly around them. But the main part of the forest lay before them, a league or two away. Morandor was at the bottom of the ridge, examining some root or other, and having a serious discussion with Mep. Bremmy was nowhere to be seen. Probably hunting again. Maree didn’t care where he was right now- she was too tired, and in too much pain to feign interest. She pulled at one of her long thigh boots, eager to take it off. The thick leather resisted at first, before sliding off quickly, and throwing Maree backwards. She sat back up, muttering a string of curses, before examining her poor foot. All red, and blistered. ‘Stupid girl,’ she thought to herself. She’d decided on heels and leather boots simply because she’d liked the look of them, and because she’d thought the journey was nearly over. She hadn’t considered the impracticalities of actually walking more than a few streets in them. Her feet were swollen, her hamstrings ached, and her thighs chafed where the leather had grated at her. Not to mention the wound in her thigh from Stonegate. That was healing well, but it still hurt in the cold chill of night.

She looked around desperately for a monastery. For the first day of their journey, she had seen nearly a dozen, standing proudly atop hilltops, or nestled luxuriously in small valleys. They had even managed to convince the monks of one such monastery to let them sleep there, that night, and there they had eaten well and slept in simple but comfortable beds. The monks had even helped to heal their injuries, and had done wonders with Maree’s thigh. She had stayed up talking most of the night with a young Monk called Rinos, who had taught her all about his religion, and a strange man called Kalnus. At first she had listened merely out of politeness, enjoying the jealous looks that Grendel shot towards them, but in the end she had become fascinated by the tales, and Rinos’s enthusiasm. Yet, she had been disappointed to learn that the monks had very little in the way of goods, and certainly no shoes they could sell her. Which is why she was looking, desperately, for another monastery, one which might have some kind of footwear for sale, or a perhaps cobbler who could make some. Yet she had been disappointed so far. The entire second day they saw just one church, many miles away, and too far out of their way. Since then, there had been nothing, save a burnt-out farmhouse. So she had been forced to limp, in pain, for two and a half days, all the way from Valaxus’s castle to the Forest of Mists.

Maree tugged hard at the other boot; if there were no other shoes, she’d just have to go barefoot. The forest ahead of them looked quite lush, and she was sure there’d be some kind of soft undergrowth to comfort her. She examined her other foot, which was just as messy.

"Missing your old shoes?" said a gruff voice. Maree turned around, and noticed that Bremmy had sat down next to her. Sometimes the man moved like a shadow!

"Where’s the food?" asked Maree, ignoring the question.

"I didn’t look. I’ve been scouting ahead," Bremmy said, a hint of regret in his voice. "No sign of Zardock."

Maree shrugged, as if it didn’t matter. "He’s probably not got this far yet," she said. "Maybe he’s found a nice warm inn, and has shacked up for a little while," she added bitterly.

"I’m not so sure," said Bremmy. "Remember that ruined farmhouse we saw earlier? Morandor says he could sense some kind of power there, like a wizard had been there or something."

"There’re wizards everywhere," Maree said simply. "It could’ve been anyone."

"Not in Rhutalath, no. Not many wizards around here," Bremmy replied. He began to stare in the direction of the forest, his eyes looking intently for movement. "Besides, Morandor reckons its him. And I’ve never known him to be wrong. The old man can tell which wizard is which just by the smell of their farts!"

Maree giggled at the comment. "Well, I hope you’re right. If he’s here, then we can stop him, and then go home. I’m fed up of this country, and I’m fed of walking everywhere."

"This country’s not bad," Bremmy grunted. "Nice wine."

Grendel walked over then, and sat at the other side of Maree, a small note-book in his lap. "Sore feet?" he asked, looking at her obviously sore feet.

Maree bit back a sarcastic comment, and forced a smile. "Bremmy says Zardock’s been here. Can’t be long now. Then we can go home."

Grendel nodded. "You know, I miss Turin," he said enigmatically. "I’ve been missing out on my flute lessons."

"Don’t worry about it," Bremmy muttered. "You were crap."

Maree giggled again, though Grendel looked hurt. He self-consciously touched his belt-pack, where his flute was stashed. Maree hoped he wasn’t going to subject them to a tune, just to prove a point. "What are they doing," she asked, pointing to Mep and Morandor, and the root they were examining. She didn’t really care, but she wanted to distract Grendel from his flute.

"Not sure," Grendel answered. "I think they’re discussing if you can smoke it."

"Morandor will smoke anything," Bremmy added. "He’d smoke a leper if he could fit one in his pipe."

"Is this really the time to be discussing pipeweed?" Maree asked, though she was grateful for the small rest. "He’s been the one hurrying us all this time."

Grendel shrugged. "I don’t know. Morandor might have a long wait whilst we’re in the forest, and he has to do something to entertain himself," Grendel watched as Mep pulled out a small dagger and began to cut some of the root. "Besides, he said the stuff that Valaxus gave him tastes like dung!"

"Guess he has some limits to what he’ll smoke then," Maree conceded.

"Looks like he’s decided that that ugly root is smokable, though," Bremmy observed, watching Mep gather the roots into a small bag.

"I think I might try smoking it," Grendel said.

"You?" asked Maree. "Why? Its a disgusting thing to do! All that spitting, and smelling, and yellow-stained beards!"

"But its what wizards do," Grendel said, without much enthusiasm. "Besides, I’m curious."

Bremmy spat on the grass, in protest. "Your curiosity will probably get someone killed one day! And probably you. You don’t stick your head in a dragon’s mouth, just to find out what he had for dinner!"

"Why would I do that?" Grendel asked. "Dragon’s can speak, can’t they. I’ll just ask him."

Bremmy sighed. "You know, Grendel, for a scholar, you’re not too clever. You try asking a dragon, see what happens."

"Alright, I will," Grendel responded sulkily.

"Nothing good ever came from curiosity. You mark my words!" Bremmy said, spitting again.

They sat in silence then, Grendel making random notes in his travelling book, and Maree sorely pampering her feet. After a few minutes, Morandor impatiently insisted that it was time to go, and they made their way down the slope towards the forest. Maree went barefoot, carrying her leather boots in her pack, and the warm grass soothed her sores. She cursed occasionally as a pointed stone decided to attack the soles of her feet, but overall the going seemed much easier. As they walked, the trees seemed to gather around them, surrounding them and enveloping them until, after an hour or so, they found themselves deep in a thick forest of tall conifers and heavy oaks.

Maree admired the forest as she walked; thick pines grew high overhead, and the floor was covered in a blanket of fallen pine-needles and thick grass. The undergrowth consisted of beautiful green bushes, dotted with red and yellow berries, and the thick eaves offered shade from the hot sun which shone high above. The forest was far removed from the desolate, dying forest where Valaxus made his home, and reminded her more of the lush upland forests of the mountains, near her home. If she had a mind, she could almost imagine herself back in the Mir Valley, collecting berries and hunting conies. A beautiful place indeed, filled with the sweet-song of a myriad birds, and the natural footpaths made by deer and other animals. This high up, the dew seemed to linger longer on the branches, and only now was beginning to evaporate, in the afternoon heat. The forest was filled with the mist of drying dew and, combined with the heavy cloud from the mountains beyond, created an ethereal blanket of fog. The fog was thin, and didn’t obscure sight, yet the air was moist and provided cool a relief from the Rhutalathian climate. The Forest of Mists- an apt name indeed.

No one spoke as they penetrated deeper into the forest. The beauty of the forest subdued them. Grendel seemed to be lost in his own thoughts, and Mep was staring wide-eyed like a child at Swan Day. Maree felt her troubles and pains begin to lift, as if the trees themselves were absorbing them, leaving her happy and content. She even began to whistle a little tune, a small ditty that Turin had used to play at the Wizard’s Rest.

"I can go no further," said Morandor suddenly.

Maree turned back to see that Morandor had stopped, and was leaning on an old gnarled trunk. His face looked confused, and a little irritated.

"Intriguing," the old wizard added, as he waved his hand in front of him. A green shimmer appeared as his hand moved. "Some kind of enchantment."

Grendel walked back to where Morandor was, and waved his hand experimentally. There was no shimmer around the young wizard’s hand. "What kind of wizard could cast a spell like this?" Grendel asked solemnly, though his eyes belied his curiosity and fascination.

"No wizard," said Morandor, sitting down beside the gnarled oak. "This is a natural enchantment. Very old indeed, I’d imagine. But it won’t let me go any further."

Grendel nodded as if it was no consequence, though he scribbled something in his journal. Maree looked towards Mep, the expert on forests, but the shepherd merely gave an embarrassed shrug, and turned his attention to a moss-covered trunk which seemed to have taken his fancy.

"Well, its no good standing around here," said Morandor, filling his pipe with the strange root they had found. "We expected this. The sooner you go, the sooner you can come back."

"But how do we know where we’re going?" Bremmy asked, leaning against a tree. "One oak tree looks pretty much like another, and that’s what we’re after isn’t it?!"

"Grendel knows the way," Morandor said, looking through his pack for his tinderbox. "Or at least he will, once he gets there."

Grendel looked a little worried, but nodded. "Will you be okay, here?" he asked the old wizard.

"Foolish boy-" Morandor said gently. "A good wizard knows how to keep himself out of trouble, if he wants to. Or how to cause it, if need be. Don’t worry about me. Now, off with you. Bring that little freak-haired toe-rag back here, so I can slap his dirty arse!"

Maree smiled at the description of Zardock, "Be careful, Morandor," she said.

"You too, lass. Look after Grendel for me."

Grendel made a small utterance of protest. "We won’t be long," he said, giving Morandor a quick wave.

"Take as long as you need," Morandor said, lying back with the sun on his face. "I’m looking forward to the peace and quiet.

With that, Grendel set off again, deep into the forest, with Mep and Bremmy in tow. Maree gave one last look at Morandor, before following the rest of the group. She secretly wished that the old wizard was going with them; Grendel knew a little magic, and Bremmy could certainly handle a weapon, but she felt more comfortable when Morandor was with them. Still, she was going to have to trust Grendel now, to get the mission done. She trusted him. She did. She looked around one last time for Morandor, but he was hidden from sight by the trees.............

 

The forest became more dense as they walked, until the sun was nearly hidden by the thick roof of pine branches and oak leaves. Grendel took little notice of his surroundings, and looked inwards, trying to sense whatever it was he was supposed to sense. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, only that he’d know it when he found it. That didn’t seem like a very good plan, to him. But it was Morandor’s plan, and he trusted the old man completely.

He walked at random, picking his way between the bushes and blackthorns which lay sprawled between the trees. He was roughly following the deer-paths, though he didn’t suppose it mattered what route he took. The forest would guide him. At least it would, if it decided Grendel could be trusted. Grendel looked back, to check the rest of the group were still with him. They were there, following his path closely. Maree smiled encouragingly at him. That made him feel a little more confident. He took a look around, paying special attention to a large rock at the side of one of the trails. It seemed weathered and moss-covered but, more interesting, it was covered in markings. Some kind of language. Grendel had never seen the letters before, and wondered if they were a guide. But he couldn’t read them, and he didn’t have time to heed them, so he carried on, making a note to try and find the language in a book, once he got back to Doromir.

He carried on walking, leading the group by paths of his choosing, hoping that soon he would detect some kind of power that would guide them. The paths took them uphill, and then down into deep valleys, but the forest was disorientating, and Grendel couldn’t be sure which direction he was headed in. He hoped he could find his way back to Morandor, after. At one point, Grendel caught a glimpse of the sun, and worked out that he was travelling north. But with no landmarks, it was difficult to tell just how far they had travelled.

After what seemed like two hours, Grendel stopped, feeling lost and a little hopeless. "Its no good," he said quietly to Bremmy. "I’m not sensing anything."

Bremmy grunted, and looked around. "Hundreds of bloody oaks around here; I bet even Mep can’t tell the difference."

Mep, upon hearing his name mentioned, grinned, though he looked lost in his own thoughts. Maree was leaning against a tree, checking the soles of her feet.

"We need some higher ground," said Bremmy, "To get a good look around." He walked over to the nearest tree and, after leaning his axe carefully against it, scrambled upwards. He grabbed hold of a low-branch, swung a little, and disappeared into the foliage of the oak. After a few moments he slid back down, landing heavily with a thump and a curse, in front of Grendel. "There’s not much to see. But there’s some kind of stone, maybe a marker, a short distance north of here."

Grendel smiled gratefully. Maybe it was some kind of guide, like the stone he’d seen earlier. At least then he’d know that he was going in the right direction. He checked to see if Maree was alright, and then set off north again, ducking under the low branches of a pine that was leaning dangerously.

After a few more minutes they reached the stone that Bremmy had mentioned. It was similar to the other he had seen, moss-covered, with the same markings. "Any idea what these might say?" Grendel asked, pointing to the markings.

"You’re the wizard," said Maree, sitting down heavily on the rock, and dislodging a forest of moss. She proceeded to pull pine-needles out of her feet, uncaring that she was blocking Grendel’s view of the markings. Grendel sighed, and began to look northwards, for another rock.

"Haven’t I seen this place before?" Mep asked, coming out of his daze.

"No," said Grendel. "though it’s similar. We’ve been heading due north, as far as I can tell. I’m wondering if there’s more of these stones further ahead. Maybe a trail of some kind."

Mep shrugged, and looked at the nearby trees suspiciously. "I could have sworn..." he muttered to himself.

Grendel led them north again, following the sun as best he could, though it was getting low now and soon would be hidden from view. Heavy shadows were growing in the forest, and the air began to become chill. Grendel walked sullenly, still trying to perceive the power or energy that would indicate they were going in the right direction. But there was no sign of it. There was nothing to do but follow the trail north, and hope he found another marker or, better still, the entrance to the Vale.

After another hour, his patience was rewarded. Ahead of him, through a gap in the trees, Grendel saw another marker stone. He almost ran to it, glad that he had found another part of the trail. The rest of the group followed him to the stone, which turned out to be nearly identical to the other two stones. Again, the markings were the same. This time Grendel took out his book and began to draw the strange inscriptions.

"Now, I’m quite sure we’ve been here before," said Mep, staring at the trees again.

"No," said Grendel distractedly. "I don’t think so."

"But I recognise those trees," said Mep, with an insistent tone. "I’m telling you. I’ve seen them three times now. That one there, see," he added pointing to a pine which looked similar to all the others. "I recognise its branches."

Grendel looked up from his book, slightly annoyed. Normally he trusted Mep’s instinct, especially his affinity with trees, but there was no way this could be the same spot- they’d been heading due north the entire time. "Maybe its just very similar."

Mep opened his mouth angrily, but was interrupted by Bremmy. "I think he’s right," said Bremmy, gesturing to the stone. "Look, here’s Maree’s arse print."

Grendel opened his mouth, but was lost for words. Instead he just gaped at the stone, which had flattened moss covering the top, where Maree had been sat. More moss was dislodged along the base.

"Are you sure?" said Grendel, looking sceptically at the rock.

"Trust me, I’m a tracker," said Bremmy.

"Besides, I’d recognise that arse anywhere," added Mep triumphantly.

Maree made an indignant noise, but examined the stone. "I think we’ve been going around in circles," she said, as realisation dawned. "You’ve gone and gotten us lost!"

"But we’ve been heading north," protested Grendel feebly. "I’m sure of it."

"Its the trees," said Mep quietly, as if listening to something. Grendel strained his ears, but couldn’t tell what the shepherd was listening to. "They don’t want us to find the Vale."

Grendel sighed, and sat on the rock, subconsciously staring at Maree’s behind. It was true. They’d been going in circles for hours. He showed have realised, but he’d been so intent on detecting the power, he’d ignored what he was seeing. And there was no power; he felt sure he should have detected it by now. He had failed. All he had to do was detect some magic, which any simple apprentice could do. And he couldn’t do it. He sighed heavily.

"Are you lost," asked a small voice, from above him. The unexpected question dragged Grendel from his gloom, and he looked up. Bremmy, Mep and Maree were staring a few feet above his head. He looked further up. There, above him, was a small female fairy, its tiny wings fluttering prettily. She smiled at him, a cheeky smile enhanced by her nudity.

"Are you lost?" she asked again, in a quick and almost frantic voice. "Me can help you. Lead you out. Yes. Me can lead you out." The fairy swooped down, skimming Grendel’s head, and hovered a few feet above Bremmy.

"Er......" said Grendel. A fairy. He blinked. A fairy.

"Follow me, now. Me can take you outside, away from stubborn trees. Come with me. Me take handsome man and his friends away." The fairy directed the ‘handsome man’ towards Bremmy, and circled his head a few times. Bremmy merely stared at her, wondering whether she was dangerous or, more likely Grendel thought, worth eating.

"What are you?" Maree asked, a small smile on her face.

"Me Callia. A sylph. Me is a sylph," said the fairy. "Come, me take you out of here."

"We don’t want to go out," Grendel said, gathering his wits. "We’re trying to get to the Vale."

"Oh no. No. No can take you there. Not nasty big people with loud feet. Not big stupid people who trample. You must go out. Me can take you. Come." Callia flew off, towards the trees to the south, before realising no one was following. Then she flew back, and hovered over Bremmy impatiently. "Come," she said again.

"We need to go to the Vale," Grendel repeated. "It is important. We don’t mean any harm."

Callia looked a little agitated, then landed lightly on Bremmy’s shoulder. Bremmy stared at her incredulously, a small look of fear in his eyes. Seeing Bremmy so scared of such a tiny creature brought a small smile to Grendel’s lips. "Me not take you there. Me not allowed. It is the Queen’s orders."

"But the Vale is in danger," Maree said, bending down slightly to talk to Callia. "We’re going to save it."

"No," said Callia stubbornly.

"Your queen will be grateful," added Mep. "She might reward you."

"No," Callia persisted. "Me bored of you now. Me going."

"Wait," said Grendel, as Callia flew into the air. "Wait, there’s something else."

Callia returned to Bremmy’s shoulder, and gave the Morrim warrior a cheeky smile. "What? What is something else?"

"We lied to you," said Grendel as sincerely as he could manage. "That is not why we’re going to the Vale."

"Then why you going?" asked Callia, peering at him suspiciously.

"Its our friend," said Grendel, gesturing to Bremmy. "He is dying. He has an illness. Handsome warrior is ill, and needs healing at the Vale."

Bremmy opened his mouth to protest, but Mep hit on the back of the head to silence him. "That’s right," said Mep, grinning. "If we don’t go to the Vale, he will die. Only your Queen can help him."

Bremmy mumbled something under his breath, but kept whatever it was to himself.

"Handsome man will die?" asked the fairy.

"Yes," answered Grendel solemnly. "Very soon."

"What is up with him," she asked, stroking Bremmy’s cheek with her small hand. "Why is he dying?"

"Er........" Grendel said, trying to come up with a suitable illness.

"Syphilis," said Maree, grinning broadly.

"Now just a minute........" started Bremmy, before he was slapped on the head by Mep again.

Grendel sighed, but decided to stick with the story. "Yes," he said. "Syphilis."

"Me not know what that is, but it sounds bad."

"It is," said Maree, still smiling.

"Okay. Me not want handsome man to die. Me take you to vale. Queen will not mind if it is to help people. Come, follow me!" Callia stroked Bremmy’s cheek one last time, and gave him a sympathetic look, before flying off into the trees. "Come. Follow."

Grendel smiled at Maree, who returned the grin. At last, thought Grendel, we’re getting somewhere. He followed in the direction that the fairy had went, though the thick brambles made the path difficult. Maree followed after him, as did Bremmy and Mep.

"Don’t worry, you big handsome man" Mep said confidentially to Bremmy, "We’ll get you healed.....its nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Oh, you’re gonna suffer," growled Bremmy.

"Hey! It wasn’t my idea," said Mep with genuine fear.

"No, but you slapped me. Twice. You’re gonna suffer."

 

"Not far now," said Callia, flying back over Grendel’s head to make her announcement. "Me look forward to seeing the vale again!"

"You’ve not been there for a while," asked Grendel, watching the floor carefully. The forest had thickened as they walked, and navigating the undergrowth had become difficult and, at times, painful. It had been nearly an hour since they had met Callia, and he was relieved that their journey was nearly over. His legs were tired.

"No, me been away. Far away. Me been many miles west. You lucky I found you."

Grendel nodded; he wasn’t a firm believer in luck, but sometimes the Gods seemed to have ways of making things happen. But then, he wasn’t a firm believer in gods either.

"What is the vale like," Mep asked curiously, leaning heavily on his walking-staff.

"Pretty," said Callia excitedly, circling quickly over Mep’s head. "Very beautiful. Many deep valleys, and beautiful rivers. And lots of pretty trees, bigger and older than these ones. And always nice weather, yes. Always nice."

Grendel smiled at the thought; he thought the Forest of Mists was beautiful, in its own way. He looked forward to seeing the Vale, if it was so much more beautiful than the forest. He wondered briefly how such a place could exist, outside the reality he knew; he knew a little Elemental-lore, and had heard of dimensional pockets, but he had never hoped to see one. He began to grin in anticipation; it would be a nice entry for his book.

"It sounds very pretty indeed," said Maree, walking next to Grendel.

"But not as pretty as the unicorns," said Callia. "No, and not as beautiful as Galana. Nothing is."

"Who’s Galana," asked Grendel.

"My queen. The Lady of the Vale. She’s very beautiful, and very fair. And she looks after me and my friends. And she looks after the unicorns. You’ll like her. She is a happy and kind lady. And you’ll like Rinex too. He’s the king-stag, the Unicorn-king."

Grendel tried to memorise the wealth of information that Callia was keen to impart. She was energetic and excitable, and was happy to tell them everything she knew about the vale; it was a dramatic change, considering only an hour ago she had been so reluctant to reveal the Vale’s whereabouts. But her enthusiasm was contagious, and Grendel couldn’t help smile as she chattered away, and flew back and forth excitedly.

"No worry, handsome man," Callia said, hovering other Bremmy. The Morrim warrior had been quiet and sullen since Callia had joined the group, and had scowled at everyone belligerently. "No worry. We have you fixed up soon. Look, we nearly there. We talk to the Guardian, then he let us in. Then we fix you up. Handsome warrior be all better again."

"The Guardian? What is that," asked Bremmy, breaking his sulk. The prospect of a possible fight always seemed to cheer him up.

"He is just that, handsome man. A guardian. He guards the door to the Vale. He stop bad people getting in. He is wise and kind, but very strong."

"And will he let us pass? Without a fight, I mean," asked Grendel, a little worriedly. She had not mentioned this Guardian before. He hoped what she had said was true, and that bad people were prohibited from passing; that might mean that this guardian had already done their job for them; Zardock could have been stopped already, if he had got this far.

"Yes, yes. You be friends. No worries, no frets. He like you- he will let you in."

Grendel wished he could be more optimistic. He trusted Callia, and respected her knowledge of the area; but something didn’t feel right. He still could not detect the power he was seeking, and it had him worried. A dimensional pocket should have emitted a magical field so intense that he could detect it miles away. But here they were, virtually on the threshold, and he could detect nothing. It didn’t bode well. Either Grendel had lost his powers, or the Vale had. And neither eventuality was good.

The small trail they were walking on gradually widened, and the undergrowth

Slackened, until eventually, after rounding a corner, they found themselves in a large open glade. The glade was almost perfectly round, and the floor was covered in thick grass and small white flowers. At the far end of the clearing stood an ancient and gnarled oak, almost black. It towered high above the rest of the trees, dominating the forest. Its thick, wizened roots stretched and arched across the glen, reaching as far as a small standing stone which occupied the exact centre. Two thick roots curved upwards at the base of the tree, framing a dark tunnel which seemed to pass deep into the Earth. The entrance to the Vale.

"We are here," said Callia triumphantly, though Grendel only half-heard the words. He was staring at the figure which occupied the centre of the clearing, and stared unblinkingly at them from next to the stone. The figure towered over the stone, as tall as two men, and nearly as wide. It was covered in dark green armour, decorated with small metallic leaves, and two iron branches swept upwards from its helm, like horns. The armour covered every inch of the creature, save for its eyes, which stared at Grendel like little green lights. It carried a huge, heavy axe, longer than a grown man.

"The guardian?" Grendel enquired nervously. At least if the Guardian was still here, there was no way Zardock could have passed.

"Yes, yes. But no worry. He is friend. I will speak to him," said Callia flying swiftly towards the figure. "Guardian. Let us past. It me, Callia. I bring friends. Friends to meet the Queen."

As fast and nimble as Callia was, she was not fast enough to avoid the heavy gauntlet that suddenly swung at her. It hit her with a sickening crunch, sending her backwards. She collided with the great oak, and slumped to the floor.

"So much for being friendly," wailed Mep, holding his staff defensively.

"Well, friendly or not, he’s blocking our path," growled Bremmy. The Morrim warrior ran forward, his axe spinning overhead. He dived at the Guardian, screaming a Morrim curse, and brought his axe down swiftly. The Guardian responded, slowly but effectively, and swung his axe to meet Bremmy’s. There was loud crash, then the head of Bremmy’s axe circled wildly over Grendel’s head. Bremmy stood, looking stunned, a broken handle in his hands.

"Come on," shouted Grendel, running forward with his dagger drawn. Mep and Maree followed, weapons in hand. The Guardian, about to hack at Bremmy, turned to face the new assailants, kicking the Morrim away with a vicious kick. Grendel grunted as the Guardian side-stepped his attack, and then smashed him in the face with his gauntlet. Grendel fell to the floor, feeling blood dripping from his temple.

Maree attacked next, her sword hacking at the creature. The attack was swift, and the Guardian was too slow to block it, but the sword bounced harmlessly off the thick armour. Mep was next; using his staff as a pole-vault he kicked the Guardian soundly in the chest with both feet. The creature staggered back a little, before bringing the handle of his huge axe down onto Mep’s head. The shepherd fell, but leapt up again quickly, leaping backwards away from the axe.

"Its too strong," said Maree.

"Sod that," said Bremmy, who had managed to scramble to his feet. The warrior charged at the Guardian again, this time leaping high. Bremmy’s splintered axe handle found the Guardian’s unarmoured eye, and stabbed home with a sickening sound. The Guardian roared in pain, dropped his weapon, and leapt backwards, nimble for such a heavy warrior. It stopped, looking around menacingly, the handle still protruding from its eye. Red blood dripped down its helmet.

"Good shot," said Mep happily, but stopped short as the Guardian charged at them again with a belligerent scream. Mep screamed too, and dived out of the way, but Bremmy was too slow. The Guardian collided heavily with Bremmy, winding him. The huge gauntlet-clad fist grabbed Bremmy by the throat.

"Get him!" shouted Grendel, as he and Maree dived forwards. The two of them tried to knock the creature down, but it just backhanded them both with one fist, knocking them sprawling again.

"I’m getting fed up with this," moaned Maree, as she tried to stand again, supporting herself with a tree.

Bremmy was flailing wildly, his face going red. He kicked uselessly at the Guardian’s chest. The Guardian laughed, and began to squeeze Bremmy’s throat. With a last effort, Bremmy yanked the axe-handle from the creature’s eye. The guardian roared in pain as the wood was dragged out, and roared again as it was thrust into his other eye. It dropped Bremmy, staggering backwards in pain.

At the point, Maree and Grendel ran at the creature again, attempting to knock it over. This time, the Guardian tripped backwards, falling over his own discarded axe. He fell backwards heavily, knocking a tree over as it collided with the edge of the grove. Mep, running swiftly, grabbed the Guardian’s leg as it fell, pulling it round. There was a strange swallowing sound as the shepherd disappeared inside a tree, taking the Guardian’s leg with him. The Guardian struggled wildly, in both confusion and pain, but could not dislodge its leg from the thick gnarled trunk.

"Well done Mep," said Grendel in amazement, releasing the holding-spell he had just been preparing.

"Why, thank you," said Mep, emerging from another tree.

The Guardian still struggled, flailing its fists wildly, kicking the tree with its free leg.

"I’m gonna finish this bastard," said Bremmy. He bent down and reached for the Guardian’s axe. The Morrim’s face contorted with effort as he struggled to pick up the huge axe. The muscles in his neck and arms bulged and flexed, and he let out a huge cry as he lifted the axe.

Half-marching, half-staggering, Bremmy carried the huge axe to the now-desperate Guardian. With shocking strength and speed, the warrior swung the axe in a huge arc, driving the blade through the Guardian’s armour, and neck. The head left the shoulders in a spray of blood, and rolled a few feet, landing noisily in front of Grendel. Grendel paled, and tried not to look at the contents of the splintered helm.

"That ought to shut him up," said Bremmy, with a wry smile. He dropped the axe down, rubbing his arms painfully. "That’s bloody heavy."

Mep walked over to Callia, to see if she was alright. The fairy blinked at him, but made no effort to move. "She’s a little stunned, but she’s okay," he said.

"Those were some nifty moves you used then, Mep," said Maree smiling.

"You think so," asked Mep cheerfully, "I’ve got plenty more where they came from!"

Grendel looked with pity on the Guardian’s headless body. "Well, at least we know Zardock isn’t here yet," he said. "Maybe we should go into the Vale and wait for him there. We should at least warn Galana."

Maree nodded, rubbing one of her ribs. "Which way?"

"That way," he said pointing to the tunnel. Callia managed to nod, in confirmation.

"Oh great," said Maree, "Yet another dark place."

Bremmy led the way into the dark tunnel, dragging the huge axe behind him. The others followed him, looking forward to seeing what wonders lay at the other end............