Where is this?
I sense nothing.
I am alone.
Translated from the Chronicles of the Egg
The clatter of wheels on the broken cobblestones shattered the ceaseless mutter of rain sending the girl in the shadows creeping back to the shelter of the alley wall. She curled into the weathered wood and stopped cursing the downpour. The rain was now an ally. It made the gloomy recess where she hid less likely to draw the men’s attention. With luck, they and their wagon would pass by without a backwards look. If her luck failed . . . She shrank deeper against the wall. Well, she was blessed with fast feet and a good sense of direction. She could outrun them in a foot race. But her luck held and the cart and its companions rolled on leaving only their conversation behind.
“Epson par Valle, this wind be a cutting knife,” muttered the short thin man walking guard position beside the wagon. “I’ve heard tell that it be powerful enough to topple the shield wall in the Forbidden Zone.” He tightened his grip on the long knotty staff he held in his left hand and buried his chin deeper in the folds of his cloak.
“Hsst, Riad par Eison. Only a fool speaks of such things. This winter be a cruel one, but no worse than the great storm twenty seasons ago,” Epson answered, gloomily eying the empty road in front of them. His fingers flickered in a sign against the Dark One.
“Bah, you miss what’s in front of that big nose of yours. Don’t you see evil be afoot? When the gales bury us beneath the garbage of the streets will you say different? The riff raff freezes to death. They shiver and cough with the fever. It’s the work of the Dark One! Mark my words, they’ll infect us all and bring doom down upon our heads.” Riad shook his head in disapproval.
“You speak like an old crone gossiping with the women. I remember . . .” Epson’s memories were lost in the rumble of the wheels.
The street girl Meara straightened from her place by the wall. A blast of cold caressed her neck and generated a bone-rattling shake.
“Merdon. He is right,” she muttered. “This cold never ends. We will all freeze like rats before the sun returns to warm us.”
She rubbed her arms slowly. The man Riad’s words left a crawling feeling on her skin. Did he speak the truth? She hadn’t experienced the winter they spoke of, but she had lived on the streets five of her seventeen years, long enough to see that this one was different. By now the sun should have chased away the clouds, but the rains lingered, leaving the stink of decay to invade every crevice of the ancient walled town. She inhaled a slow icy breath tasting the rot carried by the wind. It caught in her throat, making her gag. Carefully, she breathed in again, more shallowly.
Winter’s bite ate at the center of her bones. Meara stamped her feet and wiggled her toes to make the blood flow faster. She nodded slowly. The men were right. This endless cold so late in the season made the people of the street sicken and die. Every day soldiers of the watch made their way through the alleys, carting away those who’d succumbed to the fever.
The cold made her fingers ache. She curled them into fists, tucking them deeper into her cloak. Nowhere in the ancient town was there a place safe from the wind. Even here, against the rough wall of the alley, it teased her, tearing off her hood and whipping the sopping weight of her cloak against her legs. She dragged the hood higher, absently tucking the tattered fabric under her chin as she squinted out at the market place. A trickle of rain broke through the dam of wool and rolled down her neck to a dry patch between her shoulder blades. Meara swiped her thin arm across her face and shoved a hand through the tangled mess of sodden curls that straggled free of her hood.
“Perdu,” she muttered shuffling her feet. “Will this cursed rain never end?”
In answer, a raven dropped from the sky, its ebony feathers caught the air in a swooshing whisper. The bird flew so close that a wing tip brushed Meara’s shoulder. She stumbled sideways and her sandaled feet sank deeper into the muck.
“Murkwing!” she called. Sight of the bird eased some of the tension coiling her muscles like tightly wound springs. She lifted a foot and shook away the mud.
Murkwing squawked and cocked his head. He fixed his bright black eyes on her face and lurched from his perch on an overturned barrel. He flew the short hop to her shoulder, landed and clicked his beak, stretching his neck. The ruffle of his feathers exposed a single white quill in the darkness of one wing.
“So, bird,” she scolded gently. “It’s been a long time since you fluttered this way. I thought someone had made a pie of you. Best you be wary. People are hungry and the pickings slim. Even you would taste good as dinner.”
The bird muttered and leaned forward nibbling at a lock of Meara’s hair. Its color rivaled his feathers for blackness.
Slowly Meara raised one hand and smoothed the down at Murkwing’s neck. She considered her words. People were hungry, some hungry enough to break the taboos. The chance to put food in their bellies outweighed the risk of eating such an ill-omened bird. After all, no one would recognize the raven’s taint if it were buried in a thick stew.
The thought of omens conjured a fresh wave of goose bumps. She didn’t believe in the prophecy of evil that followed the blackbird, but the strange events of winter were harder to ignore. The people of the walled town saw the Dark One’s work everywhere—the cheeky bird stood out.
“Your taste for glitter makes you famous,” she continued. “The merchants offer good coin for the death of a raven. Best for you if you find your treasure away from the market.”
She spoke as if the bird understood her. The thought of harm befalling him made her stomach twist into a sour ball. She’d found Murkwing as a barely feathered hatchling tumbled from his nest. She’d carried him in a sack tied to her belt until he’d found his wings.
“Enough,” she whispered.
Too much attention to omens and she’d tumble into a pit of doom so deep, she’d never climb out. It was better to take action and control the fates than give in to despair. Things had been bad before. Sooner or later, the luck would turn around. Right now, she needed to focus on staying one step ahead of the darkness. After all, good luck didn’t matter if you let bad nip you first.
Squaring her shoulders, she turned her attention back to the market. The rain had chased away the usual crowd, leaving only a few hardy souls poking through the withered apples and shriveled vegetables. By now, the farmers’ fields should have held a bountiful harvest; instead, they grew mud.
Absently Meara licked her lips and nibbled at a patch of peeling skin. The last trade caravan to visit the town had been weeks ago—everyone, including the well-fed merchants, was feeling the pinch of hunger. Her eyes fell on the massive backside of a woman digging through a flat of turnips. Everyone that is, except Mistress par Raymon. That hag carried a full basket. A loud grumble erupted from Meara’s stomach. When was the last time her own belly had been full?
Murkwing twitched restlessly. His sharp claws bit through the thin fabric of Meara’s cloak. She hunched an irritated shoulder to dislodge him.
“Hush, bird. If you had a brain, you would find a way to move some of the fat woman’s basket into our stomachs.” She sniffed. “If the fates were fair, we’d hold the basket, and she would be rooting in the mud for scraps.”
Meara’s full mouth straightened into a harsh line.
“Look at her,” she muttered to Murkwing. “She keeps that belly by hiring the people of the streets to run her errands. Then she cheats us of our pay. Although,” she paused, “I should have known better. It appears I’m as big a fool as the rest of them.” She shook her head in disgust. “I guess it’s as Mama Shay Lann always says, “Hunger drives stupidity.”
Murkwing squawked in apparent agreement. He left her shoulder in a flurry of black feathers.
“Traitor,” she called softly, watching him glide across the market. He landed on a faded awning above a vegetable stall.
“Be gone you!” A merchant sheltered in a dry corner of the stall slouched forward. He spread his arms in threat and faked a warning step.
“Be gone!” he shouted again.
Murkwing screeched and stood his ground. His black eyes gleamed like polished bits of ebony. The merchant’s cries acted like a magnet, stopping hagglers mid-bargain. Every eye turned towards the standoff.
Red-faced, the merchant barreled towards Murkwing. No shopkeeper would allow a bird of ill omen so near his stand. The raven with its eyes of evil might carry tales back to the Dark One. Worse, if word escaped that the merchant tolerated such a blight so near his stall, his customers would dry up like a wish in winter.
Meara slid from the mouth of the alley. The sight of the unguarded vegetable stand coaxed another growling groan from her stomach.
The raven called again, the cry harsh and raw.
Slowly Meara crept towards a rickety table holding a bounty of shriveled produce. A handful of mud flew in Murkwing’s direction. Meara heard the rustle of feathers as the bird hopped, sidestepping out of reach. She eased forward another step. She was an arm’s length from a jumbled pile of shriveled apples and withered cabbage.
“Be gone, Dark One’s spawn! Away with you!” the merchant shouted, shaking his fist. His face purpled in outrage.
Meara touched the roughened skin of an apple and closed her hand around it.
The shout turned every eye in her direction.
Mistress par Raymon screeched and pointed. Her chubby fingers slashed the air in indignation as her face blossomed to ruby red. Chins jiggling, she leapt towards Meara, catching her wrist in a hard grasp.
“Call the watch!”
The shouting swelled until the market hummed with the calls. Murkwing popped free of the awning and plummeted earthward. His wings churned the air in a hissing hum.
The onlookers scattered.
Meara threw her weight forward, twisting her wrist against the fingers holding it. The fat woman’s claws raked her skin. Thrown off balance Mistress par Raymon fell against the merchant’s stand. The rickety table shuddered, its lopsided legs rocking as the piled produce shifted. Wrinkled vegetables rolled and toppled to the muddy ground. The merchant howled. Fat red blood vessels pulsed in his face.
“Catch her. Catch her! Don’t let her get away!” he shouted.
Meara ducked and rolled in a flurry of patched cloak. She skipped out of reach of the grasping hands. Almost free, she stumbled on a wrinkled cabbage. Her ankle twisted under her as her knee struck the ground. She staggered up. Swaying on unsteady legs, she watched the mob.
“Stay thief!” A guardsman brandishing a thick wooden club stepped forward spreading his arms to trap her.
Meara catapulted under his swinging club. Her heart pounded in time with her steps.
The merchant shouldered his way through the crowd.
“Stop! Call the watch!” he cried.
“Find your own aid, Fimion par Entel. The price of your onions is thievery,” heckled a bony woman hastily gathering ragged onions into a spotty apron. She snatched up a withered turnip and back-pedaled through the crowd.
“The watch should be hunting murderers, not chasing street rats,” a voice called.
The merchant battled free of the taunting group, hoots and jeers marked his progress. Already, the rain had dampened the thrill of the chase and doused any interest in the thief.
Meara flung herself around a corner and sank against the rough boards of a stable. The uneven planks bit into her shoulders. Her legs were limp and rubbery beneath her. Harsh gasps whistled past her teeth as she fought to catch her breath. Gradually the pounding of her heart slowed. She sat up clutching the apple to her chest and leaned forward to check for pursuit. Murkwing slid from the gloom and landed beside her.
“You think you deserve this?” she asked, eyeing him skeptically.
The bird blinked in reply. Meara bit off a generous chunk and held it out. Murkwing pecked gingerly at it.
“Yes. I know you’d prefer something dead and disgusting, but this will have to do,” Meara muttered. “You could have picked a better diversion. That hag almost caught me.”
She took a bite of tasteless apple and chewed. If the hag had paid her for her errand, she wouldn’t have sunk to stealing withered fruit fit only for hogs.
“I saw her pass this way,” a deep voice called.
The apple turned to dust on her tongue.
“Meara No Name came this way. She can’t have gone far,” another answered.
“Zarnache par Chandon, an example must be made of her. Too long have the street rats run wild in this town. You must make an example,” the merchant cut in.
“I . . . concur.” The words emerged in a wheezing grunt as Mistress par Raymon picked herself out of the mud and joined the chase.
“Meara No Name belongs not in our town. You have only to look at her to see the truth in my words. She has no ties to name, house or bloodline. She is nothing. She is allied with the dark,” the deep voice shouted.
Fear squeezed Meara’s chest, pressing the breath from her lungs. Surely, she was cursed if Badaleo par Furone, a self-proclaimed prophet of the Great One led the hunt. His watery blue eyes would be shining in unholy zeal as he inflamed the crowd with his hunt for blasphemers. Right now, Meara imagined his skinny arms wind-milling as a cloud of spittle spewed forth with every word. She sagged against the wall and listened to the voices.
Badoleo was the worst of the Godseekers. His mission was to weed out any not blessed of the great houses of Vendonne. Meara’s lack of ties to house or bloodline made her the perfect target for his purging.
“The girl is only a thief. Find her,” the merchant demanded.
Meara’s heart sank deeper. If the merchant had left his stall, her punishment might be more than a few lashes.
“The girl is allied with the dark! You have only to look at her to see Badoleo par Furone speaks truth. She is not one of ours. None of us would bring a black-haired gray-eyed changeling into our town. Banish her!” The fat woman had regained her breath, and her shouts drowned out any who dared to disagree.
Meara’s heart galloped into her throat. She slid further into the shadows. Once again, she could trust her mouth to land her in trouble. Instead of walking away when the hag failed to pay her, she’d called her a liar and a cheat in front of witnesses. Mistress par Raymon never forgot an insult. She would take a front row seat at Meara’s whipping.
“If left free, she will bring disaster to our town. The omens show . . .” the deep voice of Badoleo took over.
A gruff growl cut him short.
“Badoleo par Furone, I do not condone the work of thieves. My men keep the riffraff under control. As for you, Mistress par Raymon, stop encouraging the street rats by hiring them and then cheating them of their pay!” Zarnache par Chandon, the big slow-moving captain of the watch took control of the crowd.
Meara’s fingers shook as she stretched her hands along the rough surface of the wall seeking a break in the wood. Zarnache! The Dark One did curse her! The bite of apple churned in her stomach. She inched forward. A chance of escape lay in one of the twisted alleys that plagued the town. For a thousand years, the citizens of Vendonne had added to existing structures creating a convoluted maze of tumbling buildings. If she could slip from this one to the next, she might be able to evade her pursuers.
A jingling bridle and the blowing snort of an impatient horse marked the arrival of more watchmen. Leather creaked as a heavy body descended from a saddle.
“The alley you say?”
Zarnache’s voice so near the mouth of the passage stopped her heart. It bumped to life as she stumbled backwards, scrabbling crab-like along the wall.
“A fitting rodent’s nest for thieves. Bring a torch. We will smoke this scrawny rat out!” Zarnache said.
Feet splashed in answer to his demand.
Of all the fates, Meara cursed. Why must Zarnache have been within sniffing distance when she stole the apple? He would toss her out the gates of the town before charges were even read. Zarnache hated her. He wouldn’t rest until he whipped the skin from her back and hurled her out the southern gate.
The captain had a burr under his cloak when it came to Meara. She’d earned his enmity when she’d suggested the theft of his wooden leg. How was she to know that Zarnache held grudges. Meara had only come up with the plan, she didn’t carry it out. That hadn’t mattered. The thieves caught carrying the booted leg, had been quick to squeal her role to the watch. Now such childish pranks were behind her. The punishment for this theft might be banishment, not just a few strokes of Zarnache’s cane. Thought of the forest outside the gates sent a chill up her spine. Everyone knew—those cast out of Vendonne vanished, leaving only bones to litter the forest floor.
The thought spurred her on through the ankle-deep muck. The thick pungent mud slowed her feet and threw her off balance. Two more turns—was it three? Her heart hammered in her ears. Which way? Which way? Don’t let me pick a dead end. Please don’t let me . . .”
Blindly she groped along the wall of the alley seeking an end to the rough-hewn wood. There. Her fingers curled around the edge of the boards. She fell around the corner. The ground grew firmer. One more turn and . . . Her toe snagged the end of a broken board. She fell, her eyes watering as her teeth snapped together. Behind her, Zarnache cursed the thick muck. It made tough going for a big man with a wooden leg. Meara muttered a blessing for his infirmity and scrambling to her feet, swiped a trail of mud from her face. Another right turn brought her into a larger alley. The stink of horse burned her nose. Holding her breath, she circled past the manure pile. Relief overwhelmed her. She’d picked right.
The sound of pursuit faded. Zarnache would be in an evil mood after chasing her through the labyrinth. Goose bumps prickled up her arms. Make sure he doesn’t find you. Move your feet. Don’t stop until you’ve left him behind. If he catches you, he will toss you into his gaol. Then he’ll have time to plan an extra nasty punishment. She shivered. Maybe he wouldn’t wait for a trial. Maybe he’d give her to the forest. Cold sweat bathed her forehead.
She chose a narrow alley branching to the left and wiggled through a break in the wall. From there she crossed to the next alley and climbed a broken stairwell into a maze of twisting covered walkways.
She was almost free. The alley stretched in front of her, offering a safe haven. She loped over the ground. Somewhere ahead music was playing—beautiful music. She smiled. Her gray eyes sparkled in delight as her steps stuttered to a stop, escape forgotten. Where was the sound coming from? She had to find it.
Rooted in place, one foot hovering above the ground, she turned her head to track the mournful melody. A wave of loneliness shook her leaving a billowing ache in its wake. Tears blurred her vision. She stumbled into the next alley. The song changed. It wrapped its feathery wings around her heart and called her. Spellbound she wavered, awash in its beauty. The song was playing for her alone. She had to find its source. The music called again, making her want to weep, to dance. She took a step. The song pulsed through her—its haunting harmony waltzing with the steady thump of her heart.
Trapped in the magic, she crept towards the cocoon of darkness at the end of the alley. She stopped. Wavering at the edge of the light and the shadows, her doubts warred with the need to find the root of the song. Gentle pulsing lights flared around her—colors dipping and swirling in a mesmerizing rainbow maddeningly out of reach. Fear forgotten, she rushed forward. The ground dropped from under her. She clawed at empty space, twisting violently to regain her balance. Her head struck the ground as her fingers touched warmth. Peace enveloped her. Darkness devoured her.
Cold hate gnawing in the dark.
What is this place?
Translated from the Chronicles of the Egg
Thunder growled on the heels of a lightning strike so bright that it left an image of the walled town floating in front of Kieran’s eyes. Blinking and cursing, he stumbled back against the trunk of the ancient elm he’d picked for shelter. That was close, too close. He shook his head against the ringing in his ears and frowned up at the scattered branches over his head. The stink of ozone hung heavily over the glade—fire and brimstone. He shivered. The elders said that an elm tree’s spirit provided protection from lightning. Kieran shook his head again, more slowly. He’d seen the damage a strike left. It would be better if the tree’s spirit offered him a stronger roof over his head. Sighing, he rubbed his eyes. He’d have to trust in the wisdom of the elders and hope he and the tree were spared a roasting.
The storm had gathered fast—fat gray clouds scudding across the sky, warping and darkening into towering black thunderheads. It was another example of the vicious winter tempests that assaulted the land.
By now, the fat purple berries of the rumor bushes should sweep the ground, and the vibrant reds and yellows of the flowering shrubs outshine the trees. The great forest should be waking under spring’s kiss; instead, wind slashed the stunted foliage, bending twigs and sending blighted leaves snapping in a ripple of silver. Kieran hunched his shoulders as a gust rocked him back on his heels. He wrapped a callused hand around a low-lying branch and pulled himself up.
“Enough,” he muttered. “The gates of the town won’t magically open while you gawk at the walls. Find a way in.”
He scowled. Easy to say, harder to do. The flat, empty land stretching to the edge of the town was littered with rotting stumps and tufted yellow grass—none taller than a toddler’s head. Anything or anyone moving over it would be easy pickings for the guards pacing the palisades. He eyed the height of the town’s broad wooden walls and shook his head. Why build such a thing? Why leave the forest to live within it?
A slither of dread skittered up his spine and his hand stole to the amulet at his throat. So many trees hacked from the earth and left to rot was proof that the people of the town cared little about waste. For the great forest, it was a fatal wound that the First and the entire Council couldn’t heal. There was nothing Kieran could do about it but offer a quick blessing. He closed his eyes and lifted his hands.
“Great Lord, forgive the waste. Let the life of the trees flower over the land. Let the forest floor rise up and reclaim the spirits of her brothers. Let . . .” He stopped and opened his eyes. Let what? Let the walls of the town tumble to the ground so he could find what he was looking for? Then he could run back to the forest with his tail tucked between his legs. He shifted restlessly.
“Get on with it, Kieran,” he muttered. “You’ll find nothing this way.”
He looked past the rotting stumps to the row of soldiers perched on the palisades. Their irregular line of conical helmets made them resemble pinecones set for target practice. With a few well-notched arrows, it would be like picking melons off a log.
He shook his head in disgust, scrubbed his hands across his face and blinked against the dry grittiness burning his eyes. Too much tracking and not enough sleep. Too bad he couldn’t step into the open and let the rain wash away his exhaustion . . . but the pointy-headed soldiers were expert bowmen. If one guard raised the alarm he’d be skewered before he figured out a way past the walls. He sighed and rubbed his chin, feeling the rough growth of whiskers beneath his palm. The ragged stubble represented the hours he had spent on the trail—too many hours. He pressed his cool hands to his hot eyes.
The council said that the Dark One was moving—that his pawn, the Mage of Remarne now had the power to tamper with the seasons. If that were true, had Kieran’s mistake given the Mage the strength to challenge the Great One’s work? The First of Helligon—head of the council—insisted the Mage had torn the lifecycle of the sun. The First was the greatest wizard Kieran’s people had. Surely, he if any, knew the depth of the Mage’s evil. Some whispered that the First looked for trouble, that his hatred of the Mage colored his thinking. Kieran snorted softly. Too bad the cause of that hatred was such a deeply guarded secret.
Enough already. Pondering ancient history was getting him nowhere. He needed a plan, preferably one that got him moving, but the first step in whatever he decided meant dealing with those walls. He sighed again. So far, the best plan he had come up with was to march up and bang on the gate. Right, that was a fine plan, and a good way to get his butt shot full of arrows.
The ground at his feet twitched. Instantly alert, he watched a tendril of vine float lazily over the forest floor. The vine sighed softly. Kieran carefully adjusted his grasp on his long bow. Steady. Wait. Now! He swung the bow, blocking the lightning fast strike of the plant. The vine hissed and retreated, sending a wave of movement shivering through the foliage as other tentacles withdrew to await easier prey. Carefully, Kieran touched the severed stalk with his boot.
Heartvine. The deadly plant shouldn’t grow this far south. The endless winter had forced even it to find new growing grounds. Did the townspeople see the danger in the plant’s beauty? Heartvine was a predator. Its lush red blossoms released a heady scent that drew the unwary close so that a strike from the blood-red flower could send its venom deep. Without a healer, the blow was fatal. The best the stricken could hope for was a speedy end. Kieran swallowed. Every forest child knew the dangers of the graceful twirling vine—did the townspeople?
He crushed the flapping remnant beneath his boot, mashing it into the soggy earth. The fat red blossom at the end of the feeler imploded with a sucking splat, draining its sticky black poison into the earth.
Kieran looked up into a gust of raindrop-laden wind. He blinked away the wetness and stared out at the dripping foliage. The rain had cursed him from the start, washing away the tracks he followed and leaving him aching with cold. Now and then, the solid curtain rose, revealing a hint of what lay before him. He’d managed to follow the trail until now, where it magically vanished. He leaned on his bow and squinted up at the great walls.
No, not vanished. It entered the town. As he lingered outside the walls, his enemies made their plans. He shifted restlessly and the toes of his boots sunk deeper into the mud. Move, he jeered. Do something. Put one foot in front of the other and cross the cleared land. His feet remained firmly planted. What was the point? Even if he found a way across the plain, the soldiers wouldn’t open the gate for one man on foot, especially one whose black hair and gray eyes screamed outsider to the blonde, blue-eyed inhabitants of the town. The only outsiders to enter here were those who travelled with the trade caravans, like the two he followed. Those two were likely in the pay of the merchants.
Squinting against the wind, he continued his study of the town. Too bad that everything he knew about Vendonne would fit on the head of a pin. He should have spent more time learning about the town’s true history than listening to the campfire tales. As it was, all he knew was that the city was older than the beginnings of the people of the forest, older than the fall of the cities. Kieran’s skin rippled under a wave of goose bumps. Vendonne was hacked from heavily wooded land, its mighty walls erected to keep its people apart from life outside its gates. When the cities fell, the people of Vendonne retreated behind those walls, refusing aid or trade until the last of the dark days.
Even now, the town’s infamy spread far beyond its gates. Kieran’s people said, “It is better to cuddle a corbin than bargain with a townsman.” You expected a cuddly corbin runt to grow into a vicious killer with nasty teeth. Town people hid their teeth, until they could use them in the sneakiest way possible. Many a wise man had been cheated by a Vendonne trader. Kieran’s stomach churned. If he found a way into the town, what would he face?
Crack! The sound of a heavy whip spun Kieran to face the forest.
“Move, you forest jackal!” a hard voice bellowed.
A wagon broke the scrubby brush. Cursing, Kieran dropped to the ground, freeing his bow with one hand and yanking the hood of his cloak higher with the other. Hunched under the camouflage of his gray cloak, he watched as the first of a long line of wagons rolled through the trees—a supply train and a big one at that. A twittering cloud of black and white birds exploded from the canopy above, their protests drowned out the curses of the wagon masters.
“Get ’em moving, Daimer par Esson. The light waits for no man. We best reach the town before they be barring the gate for the night,” an outrider shouted over the groaning of the wheels.
“Gee up,” the tardy Daimer called, leaning forward in his seat as if that would speed his oxen.
Whips beat the air as raw shouts exhorted the heaving teams forward. Heavy hooves sank deeply into the oozing mud, tipping the wagons, bringing them perilously close to toppling. The drivers cursed and fought to keep the teams from tangling their broad horns.
“Watch out!” shouted an outrider.
An unwieldy wagon rolled, touched the ground and lurched upright as its lead ox stumbled, its feet caught up in the sucking mud. The ox’s wild eyes rolled, a gleam of white in a shaggy black face. Its lethal horns flashed past its yoke mate’s ear.
The shadows etched deeps creases into the bearded faces of the drivers, leaving their features set and hard.
“Here, Weimar par Ente, watch the forest. We’re not home free yet. I won’t be taking no risks til we put the trees behind us.” The speaker—an armed outrider—had his eyes locked on the surrounding trees.
“Come on, lads. Tonight, the trail will be a memory to drown in a pint of ale,” called a wagon master.
Kieran scowled. The last of the caravan was rolling towards the forest edge. Nothing would come of hiding and watching as the ungainly wagons swayed past. This might be his only chance to enter the town. He had to move now. Reluctantly, he scrambled to his feet and leaned his long bow against the trunk of the elm.
“This had better work,” he growled. “If it doesn’t, I will find Orlan and nail his hide to this tree!”
Thinking of his twin brother Orlan and the magic he was about to try, sharpened Kieran’s senses. The simple hide and find trick was common enough amongst the forest people, but Kieran wasn’t comfortable working the magic. Orlan, a wizard in his own right, had taught him a variation that he swore was quicker. Kieran rarely trusted the word of his twin. Orlan was likely to teach him something that would turn his bow into a snake. Mentally crossing his fingers, Kieran closed his eyes and touched the rough bark of the tree.
“Adameo,” he said and opened his eyes. The bow was gone. Kieran knew that the vanishing was an illusion, a simple mind trick, but his fingers still tingled as if they’d brushed the nettles of a skinsore bush. In reality, the shape of the bow now merged with the trunk of the elm, awaiting his return. He itched to call it back, but even a townsman would notice someone carrying a six-foot longbow. Dropping his pack, he bent to slip the knots free. He would leave the pack as well.
“Travel light, travel swift,” he said, muttering a favorite proverb of the forest scouts. Reaching into the pack, he filled his pockets with anything he thought might be useful. His fingers touched a leather bag of fine white crystals and pulling it free, he weighed it thoughtfully in the palm of one hand. Orlan scoffed at the flash powder. He said it was the false magic of charlatans. Kieran shoved the bag into his pocket. False magic maybe, but the smoke and light conjured by a warm breath could be a distraction if he found trouble.
Trouble. Kieran knew that word well. Orlan worked magic, but trouble followed Kieran like a well-trained dog. If, or when trouble found him, the bag might be a weapon.
By habit he touched his amulet and muttered a luck charm. The birthing day amulet hanging from his neck had been placed there on his naming day. It helped him focus his tracking skills. Orlan’s amulet stored magic for later use. Kieran snorted. That was a thought to lift the fine hairs at the back of his neck—Orlan capable of working spells. He grinned. Safer to fight your way through the darkest part of the forest than trust Orlan with a spell.