They reached the town of Gretzgig and Bru found it changed since she last was here. A crude wall had been erected and a stout wooden gate stood guarded by two sentries posted on a small platform above the gate. One of these called to them as they approached.
“Your name and business.”
“I am the wizard Bruhana. I have business with your mayor.”
The two guards conferred and the second one asked, “How do I know you are who you say?”
Bru bristled at that, but Zeke put his hand on her arm. “They’re just obeying their orders. It’ll be dark soon, shouldn’t we make nice and get inside?”
“You’re right of course.” She turned her attention to the sentries, and lifted her staff and held it horizontal. She spoke softly and a blue glow emanated from the stone at the top. Her voice rose and the glow increased and a bolt shot from the tip striking a rock, which exploded impressively.
Suitably impressed, there was noise behind the gate and it swung open, the two sentries at attention as they walked through.
“If you could direct us to your inn, I would be obliged,” said Bru.
“We’re not so big to have an inn. At least, not since the last attack,” said Sentry One.
“We’ve lost a bit of the town, including the Lost Dog Inn, but you can find a warm spot at the Sign of the Fig. Arfred’s got the largest place and serves now as our Meeting House, and a place for us to have a pint and a game of rastle.”
“Good,” said Bru, “that is precisely what I wish to discuss with the mayor. Better the entire village be there.”
“We mostly talk about the Darkness lately,” said Sentry One darkly, as they passed the remains of several buildings. The streets were deserted this close to nightfall.
Zeke picked up his pace, tugging at the animals. “Where can I stable these?” he asked.
“Right across from the Fig. Not really a barn, but the place isn’t fit for human habitation and the stable burned in the last attack.”
“Lost three zorses and seven lumes,” Sentry Two said as they stood in front of the Fig. Zeke took their animals to the stable and got them settled with a rub down. When he came out the sun had just set and he quickly crossed the narrow street to join Bru at the Fig. He paused to let his eyes and nose adjust and took in a deep relaxing breath, which caught in his throat as the miasma of odors exploded in his head and he coughed violently. As usual with locals, suspicious eyes were on him and he could feel their fear as he crossed the room to the table in the back where Bruhana sat. Zeke had just sat down when food and drinks arrived.
Zeke was always apprehensive when trying new foods and since he’d arrived in the Wold, he was even more so when they stopped among the towns and villages along their way. He never knew quite what he would be served. Tonight though, he was pleasantly surprised. The best part was the beer was actually cold. It annoyed the locals, but pleased Zeke immensely. Another beer or two and he might actually begin to relax. It seemed he was always tense and had to remind himself to relax his muscles.
They ate quietly, but as soon as the dishes were cleared away, Zeke had enough. “The pterosaurs really did a number on this place.”
“That wooden fence they’ve put up, it’s not going to stop those monsters. It’s a poor use of their resources besides,” Bru said.
“What they need are archers.”
“No, missus,” interrupted the serving woman as she returned with another cold beer for Zeke. “What we need is magic.”
Bruhana looked concerned. “I remember there being a Lesser Wizard living here, Barthal.”
The woman shrugged. “Dunno. I just know he be gone.”
“That goes against everything a wizard is taught. I know Barthal, not well, but he is, or was, a good man.”
“You didn’t know?”
“Unless someone in Gretzgig notified the Council, I would have no way of knowing. Something must have happened to him. Did no one search for him?”
“What can harm a wizard?”
“A wildercat, a pterosaur, drowning. Wizards can protect ourselves from many things, but in the end we are flesh and bone and can die any number of ways.”
“What about the Unnamed?” someone asked.
Bru silently contemplated her feet for a long quiet minute. “If Kahi could be turned, why not Barthal? Certainly it is possible. I find it unlikely, and yet.” Somehow thinking Xanthipi was recruiting lesser wizards was almost more frightening than losing Kahi. “How many wizards have turned against their teachings?” she wondered.
A sudden gust of cold wind blew open the door, putting out the lanterns that hung about the room. The few high windows rattled violently. A good number of patrons lifted their middle finger to ward off any evil that may have blown in, as the proprietor rushed to shut the door. Servants quickly came out with tapers and lit the candles. They could hear the screeching of pterosaurs and mogres. It sounded like several landed on the roof. Several patrons dashed out and ran for home, while most hesitated and milled about muttering to each other. There was another scream and people instinctively ducked under tables. “Maybe no one should leave,” suggested a plump serving woman.
“I can’t stay here, me wee kiddies…” said someone, the rest of his comment was cut off by a gut-ripping scream coming from outside. Panic followed, and people began to run about in circles weeping and crying and asking what should they do. Some stood like statues, rooted by indecision. Several women began to cry in earnest when three men ran off in blind terror, leaving the door open in their wake.
Arfred approached the open door and peeked down the street. He started to close it when he heard a noise. He grabbed a lantern and headed outside. Two beefy young men, farmers most likely, followed him, bearing their own lanterns. Another man grabbed his things and headed toward the door. He had a bow and a quiver full of arrows. When he shut the door behind him, the salon burst into a cacophony of laments.
“Should they go outside?” “Where are they going?” “What do they think they’re doing?” Everyone asked at once. “Should we follow them?” “I wanna go home!” wailed one of the younger serving girls.
Bruhana raised her hands and called for calm. “Good people, it might be best if the rest of us stayed here for the moment. At least until we know how things stand out there.” Lots of voices agreed with her, but not all. Several voices said they could not stay; they had children or mothers, or wives at home that needed their protection. “I know you are all concerned about your families, but the danger out there is quite deadly. You will do your family a disservice should you die on the way home tonight.”
An elderly man stood up next to Bru. “The wizard is right. We should all stay put. At least until Arfred and the boys return and we find out what’s what.” A chorus of approval followed. After several more minutes of milling and muttering, people sat back down and began to order drinks. The serving girls, now having something to occupy their minds, quietly served.
About three quarters of an hour later Arfred returned with one of the farmers. “It was Gruman that screamed,” he announced.
“What about Morlon?”
Yeah, and my brother Albin. They both ran out of here a minute before you came back.”
“And there was a scream,” added one of the patrons.
“ I heard that scream as well, but I didn’t see anyone.”
“What happened to Balin?”
“And Fletcher?” asked his wife, large red-faced woman.
“They went to Fletcher’s to fetch more arrows and his extra bow. They plan to patrol the village for a while. I just came to get some help moving Gruman’s body out of the street.” No one moved. “I really would rather not leave him out there. Who knows what kind of animal will come prowling during the night.”
Two young men stood and one nervously picked up a knife from the table. “I’ll go,” he said, though his hand was shaking. “Me too,” the other said and tightened a sword belt around his waist. Arfred nodded and led them out to the street. Those remaining began to find chairs, benches or bits of floor to sleep on. The stable master jogged across the street to the stable and a small crowd followed him
“You go with them, Zeke,” Bru told him. “I’d like to keep an eye on as many townspeople as I can. I will stay with the rest of the villagers in the common room. I want to be present when they return with Gruman’s body.”
Zeke peered out the door into the darkness and made a dash across the street.
Balin and Fletcher returned to The Fig a while later, their families in tow, the younger ones crying. Arfred’s wife, Germa, herded the frightened children into a corner and made a comfortable bed for them and their mothers.
The room had grown quiet. There were whispered conversations interspersed with soft snores and the occasional snort. But all was noise and chaos when Arfred returned with Gruman’s body. He went directly to the kitchen and laid him gently on the floor in a corner. Bruhana followed close behind. A number of villagers followed her through the door, crowding behind her, trying to see. Bru turned to them. “I understand your concern and interest, but please, I need room to move. Would you please return to the main room?”
There were some sullen stares and one man started to protest, but one look at Bruhana and he knew he should stay quiet. It wouldn’t do to survive another gargoyle attack only to be turned into a crow or a cockroach by an angry wizard.
While Gherkin searched, Kahi had busied herself by fashioning a new walking stick for the one she lost on her drop to the desert. She was seated beneath a tree chipping a bit of gertz stone for the top of her staff. It won’t be as strong as the obsidian stone she had on her old staff, but it was all she had. When it was of proper size and shape, she placed it in the cradle she had carved at the top of her staff and secured it with a bit of leather. When she deemed it ready, she cautiously tested it. She aimed it at a small tree and sent a green spark from the top of her staff. But that was it. Still no magic. There was a sudden flash and she watched Gherkin as he careened down through the narrow canyon like water. His eyes grew huge as he approached her at a high rate of speed. He tried to slow his descent, and Kahi ducked.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” He cried, hitting the river with a terrific splash.
“What was that all about?” Kahi asked.
“Found it found it found tunnel-nnel” He squealed in delight as he danced among the rocks in the icy river.
Kahi jumped up. “You found it?”
“Yesssss yes yes,” he answered nodding like a ninny. Pleased to have pleased his Princess.
“Take me there now, I want out of this cursed place.”
“Up, up high, many many steps, up.” He pointed up river.
“Up? We have to climb up the mountain?”
“Yes yes yes we must climb, many many steps.”
“How many steps?”
Realizing that was all the information she was going to get, she rose, dusted herself off, and took up her new staff.
All that day they trudged up the canyon cutting from narrow bank to bank across the widening river, the canyon getting steeper the higher they climbed. Kahi discovered her magic returning as they climbed. She used magic to help herself as much as she dared. She was wet and weary when they had to find somewhere to rest for the night. It was almost full dark when they finally came to a widening in the riverbank, and she steeled herself for a miserable night. Another grievance for her new mistress. Kahi had begun to keep a tally. One day she would get even. She used magic to create a small fire and they huddled together and tried to sleep. She was awakened in the night by the hissing whistle of many wings in the air, but all she could see was darkness and a deeper darkness, but she knew what it was: raptors. They were close now.
Trum woke on the floor his head in a puddle of pale ale–at least that’s what he hoped when he pulled himself up, his hair matted and face sticky. He suddenly came wide awake as a large crash was heard coming from somewhere below him and realized he was quite alone. He patted his pockets to ensure he had not been robbed during the night and looked for his pack. Alas, it was nowhere in sight. He was wondering if his companions of the previous night stole it, when the door crashed open and Al came rushing in.
“Oh, thanks be, you’re awake,” he said in a rush as he yanked Trum to his feet. “Get your pack. We got to hurry.”
“Hurry where?” The night of drinking had clouded his mind.
“To the ship you noggin,” responded Al with a slap at Trum’s head.
“Ow,” he cried, then the light went on. “Oh, the ship! What time is it?”
“Time we was on the ship. She’s about to cast off.”
“Where’s my pack?”
“In the corner. Now get you up and let’s go.”
Tris stood on shaking legs until the spinning in his head stopped. He bent to pick up his pack and the dizziness almost dropped him to the floor. He managed to stay upright, shoulder his pack and turned to follow Al. “Right then. What are we waiting for?”
They ran all the way to the ship, Trum’s companion heaving and panting heavily and he slowed his pace a little.
Catch met them at the dock. “Come on then, get a move on. You’re not going to make much of an impression on the cap’n today are ye lads?” He hurried them up the gangplank, stopping at the top to declare his wish to board. Al followed, and Trum did his best. “Sailor Trum wishing to board,” he announced.
His request was answered by silence as the captain came forward limping on his traditional wooden leg, though instead of a parrot on his shoulder was a tiny head, held in place with leather cord sewn into his jacket. Trum was mesmerized and almost didn’t hear the captain’s question.
“I said, ‘What kind of name is ‘Trum’?”
He blinked, his mind raced to come up with an answer. “It’s a nickname, given to me by my little sister. She couldn’t say my full name, so called me ‘Trum’. It stuck.”
The captain roared with laughter, and clapped him on the back. “I don’t be needin’ a cabin boy this trip.”
Trum stood silently disappointed, wondering what to do next, when the captain grinned and said, “As it happens, I be needin’ a Cook’s Helper. Welcome aboard.”
The little man turned away, giggling to himself. Trum didn’t know what to make of the scary little guy, and was about to look for his friends, when Cook intercepted him. He was a tall dark man, with black hair and black eyes. Trum had never seen one of the Southern Islanders and tried not to stare. “You come,” he said, with a heavy accent.
Trum followed him down into the ship where it was dark and smelled of the ocean, tar, and the sweat of hundreds of men. He felt the age of the ship as he ran his hands against the walls and tried to memorize his way around, but it was a blur. They reached the kitchen, kettles hung from the rafters, a huge iron stove stood almost in the center of the room. There were two doors to his left, and to the right was a tiny bunk bed. Trum wondered how a man as big as Cook could fit on such a tiny bed and dropped his pack on the top bunk. Cook brought his attention to the state of the kitchen. “You clean,” he announced, and then climbed into the bottom bunk, and was soon snoring comfortably, his knees drawn nearly to his chin.
Trum did what he could to clean the place up. He saved himself some time by using some simple magic. Nothing much. He wasn’t even a Lesser Wizard yet, but he would have been by the end of the following year. He scrubbed pots ‘til they gleamed in the dim light. Then he turned to the dry larder and organized everything by its contents. Dry goods were mostly in kegs and barrels and these he pushed against the wall. The salted meats which had been thrown on the floor in someone’s haste. One by one he took them into the wet larder and hung them from hooks in the ceiling apparently for that purpose. He mopped and scraped and when Cook awoke he didn’t recognize his kitchen. He chattered at length in a melodic language and pointed and waved his hands and held his head. Suddenly he went quiet and looked at Trum so intently his heart caught in his throat. Maybe Cook could feel the magic in the room. He hoped not, for that would quite likely give away his identity. “You cook now,” said Cook and walked out of the kitchen, leaving Trum to ponder the preparation of the Captain’s meal, which he knew was to be prepared first.
Trum worriedly prepared the meal to the best of his meager abilities. He sent the Captain’s tray up with his steward and wasn’t a natural cook and didn’t enjoy the task, but he knew how to prepare a suitable meal. He just didn’t know how to prepare a meal for so many.
The next morning everyone talked about the sudden improvement in the food. Trum finding himself above deck for a short time couldn’t help but hear it. He was somewhat disappointed to discover everyone assumed Cook had suddenly become good at his task, not that Trum was doing the cooking.
Al saw him and waved from the aft deck where he was busy swapping stories with a few of the younger sailors. “This is Trum, Cook’s helper,” Al introduced him. “Bart, Garfield, and Max.” Trum nodded to each and took a seat near Al.
“We was just talkin’ bout the monster what killed the wizard.”
Trum sighed. He’d already heard enough and turned to look out over the sea. He’d never been on a ship, and hadn’t been away from The Keep for more than a day since he was 8 years old. Vaguely he remembered his father. A bearded man with eyes brown as an elm tree, tall, at least to Trum’s younger, smaller self. He seemed to remember a time with his father, and then it seemed like he forgot him for a while. His mother, he hardly remembered at all. She died when his sister was born and he was only three. It was more a feeling that he remembered. Of being wrapped in a warm, soft refuge, safe from the monsters. And a faint scent of a flower he couldn’t name.
Their father had been declared dead, though no one would tell them what happened. They only knew he wasn’t coming back. Their father had already been away for more than two years, and Tris had been doing his best to care for little Anna, now near 5 years old, do household chores, took care of the animals, and did the cooking. His brother Kaleb was muscular and strong, though only 14, he worked with the men. He did any work that came his way; cut and hauled timber, hauled anything really—he could pull just about anything a mule could, and often did, at first to impress the men. Later girls in pairs and small groups would find a place under a nearby tree for their picnic or games. He would catch them watching him, though they tried to be coy. In summer they would bring him and other workers lemonade and water. Kaleb loved to do hard physical labor. It made him feel alive and virile, and despite their dire circumstances, thought he had the best of it.
Tris still remembered the day the Abbess came to their little house in Cat Alley. If grey had a feeling, it would be the feeling of that house. Tris was not sad to leave it, but he was sad to leave his brother and sister. He was sure he would ever see them again. The Abbess herself sat in their father’s chair as she made pronouncements on the distribution of their father’s estate, which consisted mostly of his children.
Kaleb promised to be big, like his father, and the Abbess decided Kaleb would be apprenticed to Jorman Ox, the blacksmith. He would receive training in all aspects as a smith, as well as room and board, until he reached the age of 19. Then he could choose whether he wanted to remain. Kaleb accepted this verdict as wise. “I will do my best,” he said, his eyes shiny with tears. “I will make father proud.”
Tristam was to be sent to the The Keep to train to be tyro to the powerful wizard, Kahi, and become a member of the Fortress Guard. He couldn’t believe it. Did that mean he had magic? Until that moment, he had never considered the possibility. Had his father had magic? What of his mother? Had they been Lesser Wizards, or more? He was excited at the prospect of leaving their dingy little house for life in the Fortress of Magic and Peace. He would miss his siblings though, especially Anna.
His sister Anna was given to the childless couple next door. With that adoption, the couple now could take possession of their house as well, thereby almost doubling their worth, as well as their dwelling, making them exceedingly happy. Little Anna cried. Trum was pulled from his reverie when the Bird called down from the Nest, “Land ahoy mates.”