Chapter 2 of this fantasy novel that doesn't have a proper title yet.
From the time the very first Dwarf picked up the first mining tool, there had been Weavers. Dwarves were not, by nature, intrinsically magickal, but there were those few exceptionally gifted in the art of Weaving.
Weaving fell into three main categories. Stone Weaving, those who had a gift in shaping stone into the most delicately ornate statues, the most architecturally comfortable habitations, the most formidably robust fortifications. Then there were the Iron Weavers, blacksmiths beyond compare. It was said that an expert Iron Weaver could not only sniff out an ore deposit beneath near on two hundred feet of bedrock, but could almost will the metal from the stone, like it wanted to be found.
These two Weaver types were rare enough, though there were enough to spare to some of the larger cities of men, leaving their families very comfortably affluent, but rarer still were the Rune Weavers.
Rune Weavers, possibly only as many two to a Dwarf StrongHold at any one time, and only one in the larger of the Dwarf Holds, were artisans of a class and distinction all their own. Most Weavers, whilst finding strength in one discipline, for example, Stone Weaving, would find a minor ability with Iron Weaving, and vice versa. Rune Weaving was never shared. If a Dwarf were adept in Rune Weaving, it became his whole life. He would be chosen from birth, marked by one of the twenty-seven Dwarf Runes that would stain his left cheek, and would be taken from his family by a Rune Master, taken to Khashtar, the Rune Temple, where he would be instructed in the art of Rune Weaving. When he could learn no more from the Masters at the Temple, he would be sent to a Hold or StrongHold, and there he would fashion the most beautiful weaponry and devices, imbuing them with ancient, powerful magicks, held fast to these sacred items by the Runes he would inscribe upon them. It was a lonely life, for he would never be able to take a wife, but it was a vital component in the defence of the Dwarf border territories within the Trybarad Mountains. No Rune Weaver ever left the mountains.
Neod Borgesson was just such an individual, in his twelfth year of instruction under Rune Master Jarak. The time was coming when Neod would be told to leave the Temple, and take his skills to the Dwarf people, before returning to complete his training and take his place among the Rune Weavers of Khashtar.
He walked along the corridor, shadowed by the burning torches that cast their light upon the stone murals that showed great moments in Dwarf history. To his left was Kazatt the Stout, third of the mighty Dwarf kings, holding his mighty warhammer above his head as he stood upon the bodies of the Elven dead at the Battle of Murbi during the second War of Wood and Stone. To his right was shown Vultrek, the Master Weaver, who stood with Kazatt at Kholosh Jaar, the legendary underground stone fortress where the Dwarves made their last stand, and the power of the Runes was first utilised against Elf magick. Such was the strength of both magicks, and the size of the opposing armies, that both Elf and Dwarf suffered huge casualties, ensuring that there was no real conclusion to the war.
Both Kazatt and Vultrek died that day, and in honour of the Master Weaver, he who could Weave with Stone, Iron and the new found power in Runes, succeeding Dwarf king, the Venerable Bolkhaz, founded the Order of Rune Weavers, and had built for them the Rune Temple of Khashtar.
Neod stood in front of the mural, taking in the majesty of these two imposing figures. Not for three hundred years had there ever been a true Master Weaver. It was doubted by the Ancients who tended to the Dwarf Libraries on the floor below that there ever would be another. The escort accompanying Neod placed a hand on his shoulder, and turned him to face the huge doors before him. They stepped up to the doors, where the escort hammered ceremonially upon the heavy oak with the haft of his axe. They waited. From the other side of the door came the sound of huge iron bolts being slid back, and slowly, the doors opened, revealing the assembly hall of Khashtar, the cavernous Hall of Masters.
Neod was led in, to the spot where he was to stand before the Council of Ancients. The hall was largely empty of furniture save for a long oak table placed before him. At this table were seated the twelve Ancients who oversaw the day to day running of the Temple, and made all the necessary important decisions regarding the neophytes. Surrounding them, creating an arena in which he was the centre, were Stone Weaved statues of the past Master Ancients, those that headed the Council. The effect of all the pairs of eyes, cold and unfeeling as stone, together with the Council members now facing him, left Neod feeling more than a little unnerved. Truth is, he thought to himself, I have absolutely no idea why I’m here.
The Master Ancient stood as Neod approached the table. He nodded his head at the escort, who took a step back, turned, and marched back to the doors. The other ancients all stood and nodded at Neod.. Somewhat intimidated, Neod bowed his head in respect for the Dwarves before him, then looked up at them, attempting to meet their gaze equally.
“Be seated.” Stated one of the Ancients, and they all sat, as one.
“Who is it that comes before us?” asked the Master.
“I am Neod, son of Borge.”
“Why do you come before the Council?”
“I have been summoned to appear,” replied Neod, then added, “For a purpose I know not.”
This was met with muttered disapproval from the eleven Ancients. The Master simply smiled from behind his white beard.
“Neod, son of Borge,” began the Master, “You have been with us for twelve years. This you know. You have studied our teachings and crafts patiently and enthusiastically. This you know. Our libraries have nothing left to teach you, our craftsmen, nothing left to show you. This also, you know. Yet you remain before us unfulfilled. Most that come to learn at our Temple would still receive instruction until the day they leave us, yet you have four years left to you. Every task you turn your hand to, you have completed as you were an Ancient,”- more disgruntled murmuring- “and yet you stand in this hall and claim to have no idea why you are here?”
Neod didn’t know where to look whilst his achievements were slowly recounted back to him. It was true, there was nothing more he could learn, but he had continued to attend his lessons, and take his instruction, to learn his theory in the libraries until it was ingrained upon his memory. He looked back briefly at his escort, but the Dwarf that had brought him to this room stared straight through him. I have never felt so exposed, he thought, so alone.
“In the libraries, you will find every text on our history and on all three Arts of Weaving,” continued the Master, “But there are books within that neophytes are forbidden from reading. Only the Ancients know of their existence, and of their content. They contain prophecy from before the time of our founding. They tell of the coming of Vultrek, his death, and a great many other things, all that have come to pass. They tell of the shadow that covers the land, turning the Peoples of the Land against each other, and of how ultimately, the Dwarf people will cease to exist.”
Neod couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The Dwarf people were strong, as solid as the rock that made their home. They could never, would never, fall. No, Neod was certain, obviously this prophecy had been misinterpreted.
Still Neod kept silent, and the Master went on.
“Only one thing can prevent this from taking place. Seven chosen individuals from among the different races on the Land must unite amongst themselves, and unite the Peoples, to face, and defeat this threat.
“But, this is no Human threat, no Man, nor Dwarf, nor Elf, for there is another world, behind our world of rock and stone, that would seek dominion over ours. Would seek to enslave the strong to their purpose, and eliminate the weak and resistant,”
“Nothing but Elf superstition!” cried one of the Ancients, “There is no other world Kharamhon! You have spent far too long immersing yourself in archaic scripture, and not enough amongst the stone of your people! There is no other world, there are no daemons, and there will be no coming of a Master Weaver!”
With this outburst, the muttering from the council that had been building finally broke it’s banks like a raging torrent of water and spilled out to fill the great hall with arguing voices. Kharamhon, the Master Ancient, brought his staff down on the stone floor three times to signal for order, and the room fell into silence.
“I will have order!” he commanded, and the old Dwarves to either side of him seated themselves somewhat angrily, but without further argument.
“Here in my hand is a decree from the King upon his seat in Kazhak Kral! He commands that we send he who is the Master Weaver to the Brotherhood of Darr, in the lands of Men, whereupon he who is chosen shall unite with his new comrades, and defend the Land, and all Peoples, from this threat. So he has spoken, so shall we obey. The time for objection is past, my brothers, for our survival depends upon it. All our hopes rest on this one Weaver, this boy whose beard not long past his chest, that stands before us.
“Neod, son of Borge, the Master Weaver, the hopes and fate of the Dwarf People are on your shoulders.”
“It is documented in the scripts of the wisest men in the world that behind the solid reality of stone and leaf, water and fire, behind the very air that Man breathes, there is nothing. A Nothing so vast that those who have attempted to comprehend it have been driven insane. And in the madness of their scribblings, men have documented The Void, nothing within nothing. Any sane teacher would tell his student that this cannot be, that it is a contradiction, and that to contemplate this would leave the pupil begging for the mercy and relief that death would bring.
“Study of these texts would also show that The Void is not as empty as first appears. It is, in fact, inhabited by an energy. A dark, twisted energy that struggles and strains to be free. It is self aware, and burns with a hatred of everything that lives in the mortal world. On certain nights, when the moon hangs full in the sky, the veil between our world and The Void wears thin, and some of the energy escapes. This energy manifests as demons, hideous malformations, parodies of nature that seek to corrupt and destroy all living beings, twisting the very land itself and waiting until the moon and planets are in alignment, when the Veil between our reality and The Void is at it’s weakest, when they can rip through.
“They have tried before, on several occasions, nearly succeeded too, but eventually each time they have been thwarted by the peoples of the world. This is why they now seek to spread fear and dissension, to prevent the peoples from allying with each other.”
Tarl and his grampa sat listening avidly as the rider imparted upon them the knowledge he had.
“Seven individuals, led by the last of the Brotherhood of Darr must come together, though they be of separate race to each other, to set aside the prejudices they harbour toward each other against these abominations. What happened to you in Gelsenburg will continue to happen, as they seek out those that would be the Seven, and eliminate them. That is why we travel together.”
The rider fell silent, poking at the fire he had built them a few hours earlier, stoking the embers so that it would continue to provide some warmth and protection through the night. It also allowed his two companions time to think over what he had told them.
“I suppose, “ began the old man, “If we are to travel the same road, we should trust each other with our names, at the very least.”
The rider gave no reply, and just stoked his embers.
“My name is Malcol.” he said, “The boy, as you know, is Tarl.” He hesitated, unsure whether to expect a reaction from the rider. None was forthcoming. The rider simply turned his head slightly, so that the dying firelight caught his weathered features slightly, giving him an eerie complexion.
“Aran,” he said, “My name is Aran.”
Tarl looked at his grampa with evident relief that, after three days on the road already spent in his company, this rider from the wilderness was no longer a stranger to them.
“Well, Aran,” began the old man, “We know your name, and we know we’re headed for the Dwarf cities in the Trybarad. What I want to know is, why? What can the Dwarves teach young Tarl?”
“I don’t expect them to teach him anything. We go to meet with another of the Seven.” replied Aran, “I will instruct Tarl in all he needs to know. You will also need instruction in how to cope with changes that will occur within him. Your love for the boy is great. Just because you are not called as one of the Seven, does not mean you do not have your part to play.”
“I’d like to see you try and keep me from his side! You may be able to teach him how to use his gifts, but there are some things you just won’t be able to do,” He settled down on his bedroll, pulling the blanket over the top of his aged body. He threw one last, loving gaze over to Tarl, who had finally succumbed to the weariness that was the result from the days’ travel. “I’m all he has in the world, in the way of family, and I’ll defend him with my dying breath.”
With that, he fell into slumber. Aran, last of the Brotherhood of Darr, the mysterious lone rider who had so abruptly become part of their lives, prodded the dying embers to allow the heat to escape, and turned his head to the forest that surrounded them, his thoughts dwelling on the fates of his companions, and of the road ahead. Family would indeed play a huge part in the events that would follow.
Her heart throbbed in her chest as she ran through the tangle of root and vine that made up the forest floor, her head swimming with the sound of the blood pumping in her ears. Behind her, faint rustles echoed their pursuit. There were five, maybe six following her, and so far as she could tell, none had broken away from the pack to forge on ahead and come at her from the front. The night lay like a blanket upon the forest, heavy and dark, with a moonless sky above offering no light to see the obstacles in her way. But instinctively, she knew they needed no light to see by, for they were made of the very blackness she waded through in her mad dash for safety. There was nowhere she could hide, no family or friends she could turn to, the village of her birth having provided no protection for her or the farmers and craftsmen that lived there with her, no protection from the things which hunted her now. The village chiefs had sent messengers to the local towns, and to the city, for aid, but no heroes had come, no armies sent forth, so the villagers were forced to form their own hunting parties. On the morning the first party was due to set forth, the body was found. Hanging in a tree on the edge of the village, the poor boy had been stripped of his flesh, his clothes and belongings neatly folded below him. The centrepiece of the macabre portrait that greeted those early wakers was the message that the boy had been carrying. Bound for the nearby settlement of Frith, the plea for aid sent two weeks previous was now skewered through the middle of his gut by his own severed leg. Who the message was for was evident. Placed upon the boy’s head, was the decaying head and pelt of one of the forest wolves.
The men of the village tore the body down, giving the boy a hasty burial as far outside the village as they dared, but they returned to find all the women, children and the elders slaughtered, left in the same state as the message boy they had just buried. All except for one girl. Shola’s daughter. The girl with no father.
Rumour among the folk told of how fifteen years ago Shola, poor, simple Shola, had been swimming in Gammers’ Dyke and, it being a hot summer that year had climbed out of the cool water to sleep without dressing first on the grassy bank. It was said that Gammers’ Dyke was an evil place, infested with all manner of strange and fey folk, and it was whilst lying sleeping there that Shola was taken by a wolf the like of which had never been seen before or since. It was dark before she returned, stumbling into the village, clad as she had swum, with blood staining her thighs. Nine months passed, and Shola gave birth to a daughter. Those villagers who remembered the mystery of the conception said nothing, not wishing any harm to the young girl, however superstitious they were. Most were content to believe that a unit of soldiers from Gundfeld had passed through, stopped for the night, and in the morning, Shola was pregnant.
The girl grew to be a pretty young woman, cared for by her aunt and uncle, her mother unable to do anything for herself since the trauma she suffered that night. Then, one night, shortly after her first bleed, with moon in the first of it’s three nights of fullness, the legacy of her mother’s stay in Gammers’ Dyke manifested itself upon her, and her aunt. When her uncle came home that morning from a night foray for dwarf elk in the forest, he found his niece on the kitchen floor, naked and covered in blood and scratches. He sat her down at the table, fetching some water, and a little bread and cheese, which the girl refused, complaining she was full. He cleaned her up with water from the butt outside, leaving her to wash her hair whilst he searched the house for his wife. He found her remains covering the floor and walls of their sleeping room.
The local herbman was summoned, and when he arrived he examined the girl. She was touched, he declared, blessed by the spirits of the forest and to be afforded the highest of status within the village. But, he warned them, those nights when the moon sits in the sky in all her full, rapturous splendour, the girl is to be placed in a pit dug in the plains surrounding the east of the village, shackled and left to spend the night, with nothing but a freshly killed doe, which would be gone by morning. This the people did, and for the following six moons, peace returned to the little village. That was when the livestock started disappearing.
First it was just sheep, taken by the wolves, they said. Then cattle and horses went missing. The people were frightened and angry. Some said it was Shola’s daughter, escaping to hunt, but the herbman spoke to them, instructing them to send for help.
That led, she remembered, to the people finding her all alone among the dead families of the village. They sent her from the village, never to return, and it was from her camp on the outskirts of the settlement, that she witnessed the creatures desecrate her home and its surviving inhabitants. Saw the black shapes chasing men from hut to hut, house to house, taking to the air, the talons on their feet sunk deep into the flesh of the men’s shoulders, soaring on leathery wings and dropping them as the birds drop stones upon tortoises to crack them open, then swooping down on their carcasses and feasting on the still pumping organs contained within. One of the creatures came so close she could feel its breath, hot and foetid, accompanied by the stench of rotting flesh left in the sun for weeks. She could feel the nausea building, the bile rising from her stomach to her throat, and at the moment she thought it would escape her mouth, the creature turned, and stared right at her, blood red eyes raping her very soul as she sat frozen to the spot. It turned, threw back its head and emitted from its lungs the most ferociously inhuman scream, at a pitch that nearly shattered her sensitive eardrums. Throughout the village, the creature’s companions all turned to its direction, and screamed in reply, a vicious howling the like of which she had never heard as woman or wolf. It proved too much for her resolve, and before the creature before her could turn and fix her with its gaze, she scrambled to her feet and fled.
She ran and ran, further into the forest that surrounded the Trybarad Mountains, deeper into the encroaching darkness of the night. It was fear that kept running. It was fear that kept her from noticing that the goddess that ruled the night, and the beasts that revelled in her light, was fast approaching her fullness in the sky. As she ran, she felt the changes coming over her, felt the pain of the transformation wrack her body as she pushed it to the brink of its exertion in her flight.
The creatures she had left behind let out another scream as their prey ran from their midst. They had so nearly found her, so nearly tasted her. For the powers they served, for The Void, they gave chase, tracking her across the ground, through the forest, whilst one took to the sky, hoping to swoop upon her and be first to feed, for once she had been killed, there would be nothing to stop their lords from finally claiming the Land, and reality.
But she too knew this. Before his death, when times were happier, the old herbman had explained to her why she had been chosen, why this extraordinary gift had been granted her. Had explained that, should anything happen to him before the proper time came, she was to make for the Trybarad region, and the temple of the Brotherhood of Darr.
Neod shivered, and pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders. Looking around him, he drew closer to the modest little fire he had built for himself. The pony he had brought with him when he left Khashtar started pacing uneasily.
“Tonight is not the best night to be camping alone, old friend, “ he whispered to the animal, “There is blood in the air, I can taste it.”
He glanced toward the saddlebags he had placed beside the tethered pony, and at the battleaxe strapped to the top of his pack that rested with them. The moonlight glinted sharply off the runes etched into the steel decorating the haft, runes he had Weaved there himself. He then looked about him at the pitch-black forest, all the while fingering the small hatchet tied to his belt. This too had been Weaved with a Rune of Smiting, the first basic rune he had learnt to Weave, and that graced all Dwarf weapons, and silently, he mouthed a prayer to the Dwarf Gods of the Anvil, that neither weapon would be needed that night.
For as watchful as he was, he didn’t see the black mass above the trees, to the left of where he sat. But it had spotted him. With a spine-chilling yell, it flattened its wings to its body, and dove toward the little camp and its occupant. Neod barely had time to register the attack before the creature was upon him, swooping toward him with talon and fang poised to tear into his flesh. After the second pass, he rolled toward his pack and fumbled with the leather thongs that restrained the Rune Weapon. Looking skyward he saw that the creature was preparing to make another attack. He could also hear from the forest, the sounds of pursuit. It seemed someone else was having trouble with these nightmare assailants.
The creature dived at him, howling its rage before it as if the hatred would somehow commence the carnage it intended to inflict upon its victim. The thong Neod was scrambling to untie knotted, so he pulled free from his belt the hatchet that was fastened there. Having never held a weapon before, except for gathering wood for his furnaces back home, the hatchet felt alien in his hand, and it occurred to him that, as the creature swooped ever closer, he hadn’t the faintest idea what he would do when it had come close enough. He had no idea when close enough would be.
The creature swung above him, scratching and scraping at his unprotected face and neck. Wildly, he swung the hatchet at any needle sharp limb that came close, knowing to allow one to come near would spell certain death. As it carried on through its arc, back into the air, Neod turned and began to cut away, desperate to free the battleaxe. At the same point that the weapon came loose, a shadow broke from the undergrowth, closely followed by another three of the demon creatures. The shadow, quite clearly a beast of some description, bounded straight at the fire, whereupon it turned, snarling low and guttural, to face its pursuers. The three creatures slowed to a walk, pacing menacingly toward the animal, which appeared to Neod in the firelight, to be a large brown grey wolf. As the demons began to encircle the wolf, it tried in vain to back up, and not allow the creatures from getting behind it. But three was a tricky number to keep two eyes on at all times. The second the wolf’s attention moved from the nearest demon to one that was moving behind it, the nearest pounced. In the same second, Neod lifted his Rune Weaved battleaxe above his head and charged, screaming, toward the wolf’s attacker. Momentarily stunned by this intervention, the demon turned to sneer derisively at the onrushing dwarf, giving the huge wolf the distraction it needed to leap upon the creature’s back, sinking the teeth of its giant muzzle deep into the demon’s shoulder. Howling in agony, the demon raised its head to the sky, writhing in an attempt to throw the wolf from its back. Neod brought the mighty weapon down in one heavy handed stroke, and as the axe blade bit into the opposite shoulder of the creature, the Runes that had been Weaved into the metal shone with an unearthly blue light. Neod was even more stunned and amazed to find that the blade slid cleanly through creature from shoulder to crotch like a knife through butter, slicing the demon cleanly in two.
The other two creatures, incensed by the sudden demise of their brother, immediately sprang upon Neod, slashing a deep wound in his shoulder before staring up at the fourth demon still hanging in the night sky as its head fell from its body and struck the ground.
Allowing time to catch his breath, an exhausted Neod weighed the odds of the remaining combat. One demon was slashing at the wolf that had turned its frustration at being another creature’s prey into a deadly assault of tooth and claw. The fourth demon let out a piercing scream, which was answered from within the forest, before rejoining the offensive against the Master Weaver. Somewhere within those trees, thought Neod, there are more of these things, and who knows how many?
He brought his attention back to the demon falling toward him. The pain from his shoulder was starting to become unbearable, and he knew unless he did something to conclude the combat, he was finished. As the nightmarish creature was almost upon him, he swung the battleaxe with both hands up into the sky, cleaving the demon in two. One half careened straight into a tree, where it exploded on contact with the trunk, the other hit the last creature in the back, giving the wolf the opening it needed to seize the demon by the throat, half severing the head from the neck. In extreme pain, the demon lashed out at the wolf, knocking the beast into the undergrowth. Neod turned and, in one fluid motion, sliced the axe blade cleanly through the waist of the creature, splitting it into two. Neod swayed on his feet, letting the axe slip from his fingers, knowing the remaining creatures in the black of the forest would be upon them soon, and felt the warmth of unconsciousness flood through him.
Neod awoke to the sound of the birds’ morning chorus filling his ears and the smell of fried mushrooms assailing his nose. Lifting his head, he found himself lying in his bedroll at the foot of a large oak, in a different part of the forest to the one he remembered from the night before. He tried to sit up. White-hot pain lanced through his shoulder and he stumbled back to a prone position, bumping his still foggy head on the tree behind him. Moving to his uninjured side, with some difficulty, he found all his belongings neatly stored beside where he lay. How strange, he thought, I have no idea how I got here.
“Oh, you’re awake,” the sound of a girls voice came from the other side of the clearing, “I was beginning to think you’d sleep all morning.”
Neod tried to peer round the hearth that had been built in the middle of the little camp he found himself in.
“I was always taught that the Dwarfs were a hardy folk, but after one look at the wound on your shoulder, I did have my doubts even one such as you would pull through, but, here you are,”
Neod still couldn’t see the owner of the voice.
“I picked the mushrooms myself this morning, and you should try the trout, it’s delicious!”
From the other side of the hearth stepped a young girl, no more than fifteen winters, if she were a day, with long brown hair draping itself over slender, tapered shoulders. Her face wasn’t exactly beautiful, but there was a certain ruddy, earthy prettiness that Neod found somewhat alluring, even for a manchild. If it weren’t for the lack of height and pointed ears, he would have sworn she was an Elf.
“You handled yourself pretty well last night,” she continued, “If you hadn’t been in that clearing, they would have caught me for sure, and I’d be dead now, or goddess knows what else. But since you were there, and helped save my life, I at least owe you an introduction. My name is Eloise.” She smiled, and it seemed to give Neod a warmth that eased the pain in his shoulder, although it did cause him to wince slightly.
“Your shoulder should be okay in a few days,” said Eloise, returning to the fish she had suspended over the fire on a spit, “Lucky for you I know a thing or two about herblore, or that wound could have festered and killed you in your sleep. That’s why I brought you down to the lake, plenty of
fresh water to clean the wound and wild silverweed to apply direct to the gash, especially as I mixed it with some crushed stitchwort I had collected yesterday morning. I hope you don’t mind that I went back to fetch it, but I needed some clothes, you see, and...”
“Of course I don’t mind,” replied Neod, feeling the leafy bandage that had been applied to his shoulder, “Just a shame you didn’t have anything for the pain.”
“I’m sorry, really I am,” Eloise carried on, tending to the fish that was nearly cooked, “But what with everything that’s happened to me of late, I have been rather slow in my herb foraging.”
She tipped some mushrooms onto a piece of dry bark that would serve as a plate, and handed it to Neod, then did the same for herself, seating herself opposite where he lay propped against the tree. Placing a mushroom in his mouth, he watched her eat, healthily, but not hungrily, as if she had eaten within the night. There were several questions he wanted to ask her, such as, where had she come from, how had she known about the events that had befallen him that previous evening, and what had happened to the wolf that he had aided against those creatures. But one lesson he had learnt well from his teachers in Khashtar was patience, for all answers will come eventually to those that seek them, and he felt in no hurry to make his enquiries. When the time was right, he knew, she would tell him. For now, he knew her name, and that she had fed him, and was helping to heal him and that was enough to know she bore no malice. Neod had often been told he made good character judgement, and he saw no reason to mistrust his gut instinct this time.
“So, how come you were travelling through this cursed part of the forest so late at night?”
Her question came like a bolt from the blue, and caught Neod somewhat off guard.
“You don’t have to tell me, of course, but it might help to pass the time a bit to get to know each other a little. You won’t be fit enough to travel for another day or so yet.” She poked at the fish with her small knife, and deciding it was cooked, took it from the spit, placing it upon her plate, and began splitting it in half. When she was done, she scraped half onto Neod’s plate, and then began on hers, her face full of curiosity about the Dwarf sat in front of her.
“I’m an Iron Weaver, “ he replied, not exactly lying, but still slightly unwilling to explain the full truth to her just yet, “My teachers decided now was the time for me to leave the Temple and find my way in the world, helping the peoples I meet. I was on my way to this little village near Gammers’ Dyke when I was set upon by this winged nightmare that came at me from the sky. The next thing I know, I’m defending myself against several of the creatures, when this giant of a wolf came springing from the black of the forest, and fought by my side. It didn’t even try to attack me! I was injured, passed out, and the next thing I know, I’m lying here with my wound dressed, and find you’ve cooked me this amazing breakfast.”
“It’s not much, I know,” began the girl, “But I thank you. The wolf is...a friend of mine,” she lied, “She protects me and keeps me from harm. If she’s hurt, I use my knowledge to heal her.” She pushed anther mushroom into her mouth, indicating this was as far on the subject of the wolf as she was prepared to go, and wouldn’t be elucidating any further any time soon. For now, Neod had to accept that he would learn no more.
They sat quietly eating the remainder of their meal, then packed the things away, content for Neod to talk about the skill of Weaving, the girl, Eloise, happy just to listen in the sunshine. That evening, she re-dressed his wound, which was already feeling much stronger, and they dined on a hearty meal of more fish, mushrooms and some wild garlic to add flavour. The conversation ran from childhood stories and dwarf histories to brief musings on what had befallen them the night before, but when topic turned to the wolf that had saved Neod, all conversation stopped, and it would be some time before another story would begin and the mood lighten.
The following morning, two days now after they had encountered each other, and with his wound virtually healed good as new, Neod and Eloise broke camp and began to head north west, away from the lake and back up into the wooded foothills of the Trybarads. They followed a river that fed the lake, the Maruon, and as the sun was shining warmly, so too did their spirits, chatting happily with laughter dappling their voices like the sunlight playing upon the water’s surface.
“Maruon is the spirit of the river,” explained Eloise, “It was said in my village that, as long as an offering made from the early crops is made on the longest day of summer, Maruon would ensure the water would stay clean and fresh for people to use and for the animals in the wood to drink. It is said he places his guardians, the Ikkymo’s, in charge of the river to make sure no one ever pollutes it. Once, before I was born, a boy from my village caught an Ikkymo in a piece of mirrored glass when down at the river with his friends. He brought it back to his house and showed his family, who told him to return it immediately and before the days’ end, fearing Maruon’s anger, that he might dry the river up. So the boy did as he was told, and set back out for the river. On the way, he met another boy, about the same age, so we were taught. The boy asked where he was going, and the lad replied that he was returning the glass to the river so the Ikkymo contained within could be released. The boy was puzzled by this, and urged for the village boy to go and play with him in the crop fields, but the boy from the village declined, promising that if the two should meet on his return journey, the would play together and carried on his way.
“A little further on, the boy was met by an old woman who had been gathering firewood from the forest. Her bundle had come undone, and she stood amid a pile of small sticks and twigs that would never make a decent fire to warm her. She called out to him for help, and even though it was late afternoon now, he stopped and gathered up the bundle, even adding a few larger branches lying nearby, and tied them for the woman. She asked him to help carry it to the main forest track, where she said her son would be along soon with his cart, and would help her the rest of the way. So he did, even though it took him out of his way. They parted, and he carried on, a bit faster now, as the sun was setting lower into the sky.
“It was nearly dark, and he still had some distance to go, when he saw a large stag lying on the floor, bellowing into the dusky air. As he approached, the stag tried to run, but each time it got up, it would stagger and fall back down again. The boy moved closer to the stag and saw it had a trapper’s snare caught around its leg, biting further into the flesh with every attempt to stand. The boy had no knife with which to cut the snare, nothing except the mirrored glass containing the captive Ikkymo, which he set about using to free the stag. When it was free the stag bounded off into the trees, stopping once to turn and bow its head before vanishing into the forest.
“The sun was down by the time he reached the river, and the moon hung full in the sky. He looked at the water and saw the Ikkymo’s waiting for him, dressed in their silvery armour. As he bent to place the glass in the water, they scattered and the boy looked up to the far bank where there was stood a man he had not noticed before. The man spoke to him, saying he was Maruon, spirit of the river, and that as punishment for stealing an Ikkymo he must accompany Maruon into the river and never leave. The only way the boy could save himself was to prove his love and his compassion for the river and show responsibility between work and leisure.
“Now, the boy was one of the laziest in the village, and most selfish, and couldn’t think of one single good deed he had ever done in his life. How could ever prove love, compassion or responsibility that he’d had never shown before? The man spoke again, ‘When I came to you as a youth, looking to play, you declined my offer, stating you had an important errand to complete first, yet would play on your return. Is this not responsibility before leisure?’ The boy nodded. Maruon continued, ‘And when you next came upon me, bent and haggard, did you not help me, even going so far as to ensure there was wood worth burning in my pile? Does this not show compassion?’ The boy nodded again. ‘And when I appeared for the third time, with the snare around my leg,’ Maruon showed the boy his ankle, and there sure enough was the snare wound, as fresh as it was on the stag, ‘Even then, knowing your time was short with which to complete your task, did you not lend aid to one who could not aid themselves?’ The boy nodded. ‘Then you have shown all the qualities I have asked for,’ said Maruon, ‘Place the glass into the water, and free the Ikkymo.’ The boy did as the spirit commanded, and the Ikkymo fled the glass back into the water to join his brothers. ‘From this day forth, whenever the sun shines upon your water you shall see the echo of an Ikkymo, and be reminded of the deeds you have performed for me.’
“And Maruon was gone. Sometimes seen as the stag, or the old woman, or the child, but never to speak to another soul since.”
“That’s a pretty tale.” commented Neod.
“Certainly, it kept most of the children from being too naughty,” replied Eloise, “And fed them with a healthy respect for the river, and the surrounding forest. I know more tales like that one, told to me when I was little, but I always found that one particularly beautiful.” She gazed wistfully at the river, “Sometimes, when I would lie by the river, watching the light playing upon the waters’ surface I would feel like I wanted to catch a water guardian for my very own, just to see if it was true, as if by proving that, I would prove all the tales we were taught. Guess I have no need for that now...” Her voice trailed off, and, feeling the chill turn of the conversation, Neod looked over his shoulder to see her shaking in her saddle.
“Are you alright? Is there something you want to talk about?” he asked.
“No, I’m fine. Just the morning chill not completely warmed out of me,” she lied, “Seriously, I’m fine.”
“Well, it’s just another half a days travel to Hammercroft, at this pace,” said Neod, concern reflected in his voice, “It’s a friendly town, so I’ve been told. We can stop to eat and find a warm bed. Earn a few coppers, then we can move on. That is, if you’re happy to carry on travelling with me?”
“I’ll think about it when we get there,” Eloise answered, trying to mask her tone of voice, without much success. There was sadness in her voice, Neod had noted it before, but now it was laced with fear. Whatever it was she was afraid of, Neod felt sure, he would find out in Hammercroft.