by Sam Medina
Katarina flees to the south and into the wild...
Book I of the Fetters of WIzardry
The King’s Road
Kat blinked. It was now morning. She must have lost consciousness when the dragon fell on top of her. Breathing came with sharp pain, and the stench of brimstone filled her nostrils. She tried to free herself, but the dragon was too heavy. She could hear voices not far off, the distressed voices of men and women returning to ruined homes.
“The beast is dead, to be sure.” Men’s voices and heavy footsteps came nearer. “There’s something shiny under it. Move that thing, lads, and be quick about it.” Cullywich, now that the crisis was over, had emerged to take charge. “Well, bless my bootstraps! It’s that little rechaizo, what belonged to Sulk.”
Kat coughed, then sat up slowly. “Marcus, where’s Marcus?”
“Near dead, no thanks to the likes of you.” A big man with a leathery face eyed her with hatred. “You brought that monster here, no doubt about it. For some dark sacrifice to your heathen gods!”
“Now, there, shut your trap, you ignorant brute.” Cullywich stood between the man and the girl. “She’s a heathen for sure, I’ll not argue that, but she’s just a child. She couldn’t have summoned such a thing! So keep your opinions in your pointy head and don’t start making more trouble.” Some of the men nodded their assent, but the big man was undaunted.
He looked around him and gestured to the growing crowd. “Behold the work of this heathen’s sorcery! She comes to town, and then comes this dragon! Then she, just a child, as some might say, slaughters it like a fatted goat while glowing bright as the harvest moon! I say she’s a witch!” Several others echoed his accusation, and before long, more than half the village was crying “witch” and Cullywich could no more quiet them than he could the thunder.
“Please, my good sirs, regain your reason and--” Cullywich was silenced by a meaty fist which knocked him to the ground. A cheer rose from the crowd, and in the shadow of a burned house, a slender, cloaked figure watched in silence.
“She’s a witch! Burn her!” This cry was repeated several times, and then the big man stepped over the unconscious Cullywich and toward Kat. He drew closer, and then the ground before him erupted in flame. Men and women screamed, and the crowd fled toward what shelter remained in the village. A billowing cloud of steam rose from the ground, and Kat stood up. She pulled her swords out of the dead dragon’s chest and ran.
It was not long before she’d made it to the old southern road. The King’s highway, men called it, though it had not been built by the Empire. The men of the town never traveled on it. The said it had been laid down long ago when there was still a High King among the Elves of Melloren, and they would curse when they came near it, believing it to be plagued evil spirits and perilous to all decent folk.
After the first few miles, Kat turned west off the road and down the slope to the river. It had been a mild winter, and so its waters still flowed freely. She cleaned her weapons and washed herself hastily, then opened the pouch on her belt. She took a small bundle of dry leaves and crushed them, mixing them with river mud. She scanned the area around her and then smeared this mixture on her arms, legs, and feet, then made her way back to the road, careful to stay to the rocky gullies that lead up from the river.
Her trail would lead to the shore, and if the men of the village did decide to try to track her in spite of their fear of the ancient road, they’d assume she’d crossed the river. The clay she’d smeared on herself would conceal her scent long enough for her to pass out of the Border Kingdoms if she was careful. After that, she was unsure what she would do, but she’d heard some of the rechaizo had taken to the islands in the Eastern Deeping. It was a long way off, and dangerous to be sure, but the alternative was at best a return to slavery and at worst a death by torture.
The day drew on, and grew darker. Kat had found few of the winter hesk berries along the road, but had filled her belly with bark from a pine that looked to have fallen in the last few days. Her feet ached and the cold was starting to sink into her bones, but she walked on, looking behind her every few minutes. No one had been on the road all day.
The wind slowed, and some distance off she could make out several howls. Shukhalu! Wolves! She stopped walking, and looked all around her. Katarina, you ninny! Even without a scent they'll find you easy as sleep out here in the open. She was too tired to fight, and she'd never outrun them. The howls were closer now, not more than two or three miles. And the deepening dusk alone seemed to carry a threat of its own.
In the dark, in the night
Of my people,
Make me light, keep me high
Above the hand of the enemy.
That was all she knew of that ancient song, but it was enough. Katarina's ribs burned as she tied another bundle of boughs to her belt and scaled the fat pine again. The sun was setting as she finished weaving the floor of a hasty nest high above the road, and it was dark when she had closed its walls about her.
The wind became harsh again, and though her small shelter kept the wind out, the cold seeped in. The wolves were closer now. Their barks and howls seemed to come from just across the river, and images of shaggy forms surrounding the tree swam in the girl's tired mind. Fear will not defeat me. Kat reached into her pouch and drew out a shallow clay bowl. I'll have to risk a fire, just a small one. It's either that or freeze. With all the pine boughs woven so tight around me, a very small fire would not be seen, but a slight change in the wind could bring the shukhalu. She crumbled two pine cones into the bowl, and then stacked twigs against one another.
Kat added a few more twigs to the little fire. The shelter was small enough that it was not long before it was warm. She huddled close to the fire and listened. The west wind is steady, and the wolves have moved deeper into the forest beyond the river. I should sleep. Her eyelids drooped, but whenever the tree creaked in the breeze or an owl stirred on some nearby branch, sleep fled from her. It was past midnight when exhaustion overtook her.
Katarina awoke with a start. Something moved in the forest below. It was still dark, and a few embers glowed faintly in the ashes. She hadn't been asleep long. Her fingers pried a small gap in the boughs, but saw nothing but the trees in the inky gloom of the woods. Stop scaring yourself, you must have been dreaming. Then the sound came again, closer this time. It was a thick, wet snuffling that dulled the sound of slow, heavy feet, menacing in the darkness.
She crouched in silence, straining to see, yet dreading to learn what new peril the night had conjured. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could make out a massive, hunched form. Her hands went to the hilts of her swords, and her chest filled with that coolness which was now familiar, even welcome. The creature stopped suddenly, and ceased its sniffing. It stood upright, and though its features were covered in shadow, it was clear that it had sensed the power of the ancient weapons. Gorrok. Katarina bit her lip. It has to be. The men of the village said that the gorrok were demons who feasted on the blood and living entrails of their victims. She forced her fear down and tried to remember anything her mother might have said about these creatures. There was nothing like this to the north in Moonshadow.
The gorrok resumed its snuffling. It came to the base of her tree and looked up. Katarina could not see its face, but now she could see that it had a broad skull, and a long-limbed, shaggy body that was stooped yet still much taller than a man. It seized the trunk with both hands, and the bark creaked under its grip. The gorrok shook the tree, and Kat's nest swayed. It knows I'm here. She began to draw the swords, and then the creature below seemed to bob up and down several times. A low, deep hum rose from the gorrok. Kat sheathed the weapons. What is it doing? It's not trying to climb.
The great shaggy creature seemed to shrug, and then lay its head against the tree and began to hum again. The humming stopped, and the apelike form straightened. The gorrok made a sort of long, low gurgling noise that one might expect of a woodland folk tale monster. Kat stiffened, and then the creature spoke, or at least seemed to. "Machpala." The gorrok let out a deep sigh, and then sagged against the tree. Several eternal minutes had passed when a great howl pierced the night.
The gorrok released the trunk and growled. It looked up into the tree, and sniffed. Several wolves could be heard now, and not far off. It lay one huge hand on the tree and snuffled. Thick claws dug into the bark, and the scent of pine sap rose up into the branches. "Machpala," the creature said. It dropped to all fours and shuffled off into the shadows.
Kat leaned back against the trunk. She put another pine cone on the embers and rubbed her eyes while the fire came to life again. This doesn't make sense. It knew I was up here. The sound of the wolves seemed distant now. Her thoughts began to drift together, and her eyelids closed in a dreamless sleep.
Katarina blinked. She peered up through the narrow smoke hole she'd left in her shelter. It's nearly dawn. She yawned, and then she heard breathing. The gorrok? Kat pried the boughs apart and gasped. At least ten of them! Her pulse rose up into her eardrums, but she did not reach for her weapons. What are they doing?
In the pre-dawn twilight, she could see them clearly. Covered in grey-brown fur, they had wide, stony faces with tusks that peeked out from under thick lips, and they wore a sort of breechclout with a rough belt of braided leather. The largest of them stood at the base of the tree, tapping his chest with huge flat hands. He rose to his full height, and the matted hair along his spine bristled. "Machpala!" he said, and snuffled. That's the one who was here earlier. Is he their leader?
The rest of the gorrok crouched in the fleeting shadows. As the dawn began too seep over the hills, the gorrok left, one by one, until only the first remained. As the sun was rising, the gorrok patted the trunk of the tree and sighed. "Machpala," he said, and disappeared into the woods with surprising speed.
It was nearly two hours later when Kat exited the nest. After scanning the area once more, she climbed down, wincing as she dropped to the forest floor. What's this? At the base of the pine was a slab of bark, and on it was an assortment of berries, mushrooms, roots, and some pale herbs she had never seen before. They seemed to be guarding the tree for much of the night, and now this! Katarina sat with her back to the tree and took the rough tray on her lap. She reached for a clump of berries, and then hesitated. Why would they do this? The men of the border kingdoms were known to give orphans and wandering rechaizo children food and then lure them into enslavement. These are not men. If they'd meant to harm you, they'd have done it in the night.
She ate quickly. The berries were sweeter than she had expected for the season, and the roots tasted like summer squash. Satisfied, she put the last of the roots into her pouch and eyed the untouched pale herbs. What are these? She sniffed at them. They smell like rosemary, but I've never seen anything like them. Kat broke off a few of the leaves and chewed them. A chill passed through her body, and then a warmth grew in her belly and spread. The soreness in her ribs faded, and the weariness of the past day departed. Magic? She studied the area around her. The gorrok had left no tracks she could see. I wish I could thank them. Kat tucked the rest of the herbs into a pocket, set the tray against the tree, and headed for the road.
Katarina had kept a brisk pace for much of the morning. More than once she ran and hopped and skipped as little girls do, but after several hours of cold and dust and quiet, the road was beginning to look endless. The coast was at least twelve days' march from Heinmark, but she did not know that. Toward noon she spied a small clearing to the east and turned aside.
She strode through the winter grass and soon came to what looked like a stone table. I never saw this from the road. The thrill of possible adventure rose within her, but melted away quickly before the memory of her recent troubles. Katarina circled the great slab slowly. There's writing on it. Symbols, unknown yet strangely familiar, formed a circle at one end of the slab, and at its other end there was a shallow depression in the ground. Nothing's grown in the hole. This stone was standing, and not long ago.
Kat climbed up onto the slab. There are other stones. Twelve, and all with the same kind of writing on them. She turned about to see what else might be in the clearing, and then dropped down to hide behind the fallen stone. There's someone on the road.
A tall, gaunt figure drove an old cart drawn by tired-looking mule. He was hooded and cloaked, and little of his face showed besides a narrow chin and a large nose, but it was clear that he was very old. Katarina kept still. What sort of man would take this road? Maybe he didn't see me. I'll let him go past, and then wait a while. Better to have him in front of me than behind.
The cart came closer. The old man leaned back in the seat, holding the reins loosely. The mule appeared to need little direction from its owner, and he seemed in no great hurry. The stranger neared the clearing with his posture unchanged. Kat quietly sighed her relief. He didn't see me. As he passed by, the man lifted one hand. Hanging from his gnarled fingers was a slender iron chain, and from this chain hung a brass token, which he seemed to swing to and fro.
Kat's eyes widened and she clenched her fists. My bond token! Without thinking of where or how the man might have acquired the proof of her purchased freedom, she jumped out from behind the stone and ran to apprehend the stranger.
"Hey! That's mine!" Katarina trotted alongside the cart. The old man said nothing. She reached for the brass disk, but the man snatched it away and tucked it into the dark folds of his wolfskin cloak. "What are you doing? I paid my life price for that!" The cart stopped. Kat stood glaring at the man. "Imperial Law forbids you to keep a token that is rightfully mine!"
A commanding baritone voice came from under the hood. "Perhaps you are telling the truth, and perhaps not. In either case, those who might impose Imperial Law on a poor traveler such as myself are far away."
Kat's face grew flushed with outrage. "How dare you? Have you no honor at all?"
"Honor I may have, or I may lack it entirely. However, I have not the slightest intention of denying you your freedom." He turned toward her, and from beneath bushy white brows bright green eyes brimmed with mirth. "Indeed, I have some hope of making you an offer which I believe you would find agreeable. All that I ask is that you hear my proposal, and then I will give you this trinket which you seem to regard so highly, and you can do as you please."
Katarina fought to control the anger that rose within her. She tried to sound as commanding as the stranger. "I don't care to hear your proposal, agreeable or not! Give me the token, or I will take it!" She stood with her fists on her hips. "I'll have you know I am a dragonslayer!"
The traveler did not move. "Now, little miss, there's no need to make threats, least of all ones you may not be able to make good on."
Kat drew her swords and leaped onto the cart. With impossible quickness the stranger poked her in the belly, knocking her backward into the cart bed. She sputtered and scrambled to regain her footing, and then realized he'd taken one of her swords as she fell. "Give that back!"
He remained seated and waved a hand at her behind him. "You were careless enough with it before. I doubt it would be safe to return it before you came to your senses."
Kat cried out in anger. I'll give him a knock with the pommel. "Who do you think you are?" She leaped to the attack again, and this time the cart lurched forward. She tumbled out of the cart, and was barely able to grasp the footboard before hitting the ground. The mule stopped, and Katarina climbed back in.
"I see you are still with us. I think," he said without turning to face her, "I am someone you can learn from, especially if you are as determined as you seem to be to become some sort of adventurer. You've got spirit, child, that is certain. Even the elf-lord Moab and the Grey Ghost would not willingly try conclusions with me."
Kat launched herself at him again. Something struck her wrist, and her other sword fell to the road. The stranger caught her by the shirt, stood, and held her at arm's length. He was rather tall, and so her kicks and punches struck only his arm and the air. The stranger sighed. He threw back his hood, revealing white hair tied back, and long, pointed ears.
"I see that you need more time to think."
-End of Chapter Two-