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Early in my stay with the foresters, I was no more popular than I’d been with the residents of my village. The foresters had firsthand experience with blood magic, and told tales of the things they’d seen by night or in some part of the woods formerly unknown to Man, so they had better reason than most to distrust me. The respect they had for my father was all that earned me a space in the bunkhouse and the chance to earn my keep. It did not earn me the respect of his companions, their women, or their brats; that would come later, once I’d proven myself to them and proven that I’d bring no harm down upon them.
The desire to prove myself and bring no harm upon them was not always mutual.
I’ve heard the joke about waking from a dream of suffocation and discovering one’s packsack was missing, but as I rarely remember any dreams, it had never struck me as funny—and especially not after it happened to me. One morning, not long after my arrival, I awoke with that same sensation of smothering. Shaking off the last vapors of sleep, I reached out with both hands and found my breathlessness to be more than a dream; in that instant of awakening, my hands found and wrapped around the wrists that held the thick blanket being forced down over my mouth and nose. Around its edges, I heard the muffled laughter of the youths who’d decided to have some fun at my expense, and though I struggled, given strength by my panic, whoever held the pillow was older and stronger. Just as I’d begun to grow desperate, my blood roaring in my ears like distant thunder and feet thrashing, one of my knees made contact with his head, and all at once the pressure eased and I was able to tear the blanket from my face.
They had surrounded my bed, vying for the best position from which to enjoy the show, and their faces filled with shame when they saw my wide-eyed terror and mottled face. The one who’d been holding me down lay beside my bed, clutching a smashed nose and moaning, blood seeping out between his fingers.
I was still gasping, and an anger such as I’d never before felt swept away the panic. I looked down at my former tormentor, and found it as difficult to draw breath as it had been through the pillow, and for a brief moment, that anger found a focus. It must have shown, for the onlookers drew back a step, even as I turned towards the bleeding youth, my hands crooking as if I’d strangle him where he lay helpless. A part of me I prefer not to show the world, buried nowadays, urged just that: kill him, and let the others know what they could expect should they ever try to demean me in such a way again. I took a deep breath, savoring those thoughts, then exhaled, the anger leaving with my breath. Instead, I removed the pillowcase that had held the straw ticking of my pillow, and kneeling by the injured youth, pried away his hands.
His nose was badly broken, and he howled when I caught it between my fingers and pulled it straight, as I’d once seen a smith do to himself after being struck a glancing blow by a horse’s hoof. Then I pressed the bloody cloth on both sides of the nose until the bleeding slowed to a trickle. There came a sigh of relief from my audience, who’d been holding their breath since I’d first emerged from the blanket scant seconds earlier. My attacker’s eyes were dull with pain, but the fear that had haunted them was fading. I remembered the smith, cursing, a fist the size of a water sack poised to fell the horse with the incongruously small shoeing hammer he held in a white-knuckled grip—and I remember him dropping the hammer, a smile growing as the blood streamed down into his mustache and beard, and reaching out to caress the horse’s flank. So I smiled at my former attacker, and watched as, bewildered, he returned that smile.
It still proved to be a long journey, but I’d taken one man-sized stride along the path.
Years later, alone in my room, I woke to find Grey sitting on my face, the sensation of smothering indistinguishable from what I’d felt that night in the cabin in the forest. It was an effective way to banish any trace of sleep, but there are far, far more pleasant ways to rise.
No sooner had I sat up, spitting cat hairs and fighting a tremendous urge to sneeze, then the wretched beast leapt from the bed and raced to the door. I hesitated, thinking wistful thoughts about shoeing hammers, but the cat had set up a desperate yowling that began to alarm me. Given the condition of my own bladder, I suspected I knew what Grey wanted, and I got up with some alacrity to set my companion free, navigating towards him by the dim light that passed under the door. I assumed he would find his way back if that was his desire, but having cleared the last cat hairs from my mouth, I confess I was in no state of mind to miss him should he choose not to return.
I set about answering my own needs, and when I’d done, set the chamber pot outside the door for the servants to handle. No sooner had I done so than the feeling I was being watched crept over me. And sure enough, when I turned from the door, a candle flared and there was Orgrim sitting on my bed. I jerked, startled, for though I was growing accustomed to his comings and goings, I’d not been expecting him here.
“Good morning, Modred. I trust you slept well?” Those stern eyes belied the kindly tone in his voice.
“Well enough, Orgrim.” I yawned. “Is it morning already?” It by no means felt that way.
He paused, and the clock on the palace tolled the hour: one in the morning. “It would seem so,” he replied. “Prepare to accompany me to the library.”
“I’ll be sure to remember that the next time you say early, you truly mean it.” I gave him a wry smile, but he failed to respond. “Very well, consider me ready. Is there aught I should bring?”
“Only yourself and the bag with the two replacement scrolls.” Orgrim rose with no further comment and led me to the door. Without listening, he opened it and stepped into the hallway, which was, as might be expected, deserted. The light from the low-burning oil lamps was just adequate for us to find our way down the hall without incident, and we tiptoed down the stairs. The inn was not the most expensive in Ankur, but its business appeared so lucrative the landlord could waste money on nightlights and on keeping loosened boards from waking his guests. The common room was as empty as the hallway had been, and the banked fire burned in the hearth. When we reached the door, the old mage made an exaggerated clenching gesture with his right fist and exhaled before drawing the bolt. When he swung the door open, the motion was silent, with neither clang of bells nor squeak of hinges.
Outside, we made good time, slipping through the chilly, deserted streets. It was a clear night, and the few oil lamps that lit the main street, vying with the nearly full moon to illuminate the streets, spread pools of light that made our progress obvious to any observer. Despite this, Orgrim made no effort to seek the shadows, striding in plain sight towards our destination; I suppose that was wise, for had we met the watch while skulking through the shadows, we would have had much to explain. It was not long before we reached the library, and though I drew to a halt by the front, he moved right on past the building, so I held back the obvious question. We entered a narrow alleyway that ran behind the building, the mage vanishing into it without glancing back to see whether I followed. When I did, I found myself in near-complete darkness lit only by what little moonlight filtered through the narrow gap above me that revealed the night sky. I’d taken my eyes off the alleyway for long enough to lose my night vision, and I bumped into Orgrim.
Orgrim grunted and pressed a rope into my hands. “Have a care, Modred. If you climb as clumsily as you walk, I’ll be finding myself a new assistant this same morning, and I’ll tell you now, I wouldn’t be pleased to have that chore. Now pay attention! At the top of this wall lies a ventilation opening that you should be able to squeeze through. Use the rope to descend on the other side if there is no ladder within easy reach.” My eyes had adapted once again to the darkness, so I saw him withdraw a small forked branch from within his cloak. He tucked it into my belt, and went on. “When you’re in, use this to locate the scrolls. Hold it with one hand on each tine of the fork, and turn it slowly; the tip will glow more brightly as you come closer to the correct direction.”
I looked up the smooth expanse of wall, unbroken by so much as a crack. I was no thief to climb a sheer, dressed-stone wall unaided. “And how do I get there in the first place?”
“Like this.” Orgrim placed his hands together at waist height, palms upward, and spat a word into the night. Then he raised his palms, and as he did, I felt myself rising into the night sky. Though I’d braced myself for something magical, I’d expected something more mundane, like launching the rope through the window and leaving me to climb it. I shivered, for despite my transformation, I was by no means familiar enough with the workings of magic to have grown sanguine about such things.
As I neared the top of the building and my head rose out of the alley’s deep shadow, the moonlight illuminated the vent at the top of the wall. The opening was capacious, large enough for my former self to stand in, and adequate even now for me to pass through with little difficulty. There was a light wooden screen covering it, but it was the work of half a moment to remove it; the screen had never been designed to keep out anyone more determined than a bat. As I set the screen aside, leaning it against its frame, and threw one leg over the lip of the opening, Orgrim’s spell ceased, and I settled, pinching my thigh. I would have cursed him, save that I’d gasped as I felt my balance waver and begin to tip me into the darkness within the library. I clutched at the window sill, saving myself from a nasty fall, then set about fastening the rope he’d given me to one of the iron fixtures that had supported the screen.
My right arm still ached, but I was confident it would support me. Sure enough, I was able to climb down the rope, hand over hand, until I reached the bottom. I savored my new body’s strength for a moment, grinning like a fool in the darkness, then forced my mind back to the business at hand. The library was pitch dark, enough so I feared at first to move. But I was confident Orgrim knew what he was doing, and I took the stick from my belt—not without some trepidation—and held it before me. No sooner had I grasped it as he’d instructed than a faint greenish-white glow sprung up from the end of the stick. My hands shook, casting faint trembling shadows, but I was relieved to feel nothing more than the stick’s dry wood; if I’d felt anything resembling magic, I’d have dropped the stick and lost it in the gloom.
With my eyes grown accustomed to the night, the stick’s glow was sufficient to help me find my place in the big room. As a test, I pointed the stick towards the librarian’s desk, and as I did, the glow waxed in intensity. By the time the stick was pointing at the scroll I’d left there earlier in the day, the illumination was about as bright as a candle. I strode to the desk and exchanged the scroll for the replacement Orgrim had provided, eager to be out of there. Once the real scroll was safely within my sack, I swung the stick in a slow arc until the light brightened once more. By moving the stick back and forth in the direction that caused the brightening, it was easy to find the correct direction, and in no time at all, I had the second scroll in my sack and the stick back in my belt.
Unfortunately, with the stick no longer pointing at the scrolls, the magical illumination vanished, and I was left in near-total darkness save for the shaft of moonlight that fell upon the far side of the room. Fortunately, my problem was easily resolved: I held the sack in front of me in one hand, and the stick behind it. With the stick pointing again at the scrolls, its glow returned, strong enough to pass the edges of the sack. By proceeding in this manner, I made my way across the room to the rope. At the rope, I replaced the stick in my belt, slung the sack back over my shoulder, and set about pulling myself up through the darkness until I reached the opening. Morley would never have succeeded, but Modred had been gifted with a fine body. I reached the top with nought more than a few twinges from my right arm. Now, a new problem arose.
“Orgrim, how will I get down?” My whisper sounded loud amidst the night’s silence. “If I climb down the rope, I’ll have to leave it attached.” Orgrim declined to answer, but he grunted something and immediately I found both myself and the rope floating in midair beside the wall. I replaced the screen, and as it settled into place, found myself descending rather more rapidly than was comfortable.
My feet touched down hard and my stomach caught up with me. I shook myself like a dog emerging from a pond to free myself of the sensation, then handed Orgrim the sack and his magic stick. He placed the stick in one of his voluminous sleeves, then opened the sack and examined the two scrolls; as we’d remained in the shadow of the building, I have no idea how he saw anything, but he gave a satisfied grunt. “Well done, Modred. You can return home now to a well-deserved night’s rest. I’ll contact you when I need you again. Find some safe way to occupy yourself until then.” He must have sensed my hesitation, for he chuckled. “The door at the inn will remain safe for you to open for another half hour; you have only to close the door behind you to banish the spell.”
“Thanks...” I began, but I was speaking to an empty alleyway. I shivered again, partially from the night’s chill, and set myself to return to my temporary home at a brisk pace. I arrived well within the allotted time, and as the mage had promised, I had no difficulties gaining entry. I closed the door behind me, looked for but saw no obvious changes in it, and shrugged and returned to my room, stifling a yawn. Grey awaited me by the door, gazing in my direction as if he’d been expecting me. I bent down to pat him, and he recoiled until he’d had a chance to sniff my fingers. Whatever it was he was trying to smell must have satisfied him, for he shot inside the room as soon as I’d opened the door. With the door once more closed and bolted, I was the most attractive thing in the universe: the cat was all over me, begging to be rubbed and purring fit to wake the neighbors. It was some time until he quietened down and let me return to sleep.
Not long after dawn, Grey woke me once again, in much the same way. Spitting cat hair for the second time that morning, I reflected that if this kept up, the foul beast would soon be seeking another master, or would be too dead to be seeking anything much at all. This time, however, he was clawing at the door as if a nearsighted wolfhound had gotten into the room and was blundering after him. Again, I hastened to release him, then bolted the door with particular vehemence. When I turned, half-remembering what had followed the cat’s first departure, I was not at all surprised to find Orgrim seated once again upon my bed.
“Have you had a visitor?” His voice was demanding, and I felt sure I’d never get away with misleading him outright. On the other hand, I was beginning to feel a need to test the limits of my freedom, just so I’d know for sure. So I bent the truth a little.
“Just some cat that found its way into my room. It’s gone now, and good riddance.” A cat hair I’d managed to miss worked its way to the front of my mouth, and I removed it and spat upon the floor.
Orgrim smiled his gentle smile, but again, his eyes gave it the lie. “Stay away from cats. They’re untrustworthy companions, and will cause you more grief than their friendship is worth.”
“On the whole, I’d have to agree.”
“I’m rarely wrong, you’ll find.” He paused for a moment as if gathering his thoughts, and the smile vanished. His entire face was serious now, eyes and mouth both narrowed. “I have another task for you, and one that will be considerably more difficult to achieve. In fact, were it not for your background as a forester, I would hesitate to consider it.”
“Should I take that to mean you’ll be sending me out of town?”
Orgrim went on as if he hadn’t heard. “I have two messages that must be delivered to places our kind are not welcome. I would be lying to you if I said that your task will be easy. Indeed, a normal man would neither find those to whom I want to send the message, nor have the tact to survive meeting them. You, on the other hand, possess what’s necessary to do both, and I trust you will succeed after I’ve provided you with suitable aids.”
My muscles tensed at his tone, which suggested that despite my value, I was perhaps more expendable than I’d hoped and that he mightn’t shed many tears if I were expended. “You’re not inspiring me with much confidence.”
“Nor did I intend to. False confidence would be the death of you. For you to survive to serve me again, you must needs be on your guard.”
“First, against the Elves; next, against the Goblins.” There was a certain malicious cruelty in the way he savored my reaction.
“I think I opt not to take on those particular challenges. Could I perhaps just fetch you some of the King’s private stock of wine from the palace instead?”
Orgrim laughed openly for the first time since I’d met him. Under other circumstances, it might have been a reassuring sound, but now it chilled me. “Your sense of humor will serve you well in coming months. Treasure it.” The laughter died away as if it had been smothered with a blanket, or perhaps a cat. From within his cloak, he removed two scrolls and tossed them to me in rapid sequence. I caught them both, expecting some kind of magical shock, but there was none. They were, however, far heavier than I’d expected.
“The one with the green seal is for the leader of the Elves.” He watched my eyes widen, and smiled with evident relish. “And the one with the black seal is for the leader of the Goblins.”
I gathered my courage as best I could. “I assume you’re going to give me more help than that. No man has seen an Elf since we first arrived in the new lands, and I would have said the same of the Goblins had I not kept my ears and mind active during my stay at Court. But though I now believe the Goblins exist, what I’ve heard suggests no lone man would survive meeting them. So how shall I find them, and more importantly, how will I survive the finding?”
“To seek the Elves, travel west to Belfalas, then south to the Southwood. They shall know you are coming.” Though that was meant to be reassuring, I didn’t take it that way. “That alone will not guarantee your survival; as I mentioned, surviving after you have delivered my message will be up to you.”
“I find myself reassured.”
“Your sarcasm will serve you less well than your tact where you’re going, so I advise you to unlearn the more literally foolish aspects of your former profession. You leave today, as soon as you can break your fast. A horse awaits you in the inn’s stables, and it’s equipped with everything you shall need for your journey.”
I clutched at what comfort I could find. “You mentioned you would provide various aids to my survival?”
From his hand, Orgrim removed the bone-white ring I remembered from my nightmare. “This ring will provide a contact of sorts between us. Should you need to contact me, close your eyes and imagine yourself sinking into it. If I am not otherwise occupied, I shall respond.” I put the ring on my own hand, and was surprised at how well it fit me; it burned a moment where it touched my skin, but then subsided to a pleasant warmth, and after a time the sensation faded.
Orgrim withdrew a small, broad-necked ceramic jug from his cloak and removed the stopper. “You will also need to be able to communicate with the elder races.” As he spoke, he dipped a finger into the jug, and began anointing my forehead with its contents. When he was done, he spoke a brief phrase in some harsh foreign language and pressed hard against my forehead, forcing my head backwards with surprising strength while continuing to chant in that harsh language. My forehead burned as if I’d stepped, hatless, from a warm cottage into one of those winter days so cold the snow squeaks when you walk upon it. Then he anointed my head once again and repeated the procedure, this time in a far more musical, pleasant tongue.
Orgrim replaced the flask within his cloak and wiped his hand on the coarse cloth. “I have given you what you need to get by in both languages; that alone should buy you enough time to charm them into letting you live.” The mage reached once more within his cloak, and withdrew another cloak I would have sworn could never fit beneath that garment.
“A cloak as full of fascinating items as yours?”
“This cloak will be what takes you to the Goblins once you have delivered my message to the Elves. When you are ready to leave, simply wrap it about you; pull the hood well down over you until you can no longer see out, then close your eyes. When you open your eyes again, you will be near your destination. Do you have any questions?”
“No magic swords?”
“I warned you about sarcasm, and you would be ill-advised to ignore my advice. No, I have provided no magic swords. They would prove a temptation to fight your way out of problems instead of relying on your wits, and you have considerably greater talents in that latter direction.”
I remembered my brief encounter with Brand in the kitchen, and reflected he was right—backhanded compliment notwithstanding. “Thanks for the reminder.”
“There is one more thing I have given you: that which lies within and that shall provide you with resources you can draw upon in time of need. Should it become necessary, rely on your inner voice for advice and strength.”
I pondered what he’d said for a moment. “Once I’ve delivered my message to the Goblins, how will I return to Ankur?”
“It is unlikely you will return immediately to Ankur. When you have delivered your final message, use the ring to contact me. I will decide at that time where you will be of the most use to me. Now I must go. Work well, for the tasks I have set you are important.”
With that, he faded from sight like the afterimage when you stare too long into the sun. I shuddered and set about gathering my possessions, old and new. As I packed, I realized that beneath the sense of trepidation that had gathered in my gut, I’d also begun to feel a growing excitement. I had grown to love the wilderness during my youth, and would be spending considerable time in new lands that I’d yet to experience—and that perhaps no living man had yet seen. More importantly, I had the feeling that should I survive my tasks—and I was confident I would—the places I was going would provide the answers to some of the questions that had puzzled me since I read the first of Orgrim’s two scrolls. With that in mind, much of my trepidation eased, and I went downstairs to seek my morning meal.
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