Near sunset, we stopped and began to set up camp. Angriz had been silent all day. Once we had a fire going and tents set up, he gruffly said he would return and headed off into the growing darkness.
“Any idea as tae what be goin’ on with Sir Angriz?” Keeper Dearbhaile asked.
“Indeed,” I said. “Now, I’m not a telepath, but I’d be willing to wager my services for three years, no task refused versus you answering five personal questions that he is angry we aren’t going after Lady Orwen and by what happened in Rivorei.”
“What kind o’ personal questions?”
“Any I may devise.”
“That wager doesn’t seem fair tae ye.”
“Don’t worry about me. Do you accept?”
I smiled. “Are you afraid I am correct?”
“Nae. I just think if yer goin’ ta risk servitude, Laird Blake, I should as well.”
I laughed. “Are you certain? Remember, I have traveled with Angriz for a while.”
“Aye. I be certain. The loser gives one year of absolute service tae th’ other fer one year. That, I’ll agree tae.”
“Done,” I said. “While we wait for his return, how about we begin preparing dinner?”
“Good idea. How does rabbit stew soun’?”
“Excellent, milady,” I said. “Would you do something for me Keeper Dearbhaile?”
“Call me Carter.”
“Really? Thank ye so much!” she gushed.
“I don’t get it. Why are you so happy that I invited you to use my first name?” I said.
“Oh, ’tis a gran’ honor, mi-, um, Carter. For me people, th’ use o’ birth names without titles be only for ones considered equals.”
I grinned, then volunteered to get the rabbits. Before I could head out, Angriz strode into the firelight. He carried a four point buck under one arm. He let it drop to the ground near the fire.
“Dinner,” he announced.
He then began to clean the deer for dinner. As he worked, I decided to talk with him. I decided to be cautious as he wielded a wicked looking knife.
“Angriz,” I ventured.
“Yes, Carter,” he said.
“I’m sorry my choice upset you.”
He heaved a sigh. “There is no need for that,” he said. “You made the more difficult choice. To be honest, it is the best one. Lady Orwen would have been quite displeased when she learned that we had chosen her rather than ending the war more swiftly. I admit I was angry with you for your choice. However, I realize that was unfair because I had vowed to go wherever you lead and I refused to help you choose. Most importantly, it is not your fault we are in this position. I hope you can forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Angriz. I know that you care deeply for your friends. I would despair if you did not.”
He nodded in acknowledgment of my words and finished preparing the buck for our meal. “There’s also the mystery of what happened in Rivorei.”
“What do you mean?”
“Rivorei was a town that belonged to Lady Orwen. It makes no sense for it to have been destroyed. Especially as she has been abducted.”
“Maybe that’s why?” I said. “Maybe it was a punishment for being involved.”
Angriz shook his head. “The children wouldn’t have been killed if that were the case.”
“In the history of my world, sometimes the children were killed so that no one would have to worry about them getting revenge when they grew into adults.”
He shook his head. “It’s not the way of the Orwens. Nor of their people.”
I let that go. He seemed remarkably innocent for a warrior. I shoved my hands in my pockets, not sure how to continue. I felt the odd piece of stone I had found earlier. I pulled it out and showed it to the big guy.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
He looked at the medium-sized piece of flat rock with the odd shapes etched into it.
“I’ve never seen anything like this stone before, but the markings resemble Dwarven runes. Maybe Keeper Dearbhaile will be able to translate them.”
Keeper Dearbhaile produced a large kettle of water and placed it on the fire as we talked. She added various vegetables and spices to the water as it heated. I took up an ax and walked over to a grove of maple trees. Spotting a couple of young ones, I felled them and began chopping the green wood for another fire. From the corner of my eye, I saw a strange green light playing around the outside of the pot. ‘Is she using magic to cook the food faster?’ I thought. ‘I hope it doesn’t change anything within me. Better not say anything to her. I don’t want to hurt her feelings.’ When I had a sufficient quantity, I stacked it in a pyramid shape. I ringed the stack of wood with medium-sized rocks from the forest floor.
“That’s goin’ tae produce a lot o’ smoke,” Keeper Dearbhaile observed.
“Exactly,” I responded.
She had claimed both hind legs of the deer for her stew by the time I finished with the wood, so I began carving the remainder of the meat into chunks and strips. Angriz drew another knife from a hip sheathe and joined me at my labor. Just as Keeper Dearbhaile announced dinner was ready, Angriz breathed a thin stream of fire over the maple wood. The intense heat of his breath dried the wood just enough for it to ignite.
While the deer meat smoked, we sat down to our meal.
“The stew is delicious, Keeper Dearbhaile,” I complimented. ‘What kind of rabbit is this again?”
“Ach, shut yer mouth, ye great galoot,” she said to my teasing. “Thank ye for killin’ tha deer, Sir Angriz.”
I passed her the stone I’d shown Angriz. “Can you translate this? Angriz thinks it’s Dwarven.”
She tossed the rest of her biscuit into her mouth, brushed off her hands and took the stone from me. Her eyes widened and she leaned closer to the fire, tilting the stone to the flames.
“Where did ye find this, Carter?”
“Back in Rivorei. After I stepped in that muck.”
“This is part of a larger one, but this section seems to be orders from Drago the Clanless to his troops!”
“What do they say?” Angriz asked before I could.
“I can nae make out all of them, but they seem tae be sayin’ that the next target be Hawgrave City.”
“Hmm,” mused Angriz. “That’s three days to the east. We don’t have time to help them.”
“But we have tae do somethin’!”
“Dearbhaile, is there a way you can use your magic to send them a message?” I asked.
She gave me a comical look of surprise. “Aye!” She slapped herself in the forehead. “Why did I nae think o’ that?”
She pulled a small bird charm from her necklace and whispered to it for a few minutes. She cast it in the air, and to my delighted surprise, it flew east. After dinner, I gathered the dishes and took them to a nearby stream to wash them.
Just as I finished, the Slitter that had adopted me leaped up onto my shoulder. It had a tendency to come and go as it pleased. I turned my head to look at it, and it poked my cheek with a sharp claw. As I recoiled from the pain, a knife flipped by my face, missing me by about a centimeter. I nearly vomited at the sight of my attacker as it stalked out of the bushes.
It was a gaunt, somewhat humanoid creature with two long, pale, writhing tentacles beneath its arms which hung nearly to its knees. It had a flat face, broad bat-like nose, pointed ears, wide mouth and six-inch fangs. Wicked talons capped its skeletal fingers. Its hairless, waxy gray skin was covered in weeping sores that oozed a pale greenish fluid.
Something had me rise up on the balls of my feet and go loose limbed. As if my movement were a signal it was waiting for, the gruesome creature launched itself at me. Suddenly, the world slowed to a crawl. In slow motion, I saw the creature flex its leg muscles and spring for my throat. The world then returned to normal and I saw the creature was still running towards me. My brain froze in bewilderment, and my body tried to follow, but it continued traveling backward and I tripped over a root as the thing sprung exactly as I had already seen. Tripping saved my life. The creature flew over my head as I slammed into the ground. I rolled to my right and rose. The monstrosity scrambled to its feet and charged again, swinging its arms in arcs, leading with its scythe-like claws.
Again, the world slowed. I saw myself backing up rapidly, wheeling my arms out of reach of those vicious claws. I saw myself back into a tree, stopping myself with my right foot sweeping back into the tree. I then kicked off the trunk with the same foot. My foot then rocketed forward and caught the creature underneath its jaw. Once more, the world snapped back to normal. This time, I was waiting for it and began the exact movements I had just seen myself do.
It seemed confused by the circling of my arms, but it pressed forward nonetheless. At the perfect moment of my retreat, my right leg swung back, hitting the tree and halting my movement. I immediately swung it forward again, bending my knee and snapping it straight as it whipped through the air. My foot flashed forward and exploded under its jaw. The creature’s mouth crashed closed, breaking many of its teeth. It wobbled, dazed. I came forward, caught it by the back of its head and with a twist of my body, rammed it face first into the tree I had kicked off of. Bone crunched and a blue fluid squirted as its skull was crushed.
I let the creature slump to the forest floor and bent at the waist, panting from my exertions. Unfortunately, I chose to catch my breath right above the body as a foul stench began to rise from it. I vomited my dinner on the creature’s carcass. I staggered away, wiping my mouth. I sat down, hard, on an up thrust root (probably the one I tripped over) and rested. Several minutes passed as my heartbeat and breathing slowly returned to normal. My eyes kept trying to return to the dead thing, but I resolutely continued to avert them again. Finally, I got up and walked over to the forgotten dinner dishes. I paused to rinse my mouth of the flavor of bile, gathered the dishes and returned to camp.