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The Messenger - Chapter Two

Author: 
Mandos (Bill Marcellino)
Old Vault Category: 
fanfiction
Old Vault ID: 
125

I found over the next few days the Old Boy had a mind of his own. He might pace me, so that I saw him ten times in a day; just as like I might not see him for a day. Having a companion of some sorts was a boon to me, because I was sure fire miserable on the trail. The burn on my arm hurt so much, and chafed under my pack and clothes that there were times I felt like crying; 'course, there was no one to see me loose my cool, and no one to feel sorry for me. But it sure hurt, and as the day grew hot in the middle, I would sweat like pig, and the salt sweat was like hot pitch where my burn had cracked.

I was out of the mountains proper now, and while there were still hills aplenty, I could look back north and see peaks behind me; it grew warmer and I made better time. I also started to worry about meeting people. There were mountain and hill folk here, far from civilization, eking out their meager existence. It was a dangerous life; nature, men and the goblin races held open more than one gates to tragedy. I did not want to meet people, to be questioned on my errand, to be asked why a North Free Ranger headed south into Cormyr and the reach of the law, but at the same time I longed for some companionship. A bed, a bath, better food; shoot, I was lonely.

But so far I had not met the smallest sign of civilization, and so I humped on. As the miles escaped under my heels and turned into days, my arm began to heal, and I felt better about the world. At the back of my mind was my eventual goal, and the many possible receptions, but for the most part sunshine, health, and good weather did their work.

I had now begun to cross a series of hills really, each peak shorter than the last, and often cut through with navigable draws, when I came upon signs that I might not be alone. The trail I found was from the hand of men; in fact trail maintenance had been done on it not too many seasons past. The trail marks were clear and understandable: water, one said, shelter another, rockslides ahead a different one. Not up to our code but close enough to read.

On my second day into this trail Old Boy proved his worth yet again. I had gotten quite used to him by now (or maybe he to me). But whatever the case I could pretty near understand if he wanted my attention. At one point he flew down, without a call, and began bobbing, weaving and generally carrying on in a southerly manner. Then, so quick I bust out with a laugh, he looked back and cooked his head at me, one black eye fixed on me as if to say, "You understand? You follow me, there?"

I slid off the trail.. I moved careful; no time to clear my spoor, but I made sure not to break any branches, to lift my feet and set 'em down sideways like and got into the rhododendron (I was low enough now in the mountains that it dominated the landscape).

Ambuscade. Shan spoke of it often, passionately, and with great personal knowledge. "Ambush," he explained, "requires an ambush mindset. You may have only seconds with which to turn information into advantage, to make a hasty trap that is nonetheless deadly. And for that reason, when you are in the field, you must think ambush, you must be ready for ambush. Ambush is killing. But it means living, and living is fun."

How long had it been? Seconds? A few minuets? I could not draw bow in this cramped quarters; dagger and short sword had come loose quietly from sheathes with nary a sound.

Patience. Ambush is waiting, too, Shan, I thought to my self. Keyed up and waiting and�.there. Something gray was moving up the trail, cresting the slope to my south. A wolf, and I realized that I was upwind from it as it burst into motion. Straight at me, like an arrow it flew, and big, oh so big. I crouched frozen for a moment; I tasted dread and my stomach seized in the seconds it took that beast to close the distance; for me to bring life to fear-deadened limbs as we met with a furious clash.

I surged forward, manhood recovered, as it made its leap at my throat. I brought my dagger up and caught in a branch; short sword stabbed forward in a clumsy strike that nonetheless made contact.

I was bowled over with a violent crash, my head hitting a root and the breath being knocked out of me. I felt hot blood (the wolf's?) flow over my hand, and it claws raked my face and shoulder as it snapped at me and I turned my face and tried to burrow away.


I realized it was dead. I heaved its bulk off me and pulled my blade from its belly. It was at that moment that the overwhelming stink of the beast penetrated my awareness. Was it sick, or mad? I had never known a wolf to attack a man, though I had heard of attacks in the deepest winters, when food was scarce. But this wolf was not gaunt with hunger, nor did it froth with water-sickness. I pulled up short from my thoughts as I realized my sword was unclean, and my face and neck scored with scratches. They had begun to hurt now; I could only imagine what it would be like tomorrow. I must clean the wounds and dress them, or I risked mortification of the flesh, and death.

I had water in my skin, and some time later, cleaned sword sheathed, I came back to examine the corpse in the bushes.

It was a simply enormous wolf. I realized then how lucky I was; I had killed this monster by blind chance. In its size I was reminded not of the red wolves that lived in that area, but of the great hounds the estate near my cousins' house had kept. I remembered from my youth clearly how tall those long legged and noble animals had stood. This thing was bigger. Its smell was dreadful; I pulled back the eyelids and about crapped when I saw a berry red eye with minute black pupil. What in the Lady's name was this thing?

All of a sudden, my interest in this dead monster lessened. This was not a animal, but rather a fell beast; I was thankful to be alive and wanted out of its lands, should it have a mate (though I knew deep inside a dire creature like would not couple with anything save in hunger) .

I left the carcass where it fell, and pushed on. Old Boy had vanished, but was back by dusk after I had put up. He seemed to preen; and I was inclined to indulge him. "You done alright Boy," I told him, and meant it. Twice now he had saved my life; three times is the charm they say. Maybe the Lady had sent him; natural to counter the supernatural dread I had left behind, but would soon head back to. "You a good luck charm, Old Boy?" I asked him, but he had no reply except to shamelessly steal some of my dinner. Well, certainly he was good for me, and that was all I need to know.

That night I dreamt of a great beast standing on my chest, red eyes and a massive bulk in the dark. I woke in terror, before dawn, and after pissing went back to sleep, but not an easy sleep. I felt dreadful that morning when I awoke; my new scabs tore and pained me as I broke camp. My jaunty mode was gone; even my companion could not raise a grin from me with his antics.

Within an hour of up and down trail hiking I was wiped out. Sweat covered my brow, soaked my shirt and the ass of my breeches. I took a water break on a rock along the trail, my limbs shaking like I had hiked all day. Was I sick? I brought my hand up to my face and touched one of the wounds on my chin and cheek.

They were raised and swollen, so sore to the touch that I hissed as I pulled back my hand.

Mortification.

I had not cleaned the wound well enough, or perhaps there was some venom in the beast's assault? Already my thinking was getting muzzy; I felt like someone had wrapped my head in a hot cloak. I had to prepare or I would die out here, alone and a failure.

I worked feverishly, literally, gathering what I could. I had passed a blackberry bush; the fruit was not ripe but that made it even better; if I got the gripes they would stop me up something good. Snakeroot: no. Wild ginger: no. Fudge. I sat and rested again; feeling sorry for myself. Ah, pennyroyal right in front of me. I picked several handfuls of leaves, and turned to on finding more water.

By noon I was on fire; sweat just poured off me as I sat by the low fire I had made. I had not needed the blackberries yet; perhaps my guts would not turn to water after all. But my fever was getting to the point where I thought, as much as I could think, that I might not make it. I boiled pennyroyal leaves in water and drank it off; my fever came down some.

Time began to pass in an altered state; I know at some point it was dusk and Old Boy was right next to me, looking (I thought) concerned and intelligent with those shiny black eyes. "Well Boy, don�t look so good now, does it?" I said, expecting no answer. "You got anything up your sleeve? I sure don't," I muttered, and was quiet as night began to fall.

I passed now into a stage where chills possessed me; I shivered uncontrollably under my tarp and blanket. It was a dreadful time; a misery of bone deep cold and chattering teeth with no surcease.

At some point in the night I dozed off after the chills passed; I woke and passed back out over and again. There was a time that night I came to some semblance of lucidity. My tongue was dry, my face hot and dry. I could see the barest outline of Old Boy by the almost dead fire. I did not have the strength, nor the will now to bank it or build it up. It was dying, and I felt the same way. I grinned weakly at my raven friend. "Sorry Old Boy. " I sat up, weaving like a drunk where I sat. "I don't suppose you could get some help?" I smiled again like a drunk. He cocked his head at me, and said

"I have done so already." My grin faded.

"Didn't know you could talk Old Boy," I said as I sank back down. Never knew, I thought to myself, never knew you could talk. Night swallowed me. Time passed in a haze of fever. I know I was carried by strong hands some long way. I knew at some point that I lay on a matressed bed, in a cabin. A fire was near me. I heard voices, some male, some female; I was comforted when I moaned; restrained when I raved. But in all those unclear memories I remembered one face; black hair and gray eyes, telling me to hold on, and that I would live.

As dawn slides into day, so I slid into wakefulness. Sunlight steamed in a tight shafts past the cracks of shutters; I was in a small, neat one room log cabin. By the fire a man sat, on a white oak highback chair, looking at me with a look of mild and pleasant interst. When he saw me sit up, he smiled and nodded. I smiled back (what else to do?) and swung my feet on the floor. The floor was rough hewn planks, the whole place a fine example of the simple but well crafted work of mountain folk. The bed was the kind they call a "rope bed." It was a wood frame, holes drilled through the frame and rope pulled though into a square weave and pulled tight; a sack of feathers had served as my mattress. My throat was painfully dry. "Could, could I have some water, friend?" My benefactor beamed a huge smile at me, and called out loudly

"Mutti! Mutti, come here, he awakens!" Within moments a small, neat woman dressed in homespun came in, wiping her hands on a towel held on her apron.

"Ya, just as the alfar said, he is awake." She smiled at me. Well, we were all sure I was awake, and after not too much more talk they brought me a pitcher of water. It was delicious, and I slaked my thirst greedily; never had water tasted so good. I felt shaky still, my wounds still hurt but the scabs were healthy. "We worried about you, we worried you would not be among the quick! But the alfar said you would live. 'The crisis is past,' he said, and he was right." She beamed again at me, as if I were a prodigy, and I couldn't help but smile back at her. She was, I learned later, Mutti Bluma, and her husband Elder Wilhelm. They were happy for me to be house guest, happy to see me well, apparently happy about everything. They were particularly pleased that I had woken on my third day among them, "Just as the alfar said." I was unfamiliar with this word, alfar; their speech was heavily accented. Their son Gunther, who lived near them, also made his appearance, he spoke in a mountain dialect much more familiar to me, and did not use words like "alfar."

I ate later in the afternoon, with great pleasure and surprising appetite. I guess I had had plenty of time to make up for. As I ate bread and drank broth ("You must be careful with that stomach, too much after nothing is not gutte!" Mutti Bluma pronounced), the family stared at me with great benevolence, and though I felt like I was being inspected, it was not burdensome; these people had done me good, gutte I guess.

After I pushed back from the plank table, I looked at my new friends. I was grateful, I was happy to be dressed in clean clothes (Gunthers?), but I was itching, itching to get going, to make up for lost time, and to find Old Boy. Some instinct kept me from asking about Old Boy ("Umm, have you seen a talking, intelligent raven that is my friend lurking around? I mean he only talks sometimes, when I am really, really crazy.").

"I thank you, thank you very much for your kindness. You have been very good to me, a stranger," I told them (still a stranger, I had not been asked nor volunteered my name). "I am curious though, how did you find me? How did you know I needed help?' How indeed (did my raven friend come talk to you)?

"Ya, ya, the alfar, he told us. It is gutte to do as the alfar says, he is being so very wise you know," explained Mutti Bluma, as if that made night as light as day. I forbore to ask how the alfar knew of my plight, when Gunther spoke his first words other greeting.

"You're a Free Ranger, aren't you?" My face must have tightened; he immediately looked away as Wilhelm sprung to his feet.

"Hush, Gunther Wilhelmson! We do not burden our home guest with interrogation."

"Yes Papa." Now Gunther looked up at me, smiled shyly, and spread his hands, as if to say, "Parents." I smiled back.

"Yes, I am a North Free Ranger. I am just passing on through, headed�south." Gunther eyed me back,

"I have been to Arabel, twice. Nails, bits, that such. They don't like the Rangers down there much, I think." I smiled nodded.

"Well, be that as it may, and thanking you again for your help, I need to go. I lost trail time that I need to make back." This was met with general, negative protestations. I couldn't leave, I was too weak, I needed food and rest, what, what would the alfar say if after all this I perished on the trail? "I have to go." They watched as I crossed the cabin, and began to collect my gear. My clothing had been mended and cleaned; I turned to asked Mutti Bluma if I should change out of the clothes I was wearing when I saw the cabin door swinging shut behind Gunther and Wilhelm.

"He goes to get the other elders of the Stead. They consult on this, it would be seen as a great shame if we disappointed the alfar."

"So, who is this alfar you keep mentioning?" I asked as I packed.

"He is, hmmm, he is the alfar. Not a man, but gutte, he is wise, and brings good fortune. I have seen him only once before he asked that we see to you. The elders he has spoken with maybe three times in their lives. It was at his behest that we went into the barrow hills. He cared for you, pulled the sickness from you, he did. In that very bed you lay, and he saved you. You were in such terrible distress." She looked so sad remembering my fever, that I was touched by her evident goodwill and kindness. I looked back to my bow (it had been unstrung) and took out my wrapped gut strings, suddenly abashed. I had joined the NFR for a lot of reasons, mostly I guess to be tough, to be hard as nails and something of a rebel. But I guess the only real reason were people like these, who needed protection outside what the state could provide.

Mutti Bluma helped my pack; gave me food (bread, salt cured hog meat, corn meal) and told me to keep Gunther's clothes, he being such a big, big boy now he could no longer wear them. Gunther was a big boy; I hoped there would be no unpleasantness over me leaving. I reckoned that I owed these people my life (them and the alfar), but a soldier doesn't really respect gratitude; duty is a mistress who allows no other suitors.

I walked out into the sunlight of mid-afternoon; a dappled area cleared in front of the porch, framed by trees and then plots of corn to my right where the hill allowed. A cart path led off the left, following the hillside, and it was up this that a somber group of bearded men and younger men Gunther's age came up. The elders where all dressed as Elder Wilhelm, in butternut overalls or coats, hand carved wood buttons to I am sure, most with wide brimmed hats.

I awaited their arrival with a sick feeling in my stomach; I dread confrontation with people absent anger. When I face an enemy, I never question or doubt; but to have a shouting match with someone I should be friends with is not, I say not a good feeling.

"I am Elder Hackett. Welcome to our Stead we give you." He doffed his hat and bowed; I did right much the same back. "Brother Wilhelm tells me you are to be leaving us so soon; we worry that you might hurt yourself."

"I really, really appreciate that. I do. You have been as good to me as family." I could tell that comment pleased them; it was the truth. "But I must go. Time is urgent to me."

"Yet," here spoke another one, "you may not be the best judge of your strength now. You have been through great sickness; we wish only for you to be safe. What a tragedy, were you to be healed and then go off too soon." There was general assent to this, and several of them asked me, with slightly differing wording, wouldn't I stay another day or so? So what was I going to do? Cut them up with my short blade? I certainly wasn't going to wrestle Gunther, or any of these large, very large mountain boys.

In the middle of this increasingly heated "discussion" Old Boy just flew outta nowhere and settled on my shoulder. Damn. That was hot. About half of them lost control of their jaw muscles. I was pretty surprised by Old Boy doing this too, but I definitely have a flair for the dramatic. I stayed cool. Looking very competent, like the professional, low ranking snuffy soldier that I was, I said,

"Thanks to you all. I hope to see you again. I must go now." They parted, and I left. When we had gone beyond their view, maybe a 1/4 mile down the cart path, Old Boy gave me a vicious peck on the grape, and flew off my shoulder with a great guffawing croak. Son of a bitch.

 

The Messenger Chapter 2 © Mandos (Bill Marcellino)

Migrate Wizard: 
First Release: 
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