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Authors: Edith Pattou

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BOOK: Hero's Song
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While Talisen held one of the skin bags up to Collun's lips, Silien brought a pan of water to a boil. He then opened a leather bag he wore at his waist. From it he drew out an assortment of items: a handful of small, dark green leaves; a wooden spool with a silvery, translucent thread wound around it; and a needle made of something black and shining.

Silien used the boiled water to cleanse Collun's wound and then the black needle. But first he told Collun to crush two of the leaves between his teeth.

"These will help you bear the pain," said the Ellyl. The leaves tasted bitter, but they numbed Collun's tongue and made him drowsy. Everything was muffled, including the pain in his leg. He wondered sleepily what herb it was.

Silien slid the gossamer thread into his needle and made a knot at the end. Then he expertly brought the two jagged edges of Collun's wound together and stitched his flesh as if it were a piece of torn cloth. When he came to the end of the gash, Silien tied another knot and cut the thread with his teeth.

Collun slept after that.

When he woke, he saw that Talisen and Silien also slept. Fara was pacing the clearing, looking uneasy, Collun thought. Brie had not returned. She had been gone long, and a stab of worry now pierced Collun's torpor. But his eyelids were heavy, and he was soon asleep again.

He woke again to the smell of a broth Silien was brewing over the fire. "Brie?" Collun said faintly.

"She has not returned," replied Talisen, bringing a cup of the broth to Collun's lips. Collun drank a few sips, then turned away.

"I am sure she'll be back soon," Talisen said, but he also looked worried.

"Someone is coming," said Silien, his eyes alert.

Soon after, Brie appeared in the clearing. She looked exhausted and discouraged. "I could not find the path," she said. "I will try again after some rest. How are you feeling?" she asked Collun.

He tried to speak, but his throat was dry and words would not come.

"We have to get him out of this cursed forest," said Talisen.

But Collun was too weak and feverish to travel, and they stayed in the clearing for a day and a night. They began to worry that there had been poisonous venom on the sow's yellowed tusks.

Brie made several more forays into the forest, but still could find no trace of the path.

"I don't understand it," she said upon returning from her last effort. "It is as if the forest wants to keep us here. I know it sounds foolish..."

Talisen was nodding. "No, I feel it, too. Like some evil spirit is watching us."

"We will find our way out," said Brie, abruptly getting to her feet. She glanced at Collun, who was awake and had been listening to their exchange. He struggled to sit up.

"We must go on," he said. "If ... the forest ... is closing in on us ... we have to go somewhere ... anywhere."

And so, not long after, they set forth. Without the path to guide them, Brie could only guess at the right direction. Talisen, Silien, and Brie took turns lending a shoulder for Collun to lean on as he limped along.

The forest seemed to get even denser as they moved forward. The gloom about them deepened.

They all felt unnaturally weary and stopped frequently, sinking to the ground with strength enough only to breathe. Collun was close to delirium. He slept at each stop and often woke sweating and wild-eyed, as if from a nightmare. They had filled every bag they had
with water from Silien's dying brook, and they tried to conserve it, giving most to Collun.

Because it became almost impossible to distinguish day from night, they lost track of time, though Brie estimated that it had been four days since the attack of the boar. And still they could not find the path.

Then came a terrible moment. Brie abruptly stopped short with a sharp sound of dismay.

"What? What is it?" asked Talisen.

"We have passed this tree before. Yesterday. Or the day before. I can't remember." Brie pointed at a tree with an unusual bole that curved in the shape of a question mark. She dropped to her knees in exhaustion.

"You mean ... we've been going in circles?" Talisen moaned and leaned heavily against the tree. Silien gently lowered Collun to the ground, where the wounded boy promptly fell into a restless slumber.

"He cannot go much farther," the Ellyl said.

"None of us can," Brie answered. Listlessly they made camp. They were down to their last drops of water and had long since run out of food, subsisting on the few edible nuts and berries they were able to find.

"Lend me your harp, Talisen. Perhaps I can cheer us." The Ellyl held out his hand, and Talisen silently passed his harp to Silien.

Talisen asked dully, as though he could not remember why it was important, "You will sing an Ellyl song?"

Silien did not answer, but began to finger the harp strings. Beneath his hands the harmonies that shimmered forth were not like music as they knew it. The notes the Ellyl found were crystalline and pure, so pure they even penetrated the mande of musty gloom that had
oppressed them ever since they had entered the Forest of Eld.

Brie and Talisen both fell asleep.

The music wove its way into Collun's dreams. He was in a meadow back in Inkberrow. The tall grass brushed against his fingertips as he walked. A fresh breeze feathered his face, and there were purple wildflowers as far as the eye could see.

Silien sang on.

***

Abruptly Collun awoke. He saw that Talisen and Brie were just waking as well. Silien was watching them with his usual half-smile. His fingers were resting lightly on the harp strings.

"What did you do?" Brie's voice was sharp with suspicion.

"You needed sleep. Restful sleep. Do you not feel better for it?"

And Brie admitted she did. "I feel as though I have slept for days," she said in wonder.

"It was only several moments," replied Silien.

"You are a miracle worker, Silien," Talisen said. "But why didn't you do this before?"

"It takes much away from me," replied the Ellyl. "I keep that song as a last resort." And indeed Silien's face looked drawn and pale, as though the song had weakened him as much as it had strengthened them.

Collun saw that Brie was gazing at the Ellyl with a puzzled expression. He sensed she was confused by Silien—his coldness one moment and generosity the next.

"How do you feel, Collun?" asked Talisen.

"Better," he replied, though his leg still throbbed and his skin was hot.

"I'm afraid it will not last, but for a while the going will be a little easier," Silien said.

"Well, that's all very well and good," grumbled Talisen, "but I don't appreciate you knocking me out. I missed all the words to your song!"

"You would not have understood them," Silien responded. "I do not use words as you do."

They set out shortly after and made much better progress. But toward what, they knew not.

NINE
Crann

They had been walking a short distance when Brie abruptly stopped. "What was that?" she said.

"What was what?" asked Talisen.

"It was a flash of something—light, I think, only it was green..." She trailed off. "At least, I thought—" Her eyes stared ahead into the murk of the forest. "Yes, there it was again!"

The others peered in the same direction.

"I don't see anything," said Talisen.

"Nor I," Silien agreed, his voice soft with exhaustion.

"It was like the flicker of candlelight. And it was moving. I believe we should follow it," she announced unexpectedly.

"Follow it?" Talisen said. "Have you lost your wits? The rest of us can't even see the bloody—Oh!"

"You see it now?"

Talisen nodded slowly. "A will-o'-the-wisp," he murmured. "Brie, we cannot follow a will-o'-the-wisp. Surely you've heard tales of Gyl Burnt-tayle and how it leads travelers astray? We'd be certain to spend the rest of our days in the Forest of Eld were we to follow such a thing."

"I don't believe in superstitious tales," said Brie. "Nor do I believe it to be a will-o'-the-wisp. It is moving farther away. Come, or we'll lose it."

Talisen shook his head firmly. "I'll not be following Gyl Burnt-tayle..."

Collun listened to the two voices arguing back and forth, his eyes fixed on the irregular flashes of green light. Silien was sitting cross-legged beside Collun, his eyes closed.

"Let us follow the light," Collun said. He moved forward. Brie quickly stepped into the lead. Talisen helped Silien to his feet and, grumbling loudly to himself, fell in step with the other two. Fara brought up the rear.

So intent were they on keeping the elusive light in sight that they did not notice at first that the trees were thinning. But suddenly Talisen stopped dead in his tracks and, letting out an exclamation, pointed upward. They all looked up and through the branches of the trees, saw a patch of night sky. They had not seen' the sky in days, or was it weeks? Collun no longer knew.

"We must be near the end of this blasted wood," said Talisen with a broad smile. "My apologies for doubting
you and kindly old Gyl Burnt-tayle," he said to Brie, with a small courtly bow in her direction.

"I cannot see it anymore," said Brie, squinting at the trees ahead.

"Who cares? It has served us well. Come, on to Temair," Talisen said, putting an arm out to Silien, who was leaning against a tree.

As if to punctuate Talisen's words, a linnet somewhere nearby burst into song. The last time any of them had seen or heard a bird was the scald-crow Collun saw when they entered the Forest of Eld.

Through the fog of his fever, Collun felt a piercing burst of joy. To finally be free of this wretched forest! But his ears rang with a high-pitched buzzing sound, and his leg still throbbed. It took all his concentration just to set one foot ahead of the other. He paused for a moment to rest his leg, and his eye was caught by a small red finch winging to the top of a nearby tree. Unexpectedly Collun saw a flash of light in the night sky above. It was a different kind of light than the will-o'- the-wisp: a white angular thrust. Brie came up beside him.

"Do you need to rest?" she asked.

Collun shook his head then pointed to the sky. Brie looked up.

"Lightning," she said, with a puzzled look. "But I don't feel rain in the air. It must be far away."

A slight wind began to play with the dried leaves around their feet. The night air felt cool on Collun's hot skin.

Talisen noisily inhaled, then laughed. "I never thought I'd feel this way about a breath of fresh air.

Why, it tastes better than a mug of Job Wall's finest ale."

They pushed forward eagerly, unmindful of the far-off flashes in the sky above them.

Then suddenly, without any warning, a jagged splinter of light seared their eyes, and a dry thorn tree not twenty paces ahead of Silien was transformed into a pillar of hissing, leaping flame.

The tail end of a purple-white bolt of lightning shimmered through the flaming tree. Intense heat beat against the travelers' faces, and caustic smoke filled their mouths and noses.

Brie wrenched Collun's arm, pulling him back. They all began to run, retracing their steps into the forest. But the light breeze they had noticed earlier abruptly changed into a swirling, spinning maelstrom of wind that carried flame from tree to tree in the blink of an eye.

Before they knew it, a wall of fire was twisting around them in all directions. The dried leaves swirling up from the forest floor became flying motes of flame, like giant fireflies.

They kept running, trying to find a pathway through the fire wall as sparks rained down on them. An airborne ember scorched the hair on the right side of Collun's head. As they lurched one way and then another, they found they were trapped by a sea of flame rising up on all sides around them. They huddled together.

Suddenly Collun spotted something beyond the fire, something tall and green. For a moment he thought it was a tree that had somehow escaped the conflagration. But as he looked closer he saw that it was a man wearing
a green cloak. The cloak billowed around his gaunt frame as the wind buffeted him. A gum tree nearby flared up with brilliant flame, and in the blinding light, Collun saw the man's face. He was an old man with a long, moon white beard, and his skin was deeply lined.

Collun had seen that face somewhere before. But where? Then a glowing cinder landed on his arm, and he had to beat at it frantically to keep from catching fire. When he looked back, he saw the old man had raised his arms above his head, one hand holding a long piece of wood, the other hand with the fingers splayed wide open.

The man's eyes were now closed, and he seemed to be concentrating deeply. His lips were moving, but Collun could not hear what he said. Then the green figure shouted at the top of his voice, "Muchtoir lasair!"

There was silence, then he cried out, "Fearthainne!"

And in that moment a drenching, powerful rain began to fall.

Collun and his companions looked at each other in wonder as great drops of water washed over their blackened faces and clothing. Huge billows of steam rose around them.

It was not long before the flames were completely extinguished and all they could hear was the hissing of damp, smoldering wood and the sound of the raindrops.

Collun's eyes were still on the old man, who had dropped his arms heavily to his sides. For a moment his body sagged. He looked ancient and ill.

But then his shoulders slowly straightened, and he stood erect again. His eyes looked directly into Collun's.

The kesil.

This figure in the green cloak was the wild man of the forest who had come into Collun's garden and told him he must leave Aonarach. Except that now his beard was smooth and untangled, and his cloak was clean and made of thick, rich cloth.

With an abrupt gesture the old man beckoned to Collun.

"He wants us to follow him," Collun said in a weak voice. The kesil had turned and was walking away from them with long, purposeful strides. Limping, Collun followed.

Brie, Talisen, and Silien exchanged glances, then fell into step behind Collun. Fara trotted along beside Brie.

BOOK: Hero's Song
12.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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