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Authors: Edith Pattou

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BOOK: Hero's Song
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It quickly became impossible to see the sky through the close-woven ceiling of branches, and without the sun as a guide, they had to rely solely on the path winding before them.

The faint breeze died. The air was stagnant and
musty, as if it had been held in place by the canopy overhead for many hundreds of years. And perhaps because the air was so thick, they began to move more slowly. Their legs were heavier, and the packs they carried felt leaden.

The Ellyl and his faol seemed to be less affected than the others.

"We Elyllon breathe differently," Silien said when questioned by an irritated Talisen. "For example, we can stay underwater much longer than humans."

Collun suddenly realized that was what it felt like—like trudging along underwater.

"It was not so when I came through Eld before," Brie said in a puzzled voice.

"Was it a different time of year?" suggested Talisen. "Perhaps it is the weather."

Brie shook her head, unsatisfied.

As night fell, the focus of Collun's unease shifted from the possible pursuit by scald-crows and Scathians to the forest itself. The path became more difficult to follow and the trees took on contorted, frightening shapes in the darkness.

They called a halt and listlessly ate more bilberries and hazelnuts, washing them down with carefully apportioned swallows of water. They had not come across a stream since entering the forest. No one had the energy to speak, and for the first time during the journey, Talisen did not bring out his harp after the meal. They slept fitfully, and when they set out again, none felt rested.

Brie continued to lead, carefully trying to hold them to the path even though it kept thinning out and
disappearing for stretches at a time. Collun began to feel the forest was conspiring to make them lose their way. He told himself he was being superstitious and irrational, but the silence and thick air made it hard to keep his thoughts clear.

As they stumbled on, Collun saw trees he had never seen before. There was one with the silvery bark of a birch, but the leaves were wider than the palm of his hand and were shot through with red veins like the cro-olachan vine. He saw trees with double trunks and even one with three trunks that wound around each other, looking, for one horrible moment, like three giant snakes writhing upward. There were trees with long, evil-looking thorns growing out of their trunks and trees overgrown with lichen, creating grotesque shapes.

They journeyed on in this way for two days, though to Collun it seemed he had been in the Forest of Eld for weeks, even months.

During the afternoon of the third day, Silien stopped abruptly. He looked as if he was listening very intently to something, then shook his head with a puzzled expression and resumed walking.

He did this several times, until Talisen asked in a querulous voice, "Just what is it you are listening to? The only sounds I can hear are the rumbling of my stomach and the crackling of my dry mouth."

Silien turned his silver eyes on Talisen and replied with a haughty look, "As I told you before, Ellylon can hear many times the distance of men."

"And what do you hear?" asked Collun, though the effort of forming those few words left him feeling drained. "Is it the Scathians?"

"No." Silien looked troubled. "I do not know what it is. Some kind of animal. Wait"—he held up his hand—"It comes faster now." His face was pale.

At first none of them could hear anything, but gradually their human ears could make out the crashing sounds of something moving through the forest. It was heading toward them.

The Ellyl's silver eyes were wide and staring, as if he could not believe what he was hearing. "Moccus!" he said, horror in his voice. The name meant nothing to Collun and Talisen, but Brie's face went white.

"It cannot be," she said.

Silien did not answer. He was already running.

"Climb!" Brie said, looking wildly around. Fara was already halfway up the trunk of the nearest tree. But most of the trees around them wore their branches high on the trunk, offering none low enough for them to grab. The crashing sound drew nearer.

The company scattered. As he ran, Collun saw a large shape hurtle into the clearing they had just abandoned. The glimpse he got as he fled filled him with terror. It was an enormous wild boar. It looked to be nearly six feet long and was all white, the color of bleached bones. Above the long pink-rimmed snout with its protruding yellow tusks there was nothing.

The boar was eyeless.

EIGHT
Moccus

When it reached the clearing, the boar ground to a halt and blindly sniffed the air.

Collun grasped his dagger. The stone seemed to glow in the dim green light of the forest.

The boar's snout suddenly swung in his direction. Then, pawing the ground with its thick front legs, it catapulted itself into motion, moving with a speed that belied its huge girth. It was headed directly for Collun.

Collun's legs pumped and his breath came in short gasps. The animal was getting closer and closer. Collun desperately scanned the trees he passed, looking for one with branches low enough for him to swing himself out
of the boar's reach. But even the lowest branches were too high.

The boar was closing on him. Collun realized he could never outrun it. He spun around, holding his dagger in front of him. The animal slowed, then came to a complete stop.

Collun watched in horror as the boar raised its hideous, eyeless face and once again sniffed the air. He could see black bristles standing out on the gleaming bone white skin. It slowly began to paw the ground, and flecks of foam dripped from the glistening pink snout.

Collun clutched the dagger tightly in his hand as if to wring courage from its handle, but it was hopeless. He did not know how to use a dagger.

Then, behind the boar, Collun saw Breo-Saight. Her bow was to her shoulder, and she let fly an arrow. It stuck in the animal's back. The boar gave a snort and kicked back with its rear legs. And then it charged.

Collun ran. He could feel the animal's hot breath on the back of his legs, and he desperately leaped up at the trunk of the nearest tree. There were no branches to grab, but fear gave him strength, and he shimmied several feet up the trunk and clung there, his heart racing.

The boar reared up and sliced at his legs with its tusks. Collun felt the skin on his calf open. He fought back a scream. Yet he managed to hold fast to the tree and was even able to inch higher up the trunk so that he was out of the animal's reach.

It circled the tree several times, rearing up at Collun, just missing his feet. It paused, sniffed again, and then stood still. Waiting.

Collun saw Brie again, this time with Talisen beside
her. Brie let fly three arrows in quick succession. But though they all found their mark, the boar just snuffled and twitched its thick white skin, as if flicking an annoying fly. It continued to wait.

Blood dripped from Collun's calf, and he felt himself weakening. He knew his arms would soon give out. The boar knew it, too. Collun thought he could hear Talisen calling out for Silien.

Brie's arrows had no effect. She shouted at the animal and waved her arms, trying to draw it from Collun's tree. She moved closer to the boar. It sniffed and turned toward her, but it did not move. Collun slid down an inch, the bark scraping his face and hands. His arms were aching and his leg throbbed.

Brie moved closer, a blade now visible in her hand. Talisen was not far behind. The boar moved a step toward them, its snout in the air.

"No," Collun screamed. "Go back!" He let go of the tree and hit the ground with a thud. The enormous creature deftly swung around on its short legs. There was only an arm's length between them. The boar charged again.

In desperation Collun hurled his dagger. Then the vast white body was on him, and the evil cloying smell of the animal's hot breath filled his nose.

Collun's last conscious thought was of Emer's face as she pressed the lucky stone into his palm.

***

Collun dimly perceived that something heavy was being rolled off him. His leg throbbed. For a moment he could not remember where he was. Then he heard Silien's musical voice and an abrupt reply from Brie. Collun
opened his eyes and saw the still figure of the enormous boar lying on its side. He blinked twice, not believing what he saw. Out of the creature's forehead protruded the handle of the dagger that had been a trine. The lucky stone gleamed almost white.

A grim-faced Brie was pulling her arrows out of the boar's hide, using leaves to wipe off the red-black blood. Silien leaned over Collun's leg, peering at the wound in his calf. Talisen hovered anxiously behind the Ellyl.

"It is deep, but not too deep," Silien was saying.

"Is it ... can it truly be dead?" said Collun weakly.

All three heads turned toward him in surprise.

"You are awake," replied Brie, relief etched on her face. "Yes. It is dead." She reached over and pulled the dagger from the boar's forehead. A trickle of blood flowed down over the grotesque eyeless face. Collun shuddered. Brie wiped the blade and handed it to Collun.

"You are a better marksman than I," she said.

Collun shook his head in wonder. "No. I just threw it. The blade found its own mark."

"This wound needs cleaning," said Silien, and Collun clenched his teeth as the Ellyl carefully swabbed the bloody gash. "I will cleanse it if you can find me water to heat."

"We are low on water, Ellyl." Brie's voice was cold. Through the fog of pain, Collun wondered why.

"You were about to tell us, Silien—what in Amergin's name was that hideous thing?" broke in Talisen. "You called it Moccus?"

The Ellyl nodded. He was holding a piece of cloth firmly against Collun's wound in an attempt to stop the
flow of blood. "I was wrong," he replied. "Though not far wrong. Moccus was a giant boar, a legendary evil thing from the Cave of Cruachan. But it was black, not white. Do you know of the wizard Cruachan?"

"Of course. I know many songs about Cruachan," responded Talisen. "There was one I heard once about a giant boar, but it was from a bard who hit notes that made my fingernails ache, so I did not learn it."

"Do you know of Cruachan's cave?" asked Silien.

"The creatures came from the cave. But what were its origins?"

Keeping up the pressure on Collun's wound, Silien spoke. "When Cruachan carved his fortress in the Mountains of Mourne, there was one deep cavern that no one was allowed to enter. The wizard worked there, night and day, weaving spells, testing his powers against those of nature herself. Finally he found what he had been searching for: the ultimate power, the secret to making life. No one had done so before, nor has since.

"He used this power to create fantastic creatures, each one misshapen, powerful, and utterly evil. I do not know how many. Moccus, the black boar, was one; and there was a vast and evil Firewurme—Naid, it was called; and Arracht, half-man, half-bear; and others. It is said that ultimately one of his own creatures turned on Cruachan and killed him. But the legacy he left was an evil one, for these creatures roamed the land, mindlessly destroying all that stood in their path. The rivers of this country ran red with the blood of Ellylon and Eirrenians alike.

"It took the combined powers of Dil, Amergin, and Mannan to hunt down the creatures and seal them in the Cave of Cruachan. With the Cailceadon Lir, they
wrought a powerful spell of binding at the entrance to the cave. It has held through time, and I did not think it could be broken, but when I heard the sound of what I knew to be a giant boar and sensed the evil that came from it, I thought only of Moccus. But, as you see, this boar is white—though, like Moccus, it is eyeless. Moccus did not need eyes; he had a sense of smell better even than Ellylon. This may be the mate of Moccus. His sow."

Collun's mind was hazy, and only scattered bits of what the Ellyl said filtered through. Brie had been watching Collun. She spoke abruptly, rising to her feet.

"I think our time would be better spent in finding water. And the path, which I fear we have lost."

"I will go," Silien offered, touching his ears. "I am well equipped for finding running water. And I shall look for the path as I search."

"And if you find it, it will no doubt be the last we see of you." Brie's voice was like a slap in the face, and Collun opened his eyes in surprise.

"Brie..." Talisen protested.

She swung around to face him and Collun. "You did not see the Ellyl when the boar came. He fled, with no thought but of saving his own skin. And we all have heard much of the Ellyl's superior sense of hearing, but when we called to him for aid, he did not come."

The Ellyl's eyes widened in surprise. "Of course. I am young with many years yet to live. I have no desire to shorten my life on your account."

Brie gave a snort of disgust. "Nobly spoken. You see? Ellylon are not to be trusted."

"He saved our lives once before," pointed out Talisen.

"Yes, and I wondered then as I do now. Why did you
save us from the cro-olachan?" Brie turned again to the Ellyl, her eyes icy.

"I heard the music and your voices singing. It pleased me. I wished to see where it came from, and I found I had to uncover you first. Now I will see if I can find water, for I, too, am thirsty." And Silien left them, with an unperturbed smile.

"He has fine taste in music, you have to grant that, Brie," Talisen said, his eyes twinkling.

"I do not trust him," Brie said stubbornly. She then looked with concern at Collun, whose skin had turned a shade paler. His eyes had closed again.

"You judge the Ellyl harshly," said Collun through dry lips.

"Perhaps, but just to be sure I will also look for the path and for water." She left the clearing.

Talisen set about making a campfire, while Collun dozed.

Not long after, Silien returned. He was carrying two skin bags filled with water. "I found a brook," said Silien, "but it is dying and will not serve us long. Where is the Flame-girl?"

"She went in search of the path," answered Talisen.

The Ellyl's eyes flickered, but all he said was, "I hope she has more luck than I."

BOOK: Hero's Song
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