Authors: Clayton Emery
She was beautiful but unfriendly, so Sunbright simply went around her. He hailed the dwarf. “I am Sunbright, Raven Clan of the Rengarth. I’m to join the party.”
“Dorlas, son of Drigor. Welcome.” They shook hands, the dwarf’s like a sun-warmed rock. With a sigh, he pointed a craggy finger at a trader who’d dropped a bundle and then collapsed weeping atop it. “Cease your blubbering, Fendril! We’ve been over this. Consign your soul to the gods and get your sorry arse into motion!”
Sunbright gestured at the party. “Why are they so reluctant to depart?”
“Because it’s a cock-up, that’s why. Because they’re idiots. Because I’m cursed,” the dwarf rumbled. He wasn’t that small, as the legends told, but came almost to the barbarian’s breastbone, though he was twice as wide with arms like the rope hawsers restraining the ferry. His beard was strawberry-blond and braided, his hair the same under a simple steel helmet painted with a compass on the top. He wore all roughout leather and a steel cuirass besides, easily toted a pack almost as big as himself and a fluted warhammer that Sunbright would have swung to kill an ox.
The half-elf interrupted. “This barbarian is not joining our party!”
The two males looked at her, querying. Green-gray eyes flashing, she snapped, “Barbarians can’t be trusted! They’re savages, not much risen above orcs! They’ve no sense of honor or decency, but pillage and rape and raid without mercy! And they’re dirty and infested!”
Sunbright scratched his ear insolently. “Those traits are the same as I’ve heard attributed to elves. And I took a bath this morning.” He held up his damp shirttail.
Dorlas rumbled again, a chuckle this time. “I’ve heard the same said of dwarves.”
“I won’t have him with us!” the elf went on. “Dorlas, if you’re responsible”
“I am, and so’s he, if his scars are any proof. And part of this disaster was to employ a barbarian named Sunbright, if you recall. And we need another sword. Tears of Jannath, we need a dozen! Hoy there, don’t strike that animal or I’ll tie you to its tail!”
Sweetly, Sunbright said, “You haven’t introduced yourself, sister.”
“Greenwillow of the Moon Elves, cousin to the High Elves of Cormanthyr! Too high-born to wallow in a trough with human barbarians!”
Still smiling, Sunbright bowed. “Then please, your ladyship, don’t speak to me.” Huffing and jingling, the elf swung away.
“Never mind her. She’s joined us with some mission to somewhere, and paid to do it, so thinks she has a say in my doings.” The dwarf hooked a calloused thumb down the road through the village, where a round-backed wizard plodded toward the forest. “Who’s your friend?”
“Not a friend. That’s Chandler, steward of the local castle.”
“No, he isn’t.” At the barbarian’s angry look, as if he’d been accused of lying, the dwarf explained, “We bunked at the local castle last night. The steward’s a tall cob that lacks two front teeth.”
Sunbright didn’t argue, only pondered. If there was no reason for the dwarf to lie, then Chandler must be lying about his true identity. For sure, he was a wizard, but who was he really?
“What a mess.” Dorlas interrupted his thoughts. “I can’t believe I signed on with these clowns. They’ll be dead in the first five miles. Help them strap on these provisions, or we won’t even cross the river before nightfall.”
“In a moment. First I must seek a girl.”
Dorlas peered up at him from under bushy brows. “Night’s the time for loving. Day’s for working. But go and hurry up. And boy, you’d better be a fighter. We’ll need that sword.”
Sunbright had no luck finding Ruellana. None of the villagers knew a girl by that name. He supposed some might lie to keep a rapacious barbarian away from the local girls, but many answers seemed sincere. Strangely, the people he believed most were the lumpy, bruised men he’d brawled with. They were nursing their hurts while picking up the mess in the tavern, but gave grudging admiration to a stranger who could bring down the house. But no, there was no Ruellana living nearby. No redheads at all within a dozen miles, in fact. One old duffer rasped, “If you spent the night with a fire-faerie or whatever she be, think yourself lucky to escape still a man and not a gelding.”
Sunbright did not feel lucky and, remembering her firm, ripe body under his hands, found it hard to believe her a phantom. He’d hoped to find her quickly and ask her to accompany him, or at least wait until he returned. But maybe she was, after all, only a dream: the shaman’s double blessing and curse.
Reluctantly, he rejoined the party, strapped tents and leather cases and satchels of food and finally a few traders to the horses, and slapped and prodded and dragged beasts and men onto the wobbly ferry raft.
It was before nightfall, but well after noon, by the time they were assembled on the other side and blundering into the spring-leafy cathedral of a forest.
The party trended east, southeast, and east again. For weeks, as spring ripened to summer, they threaded forests, skirted hills, forded rivers, picked their way cautiously through swamps, passed villages and towns and fields and orchards. Names learned from locals blew by Sunbright like birds and butterflies: Red Lake, Hidden Lake, Shylock Mountains, Conifer City, Zweihaus River, High Ice, Fluvion, Frostypaw, Froth-water, Cede Run, Gillan River, Hatchet Mountains, Remembrance, Gods’ Legion. The Dalekevans grumbled at every step. They had to walk all the way home, when earlier they’d been whisked by magic portals to Delia, the castle in the air. Yet even on that they couldn’t agree, for some took a perverse pride in the lofty ways of the high wizards and were disdainful of those who had to travel afoot. Sunbright thought they should have been happy to be able to return home at all, but some lamented how the elder council would condemn their failed mission, while the rest fretted into the future, of their ongoing mission to meet the One King. By the evening campfires, snivelers delighted in tormenting one another about the hideous deaths they would no doubt reap. Then the bickering would flare up again, and accusations would make the air ring like crows fighting over a dead horse.
The way was sometimes easy, a saunter across open fields with new grass to the horses’ hocks. Often it was hard, when rain was pounding them senseless yet they had to ford a river to their chins before it rose higher and blocked them for days, or on one stretch where there was no groundwater at all, and everyone plodded along with gasping, protruding tongues.
There were deaths. An elderly merchant, already half dead with fear and fatigue, tripped over his now-tattered gown and landed in the campfire. Folks dragged him out and rolled him in dirt, but he died of burns two days later. One woman panicked and drowned while fording a river. One bodyguard left her bedroll one night, walked into the woods, and never returned, and even Sunbright couldn’t track her.
The barbarian heard strange and wondrous stories, mostly of wizards and their stupendous spells, usually ending with some deserving trader gaining a fortune. The bodyguards, most of whom Sunbright liked, told tales of heroes and beasts, some new to him. He would have liked to hear other people’s stories as well, but the dwarf had little to say unless it involved the caravan moving on, and Greenwillow was often gone by night, wandering the woods on strange errands of her own, for she never seemed to sleep.
Sunbright spent his nights uneasily, for by dusk and dawn he was haunted by memories of Ruellana. He relived his night with her over and over, savoring the details, then fretting over what had happened the next morning. Who was she? Why did she appear and disappear? Was she human, or even real? He half dreaded the thought she was enchanted, for then he’d probably never see her again. But by that token, he hoped she was, for a spirit might surprise him no matter how far he traveled. Often he felt her warm flesh under his calloused hands, the nibble of her teeth on his chest. Yet he always woke alone by a cold fire. So he was quiet in his own way, and pondered, and knew he’d eventually forget her. Yet every night’s dreams possessed the same intensity as before, as if she brought her astral self to him but not her body. And what a body …
Occasionally, too, to his dreams would come the raven-haired woman. But that one, he knew, was just the raven in another form. Wasn’t it? When he asked either the dream-woman or the raven, he got no answer. All in all, portents could be a pain.
The barbarian proved a valuable member of the party right off. His wilderness training, shaman abilities, and honed reflexes let him follow any sort of trail, warn of danger or changing terrain ahead, predict bad weather, identify poisonous plants, and more. He could heal minor wounds too, and often did, for all the traders were incompetent. None had been allowed to bring servants along with the delegation, and now the coin counters were stranded in the wilds having to learn the most basic camping and walking and survival skills. Sunbright swore he healed burns and cuts on every finger of every trader in the party at least once. Yet when they tried to haughtily order him to do so, he growled them into submission. The bodyguards all agreed they were not servants.
So they plodded on. The young man tried to learn from his surroundings, absorbing whatever the land and creatures might teach. Although many of these lowland animals were not denizens of the tundra, and thus were unfamiliar, he could usually read their behavior. He could tell whether an animal was calm and unworried or nervous, and if so, from what. An ambling bear too close to the road was pushed by wolves. Deer feeding in an open field near coyote scat told him one of their kind had died that morning, and the hunters were sated for the nonce. Beavers improving their dams warned of heavy rain to come. In some swamps and fens the barbarian even spotted some antique reptiles, the great long-necked honkers and screechers like giant lizards. But, caught up in their own clumsy struggles after food and life, they had little to teach him, for their time was fading away, their lands and numbers shrinking.
At every encounter, Sunbright tried to read the animals’ thoughts, but all he drew were puzzled stares or no reaction at all. Men could speak to beasts, he knew. His father had been able to, but Owldark, who’d taken his fathers, place, could not. Nor could Sunbright, it seemed. Not without some secret knowledge, some key he lacked. But he would someday, he promised himself. He must, to become a shaman like his father. He would return to his tribe a great man, or die trying. That was certain. But he made sure his animal-speaking attempts went unseen by the traders and bodyguards. He didn’t need his traveling companions thinking him strange. Or stranger.
Sometimes Sunbright reflected that adventure could be damned tedious. Out of sheer boredom, he perversely tried to befriend Greenwillow, but she continued to snub him. Still, he used every opportunity to drift near her, if only to rattle her.
And one day in late summer, he actually got a compliment. …
Sunbright was ahead of the main party, scouting one of two roads from a fork. Willows lined a meadow cropped by woods bison, and small streams cut the hardpack. There was so much water he suspected a swamp lay ahead and the road would peter out. The sun was hot, for they’d drifted south, but the free flow of sweat was pleasant. And it was nice to escape the others’ bickering for a while. Still, he would have to turn back soon.
Then the raven spiraled in on wide wings and plunked to the road. Sunbright bid it good day, received the same, and added, “What’s the news?”
“You’ll lose some hair soon,” croaked the bird. Its black beak, with the thick bump near the nose, clacked open and shut a few times.
“Hair? That’s a prophecy?”
“Death is in the air.” The bird cocked its head at a tuft of grass, jabbed, and nailed an inchworm.
“Death is as common as life,” Sunbright chided. “That’s no news.”
“Don’t go into dragon caves, either.”
“Wait! Back to the death part. Whose death? Where? When? Hey, wait!”
But the bird rabbit-hopped, beat the air with wide wings, and took off in the direction from which Sunbright had come.
The barbarian cursed. It was often thus. The winged bugger spiraled in, croaked something obscure and somber, and flew off. Not much help except to worry a man. The whiny Dalekevans prophesied doom all the time
Sunbright spun on his heel and ran. As he trotted, he strung his longbow and nocked an arrow. The bird passed on ahead, higher, obviously over the traders’ band.
Even charging, Sunbright knew enough not to top a rise in plain view. Hopping over grass so as not to leave a break, panting and trying to listen at the same time, he pattered along behind interlaced willows, scurried along a ravine, then climbed the slope. Even a quick glance showed someone else had done the same recently.
Between tree trunks he saw the caravan and its attackers. A horse was down with an arrow in its neck, another kicked from a rump shot. A trader lay dead, shot through the back. More had hands in the air, one bleeding from a shoulder wound. A bodyguard rolled in agony while another lay dead. But for the moment there was silence and stillness. Dorlas held his warhammer ready; Greenwillow and the other bodyguards had swords out. The dwarf negotiated, at a distance, with the bandits’ leader. There were a dozen or more, with two dead, a scruffy lot of men and women in rags and skins and hacked-off hair. But their swords and pikes were top-notch weapons, as were the crossbows some held leveled on the fighters. Four held captives from behind with knives to their throats.
Sunbright had the advantage of surprise and knew he’d best use it. Below the ravine’s lip he tugged out four arrows, all he had, for it took hours to make one properly. He laid them on the leaves before him, then placed his great hooked sword Harvester beside them. Judging whom to shoot, he braced his toes lest they slip, nocked an arrow, and rose.
The first arrow caught the leader smack in his yapping mouth. He was knocked flying, grabbing the shaft in both hands even while dying.
Scanning, Sunbright ignored the bandits holding the hostages, who instinctively ducked behind the captives. He next killed a stout fellow with ritual scars down his arms, for he looked dangerous. He felled a woman scanning the woods with a crossbow, aimed for another man drawing a bead on him …