A soft sound woke me, and I sat up in the bed. Vall snored softly at my side, and I looked around the room. Nothing was amiss, and I leaned over to kiss Vall’s bare shoulder. We had mated sometime in the night, and she had once again climbed on me. I heard a chirp, and I recognized the talisman’s sound.
I slid out of bed, padded over to Vall’s pack, pulled it out, and looked at it. The arrow shaped rune was yellow, and then red, and then yellow again. Two smaller runes below the arrow changed as I watched them, but I had no idea what they meant. The green box at the bottom was nearly consumed by the red box; the talisman needed more sunlight. I went to the window and opened one shutter. Daylight streamed in, but the sun was obscured behind the building next to ours. The green box did not grow any larger, and I closed the shutter with a sigh.
“Ornthalas, what’s wrong?”
I looked over to see Vall leaning up on her elbow. “The talisman was chirping, and it needs to see the sun very soon.” I took it to her. “The runes are changing, too.”
Vall took the talisman and peered at it. “How odd. The arrow changes colors, yellow and red.” She sighed. “I wish I could read the runes.” She took in a sharp breath and sat bolt upright. “Wait!”
“What?” I took a step back.
“Sorry,” she giggled. “I just remembered something in that book Dreev gave me.” She pointed to her pack. “It was in the same pocket at this.” She lifted the talisman.
I found the book and gave it to her. “Here.”
“Hold this,” she extended the talisman to me, sat up, and opened the book. She went from page to page, humming tunelessly as she read. “Ah! Here it is! Comprehend Languages! It doesn’t last long, and I can only cast it once today.”
“It would help to know what it is telling us.”
“Yes, you’re right.” Vall laid the book in her lap, and began to speak. She touched her face and ears several times, and moved her hands and fingers in complex motions. Her face glowed red for a few heartbeats, and then she lowered her hands with a nod. “It’s done. Let me see it now.”
I gave her the talisman, and she turned it in her hand to read the runes. “This arrow is definitely shows the direction to the book. These,” she pointed to the smaller runes, “are numbers. It reads one, three, two, and this one just changed, so it reads one, three, three, now.” She pointed at the boxes. “These are labeled ‘Power’, so it is definitely low on whatever power it uses. Green is good, and red is bad. Yellow is apparently between the two, like a warning.”
“Could the numbers be the distance to the book?”
“That would be my guess,” Vall said. “Let me make note of the runes, so we can both read the numbers after this spell ends.” She rose, went to her pack, and pulled out a charcoal stick and a small scrap of parchment. She sat back down, and noted what runes equaled numbers in the common trade script, which we could both read.
By the time the spell faded, we could both understand the number runes. “I don’t know what the numbers actually mean, but I think the book is moving away from us,” I said. “We need to go after it.”
“I agree,” Vall said.
We dressed, put on our packs and weapons, and walked downstairs. I turned in our key, and we stepped into the street. Vall had wrapped the talisman in a small cloth, and she held it in her hand and uncovered it just enough to glance at it. “That way,” she nodded to our right.
“Don’t let that get taken,” I said quietly. I turned to walk, making sure that I kept Vall close to me. She had pulled her hood up to cover her face and she walked at my shoulder as we negotiated the street. We passed through a market, where Vall stopped to buy more food for our journey.
We walked through the city, with Vall stopping from time to time to consult the talisman. Finally, we arrived at another gate, where we stopped to turn in our tokens. The watchman took them, and bade us safe travels. This gate put us on the north side of the city, and the talisman said the book was north of us. The numbers had increased by only seven, I saw.
“I think that whoever is carrying the book is afoot,” I said as we walked along. “Look, they have not changed since we left the gate.”
The sun shone down on us, now that we had left the city’s towering walls behind, and Vall brought out the talisman and showed it to the sun. It chirped, and the green box began to grow again. The broad cobblestone road led to a crossroads, where several smaller roads led off in several directions.
“The trade road is that way,” Vall pointed to a wider road that led north.
“The book is in that direction,” I pointed along a smaller road that led more westerly.
“Then, we go that way. We are not the only ones eager to avoid the trade road,” Vall commented.
“That is good, then.”
“Why?” Vall looked at me curiously.
“It leads me to believe that there are few people with it. If they were a large group, they would take the easier road, and dare anyone to oppose them.”
“For our sake, I hope you are right,” Vall said quietly.
The road led us through the farmland that surrounded the city. We passed the occasional farm wagon, and ordinary folk going about their business. They would glance at us as we passed, but none of them approached us. The morning wore into midday, and we stopped to sit beside a stream and eat our lunch. I stepped through the waist high grass to a clear area under a giant beech tree near the water. I looked down as I walked, when I noticed fresh boot prints in the soft ground.
“Vall, look!” I pointed to them, and then stooped to examine them more closely. The prints were still damp; their edges sharp. “They must have stopped here, too.”
“Can you tell how long ago?”
“They were here scarce at midmorning, if not later. Did the talisman say they were drawing closer?”
“I wasn’t watching it,” Vall bit her lip. “Sorry?”
I smiled and shook my head. “Are they moving away, now?”
Vall took out the talisman, and frowned. “No, they, or the book, aren’t moving away.” She looked up at me in alarm. “Ornthalas, the number is much smaller!”
Moving almost without thought, I brought out my bow and nocked an arrow. “What direction?” I said as I looked around for anything out of place.
“That way.” Vall pointed further up the road, past the tree.
“Stay behind me,” I said in a low voice. I crouched, and began to stalk my way up the creek bank with my bow at the ready. I stayed at the edge of the taller grass, ready to duck into it if I were to find anyone. I could hear Vall moving behind me, and the light breeze that rustled through the grass.
I crept forward, five paces, then ten, stopping to listen every few steps. My heartbeat thudded in my ears, but I ignored it and watched everything around me. The ground ahead turned rocky; small, loose stones that would be both noisy and treacherous to walk upon.
As I contemplated my next steps, the grass erupted just ahead of me. I brought my bow up, pulling the string back to my ear with the swiftness of long practice. The brace of game birds raced away with their alarmed warbles – and I had not scared them up. The tall grass waved wildly as something ran directly toward me!
I waited, still as death, with my bow drawn, as whatever it was approached. It was close, I’m ready to loose the arrow, and then a girl appeared out of the grass. She squealed in alarm and scrambled backwards, falling on her bottom as she spied me. Her eyes were wide with terror as I aimed for her chest.
My eyes traced over her for a moment. She was proportioned as a woman, but her head barely reached my waist when she was standing. She wore trousers, boots, and a linen shirt; all clean and in good repair. A leather belt with several pouches circled her slim waist, and she had a pack on her back. Her walking stick had fallen at her feet when she fell, and I could see no other weapons.
Her features were pleasing, or would have been if she wasn’t terrified of me. Her dark skin contrasted with her blue eyes, and her hair was the color of a red fox.
“Please!” she held out her hands. “I have no weapon!”
I glanced around while I kept my bow aimed at her. “I know of magic users, so I will loose if you try to cast a spell.”
“No, no spells!” She held her hands before her.