The tree was an ancient chestnut with wild lower limbs. It sat beside a small pool; smaller than the pool beneath the Eisefel, and warmer, and several of the limbs seemed destined to dip down into the pool some day.
"Do you feel the tree?" I asked Ilesa.
She cocked her head, a cute mannerism I'd decided was adorable, though I hadn't said so. Her eyes were closed and her hands were resting in her lap. With her head cocked, she swayed for a long moment. "Yes, I do!" I could feel her restraining her own excitement.
"If this tree is in you, then you are in it. Can you feel yourself within the tree?"
Another long moment of swaying, and then, in a low, slow voice not much like her own, "Yes, I do."
"What can you tell me about the tree?"
"There is magic within it." Ilesa licked her lips after she said it. "Old magic. Old."
The chestnut was itself born of old magic, I too could feel it. Its magic dominated the vicinity, and gave the pool and its environs a different air than much of the surrounding forest. "How does the tree's magic make you feel?"
"Happy, calm," She paused a moment. "Safe."
"There are fish in this pond," I announced. "I'll catch us one for our dinner. While I'm fishing, I think you should introduce yourself to the chestnut. The two of you are meant to know each other."
I left Ilesa to her meeting and I moved to the edge of the pond. There were a surprising number of fish in it; surely a result of the chestnut's influence. I touched the pond's surface with the tip of a finger and sent a low, unheard note into the water, letting the energy of it flow out in unseen ripples until it found a large, meaty specimen. It wouldn't be enough to feed the two of us by itself, but it would be more than enough when combined with the other things we'd foraged along the way. I lowered my hand into the water and waited, letting the perch brush my hand a few times, letting my magic wait for the feeling of acceptance to come, and lifting the fish from the water once I had it. The chestnut's magic was involved, and I did not want to be a distraction for what passed between it and Ilesa.
Fish in hand, I moved back to the open space across the pool from the chestnut where we had set up our shelter. We had our tents, but had stopped setting them up several days into our journey. We did set up a tent, but my tools and our gear went in it. We both slept beneath an oilskin rain fly that was big enough for us to spread our sleeping furs without crowding each other. To be honest, neither of us would have minded a little crowding, but after a little more than a week within the Starwood, we were still feeling uncomfortable about the bond that seemed to have grown between us.
Tarn and Brass walked free within the clearing, feeding themselves on the sweet grasses beside the pond. Brass was quite a bit smaller than Tarn, but agile and seemingly adept at anticipating her mistresses wishes. Tarn was a warhorse born and bred. Brass was a trail horse of equal measure.
I'd placed the perch on a swamp lantern leaf plucked from beside the pool and now was in search of wood for our cook fire. There was a good deal of lost wood around the edges of the clearing; fallen limbs and other dead wood. I collected as much as I could carry.
I had the fire going and the fish cleaned and ready for cooking by the time Ilesa came to sit beside me. "That looks pretty good."
"It will be, I think. We'll want to keep an eye out for plants we can coax into being spice and seasonings though. I've got some wild onions and dandelion greens to add to this, so it will be pretty tasty, but other than the salt we've both packed, we don't have much of that sort of thing."
I finished wrapping the fish in the leaves and spread the fire a little, wanting to have a large enough bed of coals when the fire burned down to heat the fish evenly and still keep the wild potatoes Ilesa had found earlier in the day cooking. They were small, but would still take much longer to cook than the fish.
"How did your conversation go?"
"Well," Ilesa said with a grin. "Very well. The tree and I are ... like sisters, I guess. No, more than that. I have a big sister, and this is different. More like finding another side to myself."
"This is old magic here," I nodded towards the chestnut. "Older than man's existence on Gaen. It says something about what it means to be a Wood Witch, I think, to have such old magic agree with you so well."
"Thank you," Ilesa said, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek.
"You're welcome," I blushed. "What am I being thanked for?"
"For encouraging me to listen to the chestnut, of course!" she laughed and leaned in to hug my arm briefly. "You continue to show me things that have been there all this time, but I didn't know enough to listen to!"
"You are welcome, of course!" I said, enjoying the contact on my arm but determined to ignore it. "I see magic as wizards do, and have been trained to understand what I see, and in that sense, I know much more about it than you do, and probably more than you ever will. Still, even with the knowledge I have, I could not have the conversation you just did. It is not given to me to speak to the old magic in that way, and living in that magic? I can only hope to help you set your feet on the beginning of that path, but it is not a path that I could walk."
"Truly. Indeed, whether wizard or king would want it otherwise — any wizard or any king - this path is yours alone."
"How strange to think it so," Ilesa said, and I agreed silently to myself. The magic of Gaen had indeed given itself to man when he had come, but not every manner in which that gift manifested itself was well understood, and those that touched on the old magic, the magic that had existed before man, those gifts were true mysteries.
Our perch was delicious, and the potatoes, though they could have stood some butter, did well for mopping up the juices. Having set up our camp late in the day, we had little light left afterwards to spend time in idle conversation. In truth, Idle conversation always seemed to stir up the tension that existed between us, so already we had learned to avoid it once camp had been made for the night. Instead, when we did have time after eating, we spoke of magic and forestry and the trail we rode across the forest of the north.
As most nights, I spent a few hours in the storage tent, a little witch light to aid me, and continued my studies. I had long since finished the Hadof that my master had set me to reading, and I was reading what I had on the northern forest. If I hadn't built an internal catalog in my head of what I'd read across the years, it would have been an interminably slow process, but with my master being the Valedon, I had made sure to make note of many topics he considered relevant. The forest of the north was one such topic.
Iseden, it was known as in ancient Cunish; The Ice Forest. The word had strong connections to the name given to the Eisefel, which translated, slightly more poorly, as 'Icy Falls'. So I read tonight in 'Legends of the Vale', a book I'd paid scant attention to in my previous reading, as it dealt only briefly with magic and wizardry. It spoke a lot of the ancient magic though, and of the north in general, and particularly the north as it was in the early days of men, before the wardstones were set.
In the early days, the Vale was all forest, from mountain to mountain. Trice Lake was smaller and buried deep in the wild wood of the endless forest. With the setting of the wardstones and the banishment of the unhumans and other evils to the lands beyond the northern mountains, the land had slowly changed over the millennia; developing more open grassland and warmer climes. The worst of the beasts of the wood had faded, and plants that exhibited poisonous or noxious qualities became rarer. The land remade itself for man, and man, it was said, was sometimes remade for the land.
Such were the origins of Wood Witches, this book supposed. It was suggested within it that those others of magic were a part of the accommodation as well. Weather Witches, Mage-healers, Water Witches, Truth-tellers and the like. So said 'Legends of the Vale', and indeed it spoke of others, now gone from the world, or buried away from the eyes of man. Bog-Kings and River-sprites; Sea-sprites and Dust-riders. The legends, whose origins were always suspect, spoke of the role of men as the new Guardians of Gaen, a job we had been called to assume in place of the Elder Guardians, whose existence was only guessed at; who, if they had once existed, left no trace of themselves, only the rare bit of ancient magic, such as that left within the chestnut tree across the pond from where I sat.
"You were long at your studies tonight," Ilesa said from the dark of her furs.
"I read old tracts that guess about the meaning of the north wood and the Vale, and about the manner of man's coming to Gaen and what our coming means."
"Somewhere in it is buried the truth behind my Wood-witchery?"
"Perhaps," I admitted. "The problem with legends is that they are based on nothing, or almost nothing. Legends such as these are as tenuous as the words the deists worship."
"The deists? I thought they worshipped some god or another?"
"So they will tell you, but the god they speak of is so unprovable, so untraceable, so undemonstrative, that all they have left to worship are the words they themselves have written about him. It is a strange sort of narcissism, in the end."
"so it seems. Strange indeed."
I had stripped out of my day clothes and into my furs while we spoke. When Ilesa realized that I had done so, she asked. "Are you not setting wards tonight?"
"Given where we sleep tonight, and what you know of it, do you think it is necessary?"
"No," she chuckled. "I guess we are safe tonight, aren't we?"
"Indeed so," I agreed. "Do you still feel your connection?"
"If something came in the night, would you not know it, through that connection?"
"So it would seem," Ilesa sighed.
"Then let us both sleep well tonight."
"Sleep well," Ilesa answered.
I usually rose first in the morning, but this morning Ilesa stirred just before me. Perhaps the chestnut had her awake with the sound of morning moving across the forest. Whatever the reason, for the first time during our journey, I was able to lay in my furs and watch her putting her trail clothes on, as she had watched me in days past.
It wasn't that this provided a view of something not visible otherwise, except for some bare forearm and some calf and ankle. I saw as much whenever we found ourselves someplace where we could wash off the dirt of the trail. It was different because I was watching a woman rising from her bed. Conceptually, it brought some blood to rising that I was normally more successful at suppressing. A rising that kept me abed even longer than I might have otherwise, while I waited for it to subside.
Ilesa moved to the pool to wash her face, and finally I was able to rise and don my own trail gear. I stirred the cook fire and found nothing remained of last night's fire, but we had enough wood remaining from last night's fire for me to start a new one for our morning meal of lavis and trail biscuits. Once the fire was started, I went looking for a little more wood, to make sure we had enough to keep the fire hot while we brewed our morning's beverage.
"The trail biscuit's would be better with some honey or berries." ilesa commented when I returned.
"We'll have to keep our eyes open for the honey, but I think its too early in the summer for wild berries."
"You're right. I would kill for even the smallest pot of my Mom's apple jam."
"Please! Don't start talking about food we don't have. We're not likely to pick up a larder anywhere along the way to Silverlake."
"Truly? Are there no farms or steads within the north wood?"
"Very few, and with the trail sticking close to the northern edge of the forest, we aren't likely to come across any of the few there are."
"Drats! I can certainly see myself able to live off the land, but I would think this is a hardship I hadn't expected to bother me as much as it is."
"Well, we might have one option open to us, if we make it all the way across the Cairnheart."
"Whats that? Why the Cairnheart?"
"We are trying to determine the range of your association with the north woods, and the Cairnheart is a logical boundary. If you cross the river and feel no lessening of your connection, then one of the other tests remaining is to see how you do away from it. Following the Cairnheart south to Cairncross would be one way of testing that."
And there it rested for the time being. We had many days travel before we would reach the Cairnheart. We had much wilder wood to travel through than we had seen so far, and we both were more of the days and nights ahead, and each other, than we were of the possible destinations waiting for us.
"How does he?" Tynis asked.
"Well. Better than we had a right to expect, and almost as well as we need him to."
"Will this girl do as well Ethric?"
"I do not know, my Lord. She impressed me with her wit when I met her, and she took the oath without hesitation, and I could see within her that she knew what it meant."
"Did she?" Tynis drained his wine glass and reached to refill it.
"She understood what we expect any of them that take the oath are meant to understand. If she understood more, I couldn't see it, but I wouldn't from within the eshada. I would have had to be there in the flesh. Pacasin is certainly sensitive enough to have seen it, but he has not been shown those secrets yet."
"Nor should he have been, but you said he has become somewhat curious about Cunish influences?"
"Yes, and I suspect it is Gaen having her say in the way we move our chess pieces about on the board."
"Why not? It has been Gaen choosing the pieces to begin with, hasn't it?"
"Since the beginning," Ethric admitted, bowing to his king.
"Gaen speaks and we listen, just as men have listened for untold thousands of years. But why does the word take so long to become reality, Ethric? Why does king after king have to die, and wizard after wizard succumb?"
"Gaen sings, but we do not understand the tune. She keeps raising up new generations, and each is found wanting."
I once thought you might be strong enough, Ethric, but you failed me."
"No, your dream failed you. I am what I am. I am what I need to be. I was never going to be strong enough to be what you envisioned. All I could be was ready for what would come, and I hope that I am up tp the tasks that fall to me."
"So far, my friend. So far you have."
"Shh!" Ilesa roused me in my furs.
"Something is coming. A group. Get dressed."
"Right. How far away are they?" I slipped from my furs, feeling for my trousers. There was just the slightest hint of light in the sky, but not enough to see well. Knowing the state the dream I'd been having when she woke me, I was glad that Ilesa couldn't see any better than I could.
"A quarter hour or so. They're not moving fast, but they seem to be moving with some purpose," she pointed off in the direction they would come from.
"How did you find them?" I nodded and smiled in the pre-dawn dimness.
"Ah ... a ... an owl told me." Ilesa said it as if she didn't believe it herself. "They disturbed her hunt."
I found my topcoat and slid into it. It was heavy leather, studded with disks of ox horn. Not the most effective armor, but light and quiet. I tied the bottom around my waist and put my belt on a bove it, checking my sword and dagger to make sure they were properly positioned and ready for use.
"Is there a chance they will miss us?" I asked.
"It doesn't appear so. They seem to be headed straight for us."
"Do you have your bow?" I asked. There was more in my question than I asked, and Ilesa heard and understood it.
"Yes, and don't worry. I'll have no trouble using it if I have to."
"I know you can hit what you aim at. I'll try to give us enough light to show you what we're facing if it looks like we'll need to defend ourselves."
"There's no need. I can see perfectly well in this light. I see much better since you began helping me connect to the forest."
"Good," I wondered how much now she might have seen when I rose from my furs. Time enough to worry about that when we were out of danger. "Stay behind me and to the side when the time comes, but not too far away."
I added my battle cloak last, tying it in place so it wouldn't get in the way of my weapons. The cloak had enough enchantment in it to offer some protection, particularly from arrows and other weapons arriving through the air. Just then I heard a low snort from Tarn. Whether he meant to or not, he reminded me he was there. I wished for a moment that I had the barding I'd gotten with him. With the quilted leather neck and chest pieces in place, the warhorse was a formidable opponent. Even without it, he would be formidable, but more open to harm.
"If they rush us, Tarn will probably join the fight," I whispered. "Be sure you are clear of us both with your bow."
"Got it," She answered. I heard the rustle of her moving off behind me.
A moment later those approaching finally got close enough to trigger the wards I'd placed about us the night before. I let my wizard's sight flare up, and sensing no real magic from them, let my own slip out enough to 'see' them as they painted themselves with the lines of my wards as they passed through them.
"Ulmord," I whispered. "Eight of them."
Ulmord were elder creatures. Intelligent, and neither good nor evil, but ferocious and not that fond of men in general. They looked like walking porcupines, though their quills ran down their backs and at the sides of their muzzle-like faces only. The tallest of them would probably be no more than five feet, but they are a stocky, muscular race.
They drew within ten feet of our dead campfire and seemed to have no intention of slowing, so I muttered a little bit of Hadof under my breath and let the dead fire come back to life and flare up brightly in front of them. I changed the tune I muttered as the fire bloomed, wrapping myself in some magic.
"Hold, in the name of the Valedon and King Tynis. State your purpose."
"Your king's name holds no weight with us, youngling," an older, beefier warrior spoke. "Our purpose is your death, and we shall be about it!" He signaled as he spoke, and an arrow flashed out, from the darkness behind those closest to the fire. It got caught in a fold of my cloak as I leaned left at the sound of it. An answering arrow flashed from the darkness behind me, and I heard a coarse grunt. Ilesa had found a target. I yelled, as if struck, but leapt across the fire as I did, and drove my sword into the beefy Ulmord's belly. My dagger caught another sword's slash coming from my left before it could touch me and I diverted it down and into the dirt behind the recipient of my sword. I dropped a shoulder into him and let him fall onto the sword I'd just diverted, trapping it momentarily. Freed from its duties, I slashed out with my dagger and cut the throat of the Ulmord holding the pinned sword. I moved right with the slash, hearing another arrow fly past and into the group in front of me, followed by another grunt and a scream. If each of Ilesa's arrows had struck true, we had only half as many foes to fight as we'd had to begin. I tried to make it one less as I ended my move, but my opponent's axe caught my blade and bounced off, glancing across my forearm three inches below my elbow. I grunted in pain, but let my dagger follow the shaft of the axe handle up and into the hand of whichever of them wielded it.
I sang out; a quick, angry call and a spray of hot, stinging sparks shot out before me. There was a rough cry and what sounded like a sharp gasp, followed by the sound of another arrow going past me.
"To your left!" I heard Ilesa call. I caught the movement out of the corner of my eye and dropped, rolling in that direction and coming up, but whatever had been there was already past me. I saw two shapes moving in front of me with my wizard's sight. The fire had died down again and it was dark once again. I ran towards the upright shape and engaged.
A sword met mine, and I found my blade engaged. Behind me I heard the sound of Tarn trumpeting a challenge, followed by a scream. It didn't sound like Ilesa's. Three quick moves with my blade and I had my opponent's blade in the air, but I was turned too far to the right to bring my dagger back into play effectively, so I dropped a shoulder and tried to bowl my opponent over. He didn't fall, but did stagger back, just far enough for me to reverse my dagger and throw it into his face. I don't think the blade caught him cleanly, but it brought his other hand up high enough to block with my off arm. With his free arm blocked, I stepped across his sword arm and inside of it, bringing my own up and into him. I heard his breath go whooshing out of him, followed by a slick, shivering gurgle. He fell at my feet and around me, there was sudden silence.
"Close your eyes" I hollered, and with a humming note and a wave of my empty hand, let a globe of witch light spring up above me. Once the light had flared, I opened my own eyes and looked around. One of the Ulmord laying nearby struggled to move away. I moved over it and drove my sword down through an ear. The body shuddered and then went stiffly still.
"The one who got past me?" I called out, keeping my eyes in front of me.
"Tarn got him." Ilesa called back.
I did a quick body count. Seven Ulmord lay before me. I saw my dagger where I had thrown it - stuck between the noseplate of an Ulmord's helmet and the savaged nose behind it. In trying to swat it away in the dark the creature had managed to drive it through his face quite cruelly.
"We're clear then," I said loudly, but without the holler.
I turned and saw Ilesa standing by the trunk of a tree, her horse behind her. Tarn stood over the ruined body of a scrawny Ulmord with a battle axe still in its hand. I sheathed my weapons and rushed over to Ilesa.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"I'm fine," she answered, but I saw her shaking. Before I could react, she was in my arms, and I was holding her and listening to her cry into my blood-stained shoulder.
"Its all right," I said after a while. "What you're feeling right now is just your body's reaction to the danger. Its the aftermath of the battle frenzy. Your body will settle itself, and so will your mind."
"I have killed an intelligent creature," Ilesa cried.
"You did," I agreed. "An intelligent creature intent on killing us both. You did well."
"Are you all right?" she asked suddenly, pulling back from me. "I heard you cry out!"
"I took a glancing blow. I haven't had a chance to examine it yet." I said, pulling my arm up in front of me, now that she had mentioned it. I had a nice gash, a couple inches long, but fairly shallow. The bone beneath it already felt sore. The blade of an axe was not a delicate instrument.
"So it seems. We need to get that clean, and dressed. I can heal most of it, once we've had some breakfast."
"Breakfast? How can you think of food with that blood running out of your arm like that?"
"It will be light soon, and time for breakfast anyway. I expended a little magic too, during our battle, and if I'm going to try to heal myself with more, it would be best to do it with a full stomach."
"I'll get the fire going again and get last night's rabbit stew heating," Ilesa said rushing towards the fire.
"Careful," I cautioned. "Build a new fire, don't use the old one. The magic I used to make it flare is notoriously unstable."
I moved over to the gear tent and found my healer's kit in my bag. There was a small stoppered jug of pure water which I used to wash the cut, and a clean piece of bandage cloth. I muttered out a little subvocal magic directed at the wound and let my magic pull any remaining foreign material out of the wound before I wrapped the bandage around it. With the bandage in place, I tied a leather strap around it to cover and protect it.
Ilesa had a new fire going by the time I was done, and was working on getting the cookpot and its tripod moved over the new fire. The pot had been covered to keep insects and other denizens of the forest out of the stew. I was glad of that, as the thought of Ulmord blood spraying into the pot made my stomach twinge. I found the wineskin where it had been hung above our shelter and stopped for a quick swallow before going to check on Tarn. My warhorse seemed fine, and I checked his chest and forelegs to see if the unlucky ulmord had managed to land a blow, but it seemed that he had not.
"You did a good job Tarn," I told him, patting him alongside the neck. "Thank you." My warhorse snorted at my words and tossed his head, as if to tell me it was just a part of the job, no big deal.
"What's this?" I heard Ilesa from behind me. I turned and she was reaching at my side. I looked down just in time to see her pulling an arrow from where it had been caught up in my cloak.
"That first arrow," I told her. "That's where it struck."
"Better stuck in your cloak than in you," she laughed. I joined her in it. "How's the arm?"
"It'll be fine," I said, showing her my bandaging job. "Tarn and I will drag this fellow out of camp and move the rest of them out of sight while the stew warms." I motioned at the ulmord at Tarn's feet.
"I need some wine," Ilesa said with a shudder.
"Go ahead, its where we left it at the shelter. I've had a quick swallow already myself."
I spent the next fifteen minutes or so moving bodies, with Tarn's assistance. Not far, we would be leaving once it was light enough anyway. I checked their gear, for any clues as to their origins, or purpose, but they seemed suspiciously empty of personal effects or trivial belongings. Nor did they seem to have bulging purses. I spent a little more of my magic looking for clues of the magical kind, but found none.
We ate the stew, with most of it going into my stomach. With some trial biscuits and more of the wine to wash it down, I felt full, and knew I had what I needed to go into a brief healing session.
"Listen to the forest while I am in my trance," I told Ilesa. "These creatures had no coins jingling in their pockets, but that doesn't mean they weren't paid to kill us. They were set upon us though, of that I'm certain."
"I heard the first one you killed say they came to kill us," Ilesa said.
"Almost," I cautioned. "He said their purpose was our deaths, but that could have just been the boasting of fighting men. They're prone to that sort of bluster, whether man or not."
"Perhaps," Ilesa said, shaking her head. "That's not how I took it though."
"No, nor did I."
"Now, listen to the forest and be my eyes and ears while I get this wound a good start on the road to repair, eh?"
"I will," she said softly, giving me another hug.
The thought of that hug and the earlier one made it difficult to find the trance at first. I sat with my back against the tree that had shielded Ilesa during the battle and closed my eyes, and pushed those thoughts and everything else out of my mind. It took quite a while before my thoughts were settled enough.
I woke from my trance to find the camp struck and Ilesa sitting cross-legged in front of me. I found myself staring straight into her blue eyes. Once my own were locked with hers, she grinned back.
"About time. I was beginning to think I'd have to start fixing lunch before you came around."
"Its barely ten," I answered with a small amount of annoyance after consulting my internal sense of time.
"True enough, but it looks like its going to be a warm day, and I suspect that dead Ulmord do not smell pleasant after a while."
I looked around then, and that was when I saw that Ilesa had managed to pack up everything, including the gear tent. Where tent had been, was a canvas cloth with all my stuff in a small pile. She saw what drew my eyes and explained. "I know your particular about your tools and stuff, so I figured it was safer to leave that stuff for you."
"Indeed," I said wryly. Ilesa raised an eyebrow in answer.
"Very," she said, with the same air I had just used. I laughed, and she joined me.
"Thank you. I do tend to deal with my after-battle emotions by becoming a little stuffy. My master never notices, because he's even worse than I am." She laughed some more, nodding at the image I presented.
"How about you? Have you been able to handle the let down?"
"Yeah, but I did it by keeping myself busy breaking camp. If we don't get moving soon, I may cry and whine all over you."
"Well, we can't have that," I joked, rising to move towards the pile of my belongings. "Has the forest brought you any news in the time I've been healing?"
"No, but — well, first, about that?"
"What, the healing?"
"Yes, is that necessary? Are you going to have to do that sort of thing every time you get wounded?"
"Well, no. Its convenient to do it when its safe to though."
"Fine then, but you should know, I was pretty freaked out by the thought of you just going off in a trance and leaving me alone so soon after the battle."
Hmm ... I had to think about that, and I did so while I gathered my things. I may have been a warrior seasoned on the fields of Warmuth Bridge, and my master's star pupil — easy enough when you're his only pupil — but I was no seasoned scout or ranger. Did what I do make sense? It did for a wizard's apprentice safe in his master's tower, or within the walls of a friendly keep, but perhaps it was not the wisest thing I could be doing on the trail with my fledgling Wood Witch depending on me.
"Ilesa, I'm sorry," I said as I was finishing adjusting Tarn's saddlebags. "My actions were not appropriate for the circumstances, and I promise to do better in the future."
"Good!" she smiled brightly, but then immediately her brow furrowed and her face darkened. "But don't you go get wounded again just prove yourself to me."
"All right," I said, laughing. Ilesa's face cleared as she joined me. "I will definitely be trying to avoid getting wounded in the future. Now, you started to answer my question about what the forest has been telling you?"
"Oh! Yes, I ... Do you want to track them back to where they came from?"
"What? Can we?"
"At least to where they entered the forest, yes."
"Do you know where that place is?"
"The mountains just east of the Cairnheart."
"That's ony a couple days ride from where we are now." I said, trying to picture it in my head. "It would take us more than a day out of our way though. If we stay with the trail we're on now, we'll cross the Cairnheart sometime tomorrow."
"Beyond the extra time, would you want to do it?"
I thought about that for a moment, and reminded myself who I was, where I was and who I had with me. "No."
"I agree," Ilesa visibly relaxed as she said it.
"What? You were worried that I would go charging into the mountains of the north with only my warhorse and a plucky but inexperienced Wood Witch at my side?"
"Well ... No, I guess I didn't really think that was what would happen, but..."
" ... but after my abandoning you to go off and heal myself, you weren't sure which way I'd jump."
"I don't blame you. I gave you good reason to have doubts. Trust me though, I will not ignore my master's mandate to keep you safe during this. Even if we could know what we would find if we followed the Ulmord's trail back from whence it came, what would be the point? No, we'll continue on our planned course and increase our vigilance."
That night we made camp late. We were anxious to reach the Cairnheart I think, but also we'd been distracted for several hours in the middle of the day with Ilesa's efforts to find us some dinner. She'd succeeded, perhaps to a greater degree than we could handle, as she'd managed to bag a white-tailed deer. The buck was not as fat as he would have been towards the end of the summer, but he'd managed to eat off his winter stringiness. He had a nice rack of antlers and the sheer bulk of him concerned us both. We'd cook the tenderloin tonight, but we'd have to cook the rest of it later tonight, and if not, then in the morning, or else we could wind up wasting most of it.
"I really don't want to have to do this tomorrow," Ilesa said as the tenderloin cooked. "It'll delay reaching the river by a full day."
"Neither do I, but to get it all done tonight, we'll need to stay up half the night."
"Let's do it in watches then. We've got two roasts and two racks of ribs. The roasts are what will take the longest, so lets do the ribs after dinner and then I'll stay up to cook the first roast and wake you to tend the second."
"The ribs would be better done more slowly," I thought out loud. "but your right, we can cook them more quickly than the roasts."
"We could parboil them, if we had something to boil them in at all, but we don't have anything large enough, even if we were to cut the ribs into meal sized portions first."
"That's not a bad idea. They'll loose some of their flavor cooked that way, but we could parboil them tonight and then cook them the rest of the way tomorrow night."
"That would work, but we still don't have a pot to boil them in. Our little camp pot is barely large enough to make stew for the two of us. We couldn't get more than one or two rib portions in it at a time." Ilesa stamped her foot in frustration as she said it, and I found myself fighting down my reaction to the cuteness of her action.
"I think I can take care of that," I told her, smiling. "find me that pot."
I took the small camp pot and went to sit by the small stream we had camped next to. The pot was cast iron, with small legs that could hold it up over a bed of coals if needed, but the little pot was damned near indestructible, and we'd already cooked with it almost buried within a fire. I wasn't going to be working any major magic, but still I set a few wards around myself. There was one of the Hadof runes that I thought could be adapted to my purpose, and I was loathe to use any of the Hadof with Ilesa so near.
The pot was made of cast iron, an elementally simple material composed of mostly raw iron along with traces of carbon and silicon. The precise proportions, I was unsure of, but I didn't need to know, only duplicate the proportions in the pot I already had.
I should have no problem calling whatever traces of iron, carbon and silicon I would need from the immediate vicinity. The rock and clay of the nearby riverbed would hold more than enough of everything.
I drew Margan's Forge in the air in front of me, and surrounded it with Null. Null was very powerful, but had a very short range of effect, perfect for the use I was putting it to. It would keep the Hadof bottled up and prevent the intense heat from running away on me.
With the heat building in my forge, I cast the small pot into it, and then began to sing to the earth around me, low, low chords that let the elements in the pot call, like to like, and with the magic building, their counterparts responded. I sang until the pot had doubled in size, and kept singing until it had doubled again. I let it sit within the forge as I slowly let Margan's rune abate until only Null was left. I dropped it quickly, but held the pot in mid-air with a tuneless whistle. Five minutes later I lowered it into the stream and let the cold water cool the metal completely.
"Ahh, just in time," Ilesa called from the fire as I approached. "Dinner is ready."
"So is our pot," I said, holding it up.
"I see. I don't suppose that pot is full of water, is it?" Ilesa teased.
"Dust!" I grimaced. "And here I was feeling so proud of myself."
I returned to the river and filled the pot, accompanied by the sound of Ilesa's laughter from behind me.
With the ribs parboiled, we were able to do one of the roasts after we'd eaten our dinner. I stayed up with second roast while Ilesa slept, and between adding wood to the fire and turning the roast, I studied.
In a way, I felt like I was cheating at something, because what I studied was the Wardstone at Hoartongue Keep. The three Wards of the North shared the same Cunish traits that I'd found in the one at Starhill. In a sense I guess I was 'reading ahead' in my studies. This Cunish influence seemed personally important to me, beyond the general encouragement my master had given me.
I reviewed the Hoartongue runes for the first hour and then spent some time in consideration of my promise to Ilesa. I had to think of a way to utilize my healing ability without going into the typical healer's trance. There were spells and elixirs that could speed the healing of certain types of injuries, such as burns, or cure common forms of poisoning outright. Most of these elixirs were created by 'singing' the appropriate magic into a preparation laced with some material that could hold it. Some materials were better than others, such as crystallized honey, gold foil and something I'd read of but not seen, called rock jelly. This jelly was a rare translucent paste made as a byproduct of distilling certain tars and oils found bubbling up from the earth in certain places. The rock jelly was exceedingly rare, and for all its rarity, only useful for a few very specialized items. Gold foil, while easier to get, was expensive. The expense was worth it because of the efficacy of any elixir made with it, but the foil itself was so delicate it was also exceedingly difficult to use.
So I considered how to bind healing into an elixir, or alternatively, how to modify any of the common healing magics for use within a rune. Both ideas had their problems, not the least of which was that one of the big components was time.
Any wizard will tell you — you do not mess with time. Wizards who do are generally not heard from again.
I did have one idea that I was interested in trying, and something like crystallized honey would be an ideal medium for capturing the magic I had in mind, but it would be difficult to guess at how well it would work, and it would mean weaving several different runes into the magic. While not the same level of accomplishment as creating a completely new rune, it was only slightly less accomplished, and something I would not try without some further consideration. Besides, despite our efforts to this point, we'd not really found a good source of honey.
When the second roast finished cooking, I let it cool while I put my study materials away, then wrapped it in some clean linen and tucked it into a canvas pouch alongside the first one, suspended from a tree near our shelter. Ilesa had assured me that none of the normal denizens of the forest would come near them, but it was always safe to keep them at least off the ground.
I set a few simple wards, but I already knew that Ilesa would know of trouble long before any wards I set could be triggered. I found my furs and was soon asleep.
We crossed the Cairnheart mid-afternoon the following day. This far to the north it was not the wide, deep river that it was to become further south, but we still had to follow the river downstream several miles from where we found it before we could cross. I tried not to say anything to Ilesa, but was on edge, waiting for her to notice any difference in how she was feeling. When she still hadn't said anything an hour later, I asked.
"No, I feel fine," Ilesa answered. "Why?" Then, realized the source of my concern before I could answer. "Oh! The river could have been a border for me. I remember you and Ethric worrying about that."
Ilesa unmounted and sat on the ground where we'd stopped, on a shoulder of rock beside the river. She closed her eyes and listened as she had been learning to.
"It feels the same, but now that I have the river marked with these new senses I'm discovering, I'll be able to 'see' it more easily from now on, I think."
"So you are more than the Wood Witch of the Starwood, and more than Wood Witch of the eastern third of the forest of the north."
"So it seems."
"We ride south then for Cairncross?" I asked, but it had been our proposed plan for this eventuality.
"I guess we do. We've been following the river south for the last hour anyway."
We've got quite a bit of daylight left in our day. Lets get moving."
"Let's walk the horses a while," Ilesa suggested. "I'd like to try and forage something to make a seasoned gravy out of for the roast we're going to have tonight.
So we walked for several hours in the cool shade of the forest alongside the warm skies over the Cairnheart River. Ilesa found some buttercap mushrooms and green onions. I even found a small patch of wild mustard plants.
"When we get to Cairncross, do you think I could send a message to my parents? I'm sure they're worried about me, and would like to know how we are doing." Ilesa asked as we walked.
"Of course you can, but I'm sure they have been getting updates from my master on our progress. I do contact him every couple of days with word of our progress. I should contact him tonight to let him know we've crossed the river."
We camped beside the river at the end of the fifth day of traveling south. Our shelter was tucked into the angle between two fallen trees. We hung our rain skin over the 'V' where the two trees came together, and laid a good collection of ferns and mosses upon the already soft earth, putting our second rain skin on top of them. We were worried about rain tonight, though I didn't see anything serious in the weather headed our way, except for a chance of getting wet.
"I think there are a few rabbits we can have," Ilesa told me. "I'm going to go coax them out."
While Ilesa was occupied with that, I found some water pepper beside the river, and added them to our cache of wild growing chives we'd found earlier. Along with some watercress we'd discovered but not yet used, and the salt we still had in good supply, we were well prepared to season something for our dinner, but we had no meat left in the larder, having finished the last of the venison the day before. With Ilesa sounding confident over the prospect of rabbits, I had no doubts they were there and that we'd be having them, so I proceeded on that basis, getting the firewood collected and the cook fire readied.
I should have seen it coming when we'd put up the rain fly. I should have thought of it when we laid out our furs and found the space was so restricted that they overlapped slightly. It wasn't until I'd finished my nightly studies, stripped down to my inner clothes and climbed under my furs that it struck me.
I could sense Ilesa only inches away from me. I could hear her small movements, and after a few moments of fearful stillness, I thought I could smell her. I lay there, frozen in a sea of dread; enthralled. It took a long time before I could feel myself breathing again, and once I had regained some semblance of control, I rolled onto my back and reached up to touch the opal at my neck.
<Pacasin?> My master asked, sensing my contact.
<Master, what should I do?>
<That depends, apprentice. Perhaps I could be of better assistance if you would tell me what concerns you?>
<Ilesa, my master.> I sent. <I find myself thinking things that suggest breaking my sworn oath to you.>
I explained the current situation to him, explaining how I now found myself laying next to Ilesa, and thinking thoughts that could lead to violating my oath. I heard the hollow chuckle of his laughter then, rolling through my mind.
<Pacasin, thinking something is not the same as doing something. You know this.>
<I do, master, but I confess, I could find myself willing to move beyond thinking to doing with very little encouragement.>
<And do you think of your current sleeping situation as encouraging?>
<Master, the current situation makes it difficult to think at all, and I'm not sure how I was able to find the presence of mind to contact you.>
<Calm yourself, apprentice. What you swore to me was not intended to make the girl untouchable, but to keep you from acting rashly. Think of your other duties. Where are you? Where are you headed? Report!>
<Master, we have crossed the Cairnheart. Ilesa has suffered no loss of connection, and in fact she seems to sense the forest on this side of the river much more clearly now that we are across it.>
<Good! I have expected this result, based on the strength of her reaction when you tested her. The true test will be when you cross the Icicle River. What is your progress?>
<We are not on the trail west, Master. We are moving south along the Cairnheart, headed towards Cairncross.>
<Ah, you want to test her sensitivity to separation then? Good! We'd need to do it at some point anyway.>
<Beyond that, we're growing sorely tired of trail food and would love to buy some supplies. Even fresh spices and some bread would be welcome.>
<You should have a pack horse with you. Pick one up in Cairncross. I'll see that you have a line of credit at that inn you stayed at when you were there last. Buy flour and whatever you need to make the trip easier on you. Neither of you are being tested to see if you are trail hardened. Use the provisioning spells you know too, Pac. Don't slight yourself needlessly.>
<Yes Master, but I did want to avoid muddying the waters, so to speak, with needless magic. Its presence makes it harder to sense Ilesa's reactions to her talent, and it is hard enough to sense as it is.>
<I understand, but I think that goal has been achieved already. You do not need sensitivity to tell whether or not she has moved beyond her forest.>
<No, that's true. I will remember that from now on.>
<Good, now I should go and let the both of us get your sleep. You continue to please me, apprentice, and I leave you with one last thought.>
<What is that, Master?> I asked after he did not continue.
<Regarding the young woman's virtue, Pacasin. You swore an oath to me, and by extension, to Ilesa's parents, true?>
<Ilesa swore no such oath. Her virtue is hers to do with as she will.>
With that, my master's presence faded from my thoughts. Dust! I'd contacted him in hopes that it would settle me, but I was more on edge than ever. Sleep was a long time coming.
I seemed to blink, and morning was upon me. I opened my eyes and found myself staring at the rain fly above us. I could hear the sound of the river nearby along with the other normal sounds of the forest.
What was not normal was the feeling of Ilesa, pressed gently against me, an arm tossed casually across my chest and her head nestled sweetly into the crook of my arm. I lay there, listening to the sweet sound of her breathing, and letting the feel of her body pressed against mine sink into every fiber of my being. After an eternity of blissful awareness, I sighed and stirred myself, trying to slip myself out from our tangle.
"Mmm," She muttered as I moved, pulling herself closer. "What?"
"Daylight is already upon us, Ilesa," I said, continuing my struggle to extricate myself. "I need to get up if we're going to have a fire for breakfast." Here eyes popped open then, and awareness of how we were situated.
"Did I... ?" She started to ask. The beginning of a question had struck me at the same time and I'd felt to my right.
"It appears we both moved to the middle in the night," I said.
There was an embarrassed rush then by both of us to get out of the furs and into the safety of our morning routine. Given my master's guidance, I was no longer concerned about the casual use of magic, and rather than start a fire, I simply heated the water directly so that we could have our morning cup of lavis. We broke our fast with some dried fruits and jerky from our trail rations, not bothering for anything more elaborate.
"Do you think we can get our things washed when we get to Cairncross? Ilesa asked after about an hour of travel.
"I think that's a good idea," I answered. "When I spoke with my master last night, he suggested we get ourselves a pack mule when we get to Cairncross, so we can carry more supplies. He doesn't see the need for our living so basic an existence while on the trail."
"Oh, that would be good. I'd like to get some soap too."
"Well spend a few days, so make a list. My master has said he will arrange money for us at the Three Seasons Inn. We will stay at least three days, unless your need prevents it."
The rest of our morning ride was quiet, as we both were lost in our thoughts. I could pretend to be making my list, but my thoughts were not on shopping, but on this morning. Ilesa's bow brought down a tree grouse that we'd startled from its perch, and that decided us on where and when to stop for lunch. I again spent a little magic, this time to get the grouse free of its feathers. We roasted it on a spit over the fire, not waiting for coals to settle in, but letting the flames lick at the flesh of the bird itself. There wasn't a lot of meat on the bird to begin with, so a quick cooking of the flesh was all we cared for, or felt we had time to do. Ilesa made tea, rather than lavis, and spiked it with a splash of brandy that we'd had in our pack but hadn't touched before this. It couldn't have been the 'splash of courage' that most soldiers joked about, because it was a very small amount, but the richness and complexity of the brandy gave the peppery, slightly licorice-flavored tea a nice warming effect.
"About this morning," Ilesa said as she sat beside me, her share of the bird in hand.
"Yes?" I asked, still unsure of my own feelings, let alone hers.
"Did it bother you, to find us laying together like that?"
"Bother?" I laughed. "I was indeed bothered. I was bothered from the moment I climbed into my furs last night and realized how close we were to each other."
"Oh," she said.
"I was bothered," I continued. "but not annoyed. I've been bothered by your nearness practically since I met you."
"Really?" she seemed surprised but not upset by this.
"What I've said in the past, about wizards and apprentices not often being close to people was true. Before this, I've never been close to anyone except my master, and that closeness was of the teacher/student kind. There were girls..." I stopped, not sure where to go with what I was saying.
"There were boys, too..." She said, pausing after. "In Starhill, I mean. Boys who would have been willing to be closer, if I'd encouraged it."
"But you didn't, because somehow you knew you were different?" I asked. She cocked her head again in that way I found so cute, and I smiled. She smiled back.
"I think that must have been it, though I didn't know why at the time."
"I can say the same," I admitted. "A wizard's apprentice is a target, my master told me."
"As is a Magister's daughter," Ilesa added with a laugh. "Or so my mother told me."
"What I need to know, I guess, is where that leaves us." I sighed.
"Us? Are you comfortable with how you found things this morning?"
"Comfortable? Hardly." I snorted. Ilesa started to say something, but I cut her off. "Comfortable isn't going to be a good choice of adjective as far as 'us' goes. Content, maybe."
Content?" she asked, and I reconsidered, but it seemed right.
"Yes, content. I am content with how I found things this morning. It is far more than I could have hoped for, and is a closeness I was never sure I could have with a woman."
"Okay," Ilesa said, smiling at me. I saw her shoulders drop though, as sweet as her smile was and as much lightness as she'd put in her words, I knew she wasn't saying everything. "I too am content."
Sitting side by side at the fire as we were, it was easy enough to open my arms for a hug, and Ilesa slid into my arms easily. The hug lasted a long time, with neither of us seeming to be in any hurry to end it. A snort from Tarn broke whatever spell we had put ourselves under and I pulled back slightly. We both sighed. I stood, but then leaned back down and kissed the tip of Ilesa's nose.
"One thing more I'll say, then we need to get ourselves back in our saddles and headed towards Cairncross."
"What?" she asked as I pulled her to her feet.
"In my conversation with my master last night, he reminded me of one important thing. Well, two things, really." With her standing in front of me now, I leaned back down and kissed her, on the lips this time, but only lightly.
"what?" She looked up all doe-eyed at me, and I had to resist the urge to bend back down and kiss her again. I decided it would be wiser to move away now while I still could, and so as I headed towards Tarn, and said it while I did.
"Ethric pointed out to me that I take my oaths to him with deadly seriousness."
"Sure, even I could tell that. What else?" Ilesa asked with some petulance. I chuckled at it, and catching her own mood out in the open, she joined me.
"He also pointed out that while I swore an oath to him that I would protect your virtue, you swore no such oath to anyone."
We both rode that day with silly grins on our faces, and when we found our camp for the night, we ignored the wide space available and placed our furs beside each other. As usual, my studies kept me up well after Ilesa, but when I at last slipped between my furs, Ilesa slid over against me immediately. In the dark, she whispered into my ear, "As content as waking in your arms can make me, I think I will find even more contentment in falling asleep in them."
It took awhile again that night to fall asleep, with the sweet warmth of Ilesa Ownes against me, but I didn't mind at all.
Cairncross was noisier than I remembered it, but perhaps it was the direction we approached it from. Coming from upriver as we did, and with the morning behind us and the afternoon beginning, we caught the town bustling with activity and had to cross most of it to reach the Three Seasons. My last trip through we'd crossed the city in the early morning hours, while most of the city still slept. I had one eye on the street and one eye on Ilesa, as I continued to watch her for any sign that leaving the forest behind was having an effect on her. We'd left the woods themselves at first light that morning, having chosen to camp just within the forest's edge the night before.
"How are you feeling?" I asked, having to almost yell it over the street noise.
"Fine, and I thought you promised to stop asking me that every five minutes?"
"You're right, I did. Forgive me, but it will take a while for that to happen."
"All right, but promise me you won't wake me up every five minutes after I'm asleep to ask me?"
That I could promise, and I did, the both of us laughing over it.
Artuma recognized me as soon as I walked in the door. "Ah! The young apprentice! Your master has sent word of your coming, and funds to aid you in your journey. Welcome!
"Thank you Artuma, it is good to be back and in your care again," I told him, clasping hands with him."
"And this must be the young woman I was told of?" he asked, smiling broadly in Ilesa's direction.
"Indeed," I agreed, offering an arm to Ilesa to bring her forward. "Artuma, allow me to intruduce you to Ilesa Ownes, daughter of Delan Ownes, the Magister of Starhill."
"Welcome to the Three Seasons, my Lady," Artuma said with a bow. "Our humble inn is made better by your presence, and your beauty makes us all jealous of the young apprentice here, who is privileged to travel in your company."
"Thank you, kind sir!" Ilesa said with a laugh. "My father warned me to keep my purse clutched tight when confronted by such flowery words."
"Indeed!" Artuma joined in her laughter. "And what was your mother's warning?
I laughed then, and Ilesa slapped Artuma on the shoulder, but she too laughed while she did.
"I confess to wondering why the Valedon would have his able apprentice escorting a magister's daughter hither and yon within the Vale?" Artuma asked once the laughter had died down.
I looked at him, and knew my heart, but did my duty and raised a hand, making a quick gesture and singing a quick note. "Can I trust you to keep a secret for the Valedon and your King?"
Of course," He answered, and the note I'd sung echoed back true. "I would keep it for you alone, if asked to."
Show us to our rooms," I" said. "We will tell you more while we are alone, then you can offer us lunch."
"Room," Artuma replied.
"Room," Artuma repeated. "The Valedon has arranged for only one room. He said you would be sharing it."
If it was any compensation, it was a very nice room. The single bed was more than large enough for two.