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The Mystara Chronicles XXII: "A Mind in Chains"by M. Geneva Gray
(based upon the works of various and sundry authors)
As was his custom, Boldar arose from his night's sleep with the sun. Although Gernon's home was little more than a glorified farmhouse, the dwarf's rest had been comfortable enough. The place reminded him of the dwellings that the humans built in the fields surrounding Evemur, and for that reason he found the village elder's house to be both familiar and rather distasteful.
For he was beginning to get a little bit sick of farmers. Everywhere he turned he was reminded of his family's fate in Dengar, of the way that they fought with the earth for their livelihood instead of uncovering the beauty of Kagyar's bosom as was fitting the Rockborn. He found some comfort in the fact that he was still a Youth, only thirty-five years old. There would be time enough- if Kagyar granted it- to put all wrongs to rights.
But now, he knew, was not the right time to return. No, it would behoove him to take advantage of the Learning in the midst of which he found himself. There were experiences here in Karameikos that he would never find in Dengar, trials that would strengthen and purify him, and hopefully the passing of the seasons would dull the pain of his father's shame and allow him to reenter his country with a grateful heart and a clear conscience.
Boldar walked as lightly as he was able down the creaky wooden corridor, seeking a particular room. It would be the best bedroom in the house, he knew. He felt guilty for a moment, struck by the generosity of the woman-born elf and all of Eltan's Spring. They certainly had received them kindly, even though the villagers had every reason to be suspicious of strangers. This truly is a strange land, he thought.
At last he found it, the door crudely but carefully embossed with some kind of religious emblem: a tree, a fountain, and the moon. Boldar did not knock, not wanting to awaken the occupant of the room in the early hour of the morning, but instead gently eased the door open. Peeking inside, the dwarf gazed upon Thalaric resting on a large bed. The elf stirred, the first shining rays of morning piercing the penumbral gloom of the mountain valley. Thalaric seemed to respond to their touch.
A sudden wave of emotion rushed over Boldar. He was not supposed to like elves, for they were a silly race, a people who would rather spend centuries singing to birds than apply their natural skillcraft to more noble pursuits. In this regard, nothing that he had seen in Thalaric had changed his opinion of the fey folk. Yet, he had found so much more in this elf from the Dymrak Forest than he ever could have imagined: courage, and honour, and an admirable ruthlessness in the slaying of orcs.
The dwarf was torn by two conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, he could truly confess that he had never felt the spirit of camaraderie that he now felt with Thalaric, Fyodor, and Varis: the Brotherhood of the Silver Band, as the elf had named them. Yet at the same time he was deeply aware of the fact that his heritage called him elsewhere, away from humans and especially away from elves, to his ancestral home of Dengar, behind the protecting arms of the Altan Tepes and the Makkres Mountains. Just look at where I find myself instead! Boldar thought. A place where elves breed with men and brew beer! He especially was not ready to forgive them that sin, for such deliciousness ought not, by all that was holy and right in the world, to be found anywhere outside the Skullburster breweries in Dengar.
Thalaric stirred on the bed, his near-naked body stretching in his sleep. Seeing him, Boldar thought back to yesterday afternoon, to the combat with the wasp. Until Fyodor was able to rouse Varis, Boldar had truly thought that the elf was going to die, was going to be off to whatever future Ilsundal had reserved for his kin. Standing here now, he seemed to revisit those terrifying moments when Thalaric lay twitching on the grass. Boldar shuddered and blinked at the moisture pooling in his eyes. His hand went to the thick silver bracelet around his wrist, the elf's gift, feeling its inexpert craftsmanship, and wondered at what was happening to him in this land. With a sigh, he closed the door gently, and stomped off in search of a water closet and something productive to do until the others awoke.
* * *
Nearly two hours after the dwarf's secret visit, Thalaric awoke from his sleep. Stretching, cat-like, in the morning sun, the elf thanked Ilsundal and Mealiden that he had lived through yesterday and was permitted the luxury of another morning. His back still hurt wickedly where the giant wasp had stung him, and the memory of the excruciating pain of the insect's venom remained very real. His limbs were stiff, and it seemed as if they were not responding to his mind's commands as quickly as they should be. Nevertheless, he was relieved that the crippling nausea had passed, and that the good night's rest had cleared his clouded thoughts somewhat.
Thalaric rubbed the sleep from his eyes, his lips turning down in displeasure as he saw the waxy appearance of his skin. He was hopeful that the philosopher's staff and god would be able to erase this as well as his lingering pains, as they had so many times before. The elf wondered at how differently the group would react to situations requiring the use of steel if Varis did not have the power to heal them of their wounds. Perhaps we would not court danger so openly, he thought for a moment before the memory of their first adventure together came to his attention, when they had brazenly rushed the orc-caves outside of Stallanford. We had no business being there, saplings as we were, Thalaric admitted. But what else was there to do? It certainly had seemed to be a good idea to the elf at the time.
Shrugging, he pulled on his tights and gingerly settled his black-piped green tunic over his shoulders, running his hands over its fine embroidery, feeling the rips and tears where numerous battles had made their mark. He made a mental note: obtain new clothes. The thought that he might end up dressed in the humans' roughspun garments made him chuckle as he slipped his sacred boots over his feet. Better human clothing than dwarvish!
* * *
Thalaric found Varis standing outside in the dewy morning. The two greeted each other warmly and shared a few words before the philosopher laid the staff on them both, the Immortals' blessings bringing them the healing that rest alone could not. Thalaric's skin retained its slightly yellowish tinge, but he felt as well and as strong as he had when the company had left Threshold yesterday. The two friends said prayers of thanksgiving to Ilsundal together, the first time that they had ever done so, and afterwards felt closer than ever.
As they went inside for breakfast, Varis' hand unconsciously drifted to his ear, to where his earlobe had been severed. This was one wound that the staff could not or chose not to do anything about. The skin around the scar felt tight and Varis could hardly resist the urge to touch it, even though every time he did he was struck with a burst of melancholy. This was an indignity that would never leave. The philosopher fought down the urge to blame the Immortals for his misfortune, a petulant desire, he knew, especially in the face of all of the healing that he had been granted.
Varis and Thalaric entered the kitchen to find Liselle at the stove frying rashers of bacon and Ilselloc setting out a few choice loves and sweet salted butter. The mother and son had arrived at Gernon's home early in the morning, and had enthusiastically set to helping the companions with their preparations, the biggest help being their making of breakfast. Despite the cramped quarters, Fyodor and Boldar were in the kitchen as well, helping each other with their armour straps, chatting with the villagers. The contrast between the militaristic and the domestic made a great deal more sense to the philosopher than perhaps it should have, and the presence of his friends and the honest warmth of the folk of Eltan's Spring helped to drive away his demons.
At table, his friends pursued different strategies to keep his spirits up. Fyodor was doing his best to keep the conversation light and his gaze away from Varis' ear, not acknowledging the injury at all. Boldar, on the other hand, clapped him on the back solemnly, as a warrior does to his comrade, equally bloodied by battle, equally grateful to the Immortals that they had survived to see a new day. Varis was struck by the upwelling of love he felt in his heart for his companions, for the Brotherhood.
Thalaric also felt that his commitment to the group had been re-energised. Both the early-morning moments that he and the philosopher had spent together and the fact that he could see how all of them, including Boldar, were wearing their bracelets served as perfect reminders of how highly he valued the companionship of his friends.
Gernon joined the four for breakfast, and with Liselle and Ilselloc jested with the companions while at the same time making sure that they had plenty to eat: fried eggs, crispy bacon, and heels of buttered bread. And to drink, not coffee or beer but the sweetest, clearest water the companions had ever tasted, drawn from the sacred spring that gave the town its name.
At the second hour they gathered outside, bedecked with weapons, flashing with the silver of armbands and pendants, wind rippling hair brown, red, and black. Others from the town joined them there: a few farmers, idle hands thrust into their belts; long-limbed trappers and furriers, their uncertainty plain on sunburnt faces; women, some with children clutching their skirts, others looking well nigh indistinguishable from their menfolk. All had an ineffable air about them, a certain quality of expectation or hope that made the companions uncomfortable.
Liselle, wiping her hands on her apron, smiled at the friends. "You look like heroes," she said, her vaguely elven eyes, shadowed with despair, proved her confident face a liar.
Fyodor bowed graciously. Boldar adjusted his sallet. Gernon handed Varis a map on a fresh sheet of parchment, the ink just dried. "I made it myself," he said proudly. The map, drawn in the elf's surprisingly fine hand, depicted the path to Bertrak's grove. "Stay to the trail and you should do well enough. Not much need for a map, I suppose, but I thought you might want to see the lay of the land."
"You could be a cartographer," Varis said truly. "This is fine work."
Gernon shared a glance with his sister. They grinned at each other, as if sharing a private joke. "Now keep your voice down, Karameikan. You're going to give Liselle here ideas."
Varis smiled politely at the comment, wondering what the joke was that would evidently take longer to explain than was worth the laugh. "What is this?" the philosopher asked, pointing to a point on the map where it was written "Rope Bridge (cross slowly)".
"It's just what it says," Gernon replied. "The old bridge is strong enough, but it's lost a few planks, so watch your footing."
"And the goblins?" Fyodor asked, his hand caressing the hilt of Bastard-Slayer.
"The goblins have never given us much trouble," the village elder said, "but ever since Bertrak went mad they've come closer and closer to the trail. I know you folks have laid out more goblins than I've seen summers, but be careful." He sighed, and Varis could see the despondency in his face. "We're so worried about Bertrak," he said. "We are all so grateful for your help."
Gernon clapped his hands together. "Well, that's enough of this. Let's get you on your way." With Liselle and Ilselloc in tow, the elder led the companions away from his house. Some of the natives of Eltan's Spring followed but most had turned away. Few seemed to be walking with any sense of direction or purpose. There's nowhere to go, Fyodor thought with sadness in his heart.
"Here," Gernon said, and Fyodor's mind was wrenched back from its musings. The village elder was pointing to a large spring that lay next to his home. "This is Eltan's Spring," he said. "This was Belnos' sign that Eltan and Liselle had found their new home." The god's sign was a placid pool, maybe thirty feet across. The middle of the pool bubbled slightly, rippling the water with its gentle yet continuous motion. On the far side, away from the companions, the sacred water left the pond by a thin brook, flowing off to join the river whose head was in the mountains and whose path denoted the easternmost and southernmost borders of the land claimed by Eltan's Spring.
On the near side of the spring was what appeared at first to be merely a boulder, but which the companions soon realised was an altar of unhewn stone. Garlands of flowers and cakes decorated it, evidently offerings of some kind to Belnos. There was little room on the altar for any further offerings, a testament to the desperation and need of the village.
Varis chewed his lip. This morning Fyodor had filled him in on what had transpired last night at the Crock and Goblet, but the young Traladaran had spoken at great lengths about Gernon's ancestry at the expense of much talk about Gernon's god. The philosopher had a thousand questions that he wanted to ask, but before he could get any of them out the elf spoke. "Here it is, my friends," he said, pointing to a narrow beaten trail that passed in between the spring and the shop owned by the elder's leatherworker brother Boltac.
"We will return soon," Fyodor said. "Do not worry about us." And with a determined smile and a nod of his head to his friends, he struck off down the trail, fully conscious of the weight of the stares of the villagers upon his back. Do they put more trust in their strange god or in us? he thought as he led the Brotherhood of the Silver Band on to whatever it was that they might face.
* * *
The trail to Bertrak's grove passed through terrain that grew surprisingly difficult surprisingly quickly. The pines which surrounded Eltan's Spring only thinly soon became forest almost impossibly dense, with harsh branches that whipped cruelly all those who forced their way past them. Yet the trail maintained, zigzagging drunkenly through the rough ground as a veteran drunkard passes through a crowded marketplace, somehow knowing where to be and how to avoid trouble, escape the piercing eyes of the guard, and mark the quickest passage. And, like a drunkard, sometimes the path ran up against an obstacle impossible to get around; and with a drunkard's uncaring persistence, the trail crested small ridges or clung to the sides of swiftly-receding slopes. Ilselloc had been right, Fyodor realised: it would have been impossible to take horses on such a route.
It was a hard road, but the companions welcomed the challenge. They had both the commission of Aleena and of Gernon to live up to, and none of them were prepared to let it be said that the Brotherhood of the Silver Band was not capable of helping those in need. For an idea was beginning to grow in their minds, independently, and of a sort that none of them would dare to speak about to the others, not even Fyodor, not even Thalaric. It was the idea that they were in the middle of something Big. Not this mission to Bertrak necessarily, but rather the trajectory of their lives, and specifically their trajectory together. The feeling was strong amongst them that Something was happening, or was about to happen.
Coupled with this odd sensation was a feeling of presence that struck them all, especially Boldar, as being quite uncanny. It was as if they were being carefully watched, not by goblins in the woods, but by something greater, something beneficent and curious, something that both encouraged them on and was in no way to be disappointed. Thalaric, raised as he was in a culture in which the yoke of Fate was continually perceived behind the affairs of both elf and beast, found himself in the best place to integrate these new feelings. But never in his most wine-addled imagination had he ever thought that he would become part of the songs of men as he suddenly knew that he would, that he would be remembered by these poor humans of the north who struggled against the wild without ever truly knowing its beauties.
Varis would have found these feelings especially interesting if he were not so wrapped up in other concerns. It was not his injury that distracted him, for the hard trail had helped him to cease this single-minded fixation, a blessing for which he was extremely thankful. Every so often he would raise his hand to his ear and softly trace its new contours, but for the most part he did not occupy his thoughts in pitying self-concern.
Instead the philosopher's mind was troubled by thoughts of Petrides. The visitation (no, the dream, he told himself) that he had endured two nights ago refused to be forgotten. The charges made by the demonolater were absurd, he knew, but they disturbed him nevertheless. What is wrong about missing an absent friend? he thought. It is no sin to hold a friend dear. Alexander had been gone for days now, and was probably deep in Darokin by now with Sarrah, the thief, and Sarala, the Glantrian shapechanger. No doubt he was having a wonderful time, carousing with them, sharing his bed with Sarrah if not with both of the women. Yes, he wanted to be with Alexander, his old friend, and yes, he regretted that they had parted on such unfriendly terms. But to have for his friend an unnatural lust? That was a lie, a lie of the Dark. But what the philosopher could not figure out was why he was susceptible to such a delusion in the first place, in the patriarch's castle, of all places.
And then there was Halaran. Something was happening in Threshold, and he did not need Petrides to tell him so. Matriarch Aleena had impressed upon the group the necessity for secrecy in their mission to the Darokinian mountains and Eltan's Spring. On the surface, her explanation seemed reasonable enough: that she was protecting her uncle, so if anything were to go wrong, if the Darokinian authorities were to become aware of and object to the companions' activities, they would be impossible to connect directly to the patriarch.
But what was this about Bertrak and the church? Aleena had said that she had been speaking to Bertrak in the hope of bringing the Belnos cult of Eltan's Spring into the Church of Karameikos. His companions had not thought anything of this comment, but Varis, better read than all of them put together, realised that the matriarch's words had a deeper meaning. For, according to "The Testament of the Five Fathers", it was impossible that there could be any separation between the extent of the power of the church and the extent of the power of the throne. Law was law was law, and the church could not extend into Darokin without the concurrent temporal rule of the duke.
Aleena must have known that. So what could she possibly have meant? Were preparations afoot to annex this territory for Karameikos? That seemed politically implausible to the young philosopher, for the land thus gained seemed scarcely worth the trouble it would cause to own. Unless something else was going on, something else was at stake. Although he could reject out of hand Petrides' slander, Varis couldn't quite put his finger on it. He shook his head, baffled.
Soon the trees thinned on both sides and were replaced with sheer rock walls on the companions' left and an ever-deepening gorge on their right. A small yet swift-flowing river reverberated below, its pure mountain waters swirling and eddying with delight as the stream made its way southwards, to join its waters with the spring of Belnos.
Alongside this nameless river they went, slapping at mosquitoes when the near-buzzing bugs dared too much. Fyodor had found a good walking stick and gripped it tightly, his fingers hungry to have his sword in hand rather than dead wood. Clouds rolled across the sky, their grey melancholy undeterred by the intrusive challenge of the Black Peaks which thrust their way boldly into the dominion of the sky. It was not long before the pines returned, the mighty trees of the north hedging them in and forcing them to walk single-file through darkened tunnels of foliage.
It was still early in the day, around the third hour, when they heard the distinctive thunder of a waterfall. Not long afterward they saw it, a stream twenty feet wide, cascading from a great height. To Fyodor, it looked as if the water were falling down steps carved from the stuff of the mountains. The stream fell a distance only to crash noisily onto a table of rock, soon then re-asserting its sense of purpose and plunging even further downwards, where the process was repeated upon another broad outcropping of stone. The waterfall fell to a rocky foam-flecked pool of sorts thirty feet below them in the gorge. There, the waters swirled and eddied wildly before they were funnelled southwards down the course of the mountain river.
The trail ended at a tattered rope bridge that stretched from one side of the gorge to the other, over the river as it was born anew from the pool. The bridge consisted of four ropes, thick and triple-wrapped, attached on both sides to two stout pillars of wood pounded deep into the ground. Two ropes served as handrails while the other two supported wooden planks. Most of these planks were intact but several of them were either hanging by a thread or missing entirely.
"It looks worse than Gernon made it out to be," Boldar said grumpily as he sized up the old planks.
"I'll try it first!" cried Thalaric excitedly. The elf stepped lightly onto the first plank, the pressure making the bridge sway somewhat in the damp mist.
Boldar continued to glare at the thick undergrowth that pressed in on both sides of the crossing. He was nervous. It was almost too good of a location for an ambush. If the Iron Ring was out there, still thirsty for their blood, then this was surely the best place for them to strike. The dwarf removed his axe from his belt and sniffed the air, hoping to detect the tell-tale sign of danger wafting in the mountain breezes. Nothing. Dourly, doubting the veracity of his senses, Boldar joined his companions who were even now making their way across the span.
Thalaric was little more than half-way across when he heard something on the wind, a whistle that seemed more like a whoop than anything. And then, exploding from the undergrowth on both sides of the bridge, goblins came pouring from the forest, crying a war cry, their elongated bestial faces howling, their tan skin a mess of primitive tattoos.
The elf had his sword out of his sheath in a heartbeat, his mind quickly assessing his options. Thalaric knew that he and his companions were in quite a bind: nowhere to run, unable to wield their weapons without fear of severing the ropes, and with nasty goblins poling at them with stone-tipped spears. He knew that the biggest danger that they faced was the prospect of the goblins cutting the ropes that secured the bridge. He needed to get to the other side and fast.
And so Thalaric charged the goblins, moving as fast as he could on the swaying bridge. One of the goblins hurled its spear at the elf who caught it on his shield, amazed at the strength of the creatures. No smaller than Boldar, though, he thought. And Ilsundal knows that one's strength.
In the meantime, the dwarf was taking the opportunity to bring his prodigious strength to bear. He moved as quickly as he could to the near end of the bridge. The goblins cursed at him in their strange tongue, hurling insults and provocative words at the dwarf, embodiment of the race that had caused them so much suffering. Boldar, furious at the creatures' daring, allowed the efficient sheen of his battle-rage to drop for a moment, and, in a moment of miscalculation, hurled his axe as hard as he could at the mass of goblins.
The whirring blade caught a surprised goblin full in the face and it was felled instantaneously. Yet despite the kill, the others seemed to gain courage when they saw that the dwarf was unarmed. One hurled its spear, a cast that went wide and clattered off of the sides of the gorge. Boldar, realising his predicament, nevertheless continued his advance, snatching his silver dagger from his belt and crashing into the three goblins massed at the side of the bridge, using his shield to force their crude spears aside.
Seeing him and cursing the dwarf's impetuousness, Varis quickly finished loading his magic sling and grabbed hold of the swaying bridge for balance. The philosopher's weapon whirred over his head before he released the strap at the critical moment, launching the stone with blistering speed. His missile smashed into the arm of one of the goblins, which screeched in surprise and dropped its spear in pain. Boldar quickly took advantage of the situation and drove his knife into its eye.
Meanwhile, on the far side of the bridge, Thalaric had just finished carving up his first kill. The spear cast by the goblin was still embedded in his shield and was proving to be quite unbalancing; he barely interposed his shield in time when one of the little beasts lunged at him with a vicious upward thrust. Thalaric knew that if he could just fight through to the other side, then Fyodor, who was standing behind him impotently, could bring his own fearsome sword into play. Then, he knew, the goblins would have no chance.
Therefore, reacting bravely, the elf slapped away a spear thrust and charged through the small group of goblins, hoping that the intimidating Fyodor coming up behind him would be enough to make the goblins forget about his exposed flank and rear. Sure enough, his plan worked perfectly. As soon as he had a clear alley, Fyodor roared a war cry and brought his enchanted blade down with lethal authority on an outmatched goblin.
Seeing this, the two goblins remaining on Thalaric and Fyodor's side bolted for the heavy undergrowth that surrounded the trail. The elf knew better than to give chase, so he instead took advantage of the turn of events to yank out the goblin's spear imbedded in his shield. Risking a look to see how things fared on the other side of the bridge, he saw Boldar standing alone amongst goblin corpses. Varis was making his way quickly to the elf's side of the bridge.
"We were warned about the goblins," the philosopher said, his sling still held ready.
"Yes, we were," Thalaric said. "But do you not find this odd? That they should attack us during the day?" His eyes scanned the surrounding forest suspiciously. "Boldar!" he called out. "Quickly, over the bridge!"
The dwarf grumbled, scanning the trees on his side of the bridge. Two of his had also fled for the safety of the forest. Although he was loathe to admit it, that probably had been a good thing. With his axe stuck deep in the skull of one goblin and his only other weapon, his dagger, lodged in the eye socket of another, he knew that he might have had a tough time fighting them off. Having retrieved his weapons and spat upon the corpses, he trotted over the bridge, trying not to look down, to rejoin his companions.
"Are you injured?" Varis asked the dwarf.
Boldar shook his head and adjusted his sallet. "I was just thinking that this would be a perfect spot for an ambush, although I reckoned the Iron Ring to be the ones to do it." He exhaled slowly. "I do not like this. I have never known goblins to attack during the day."
"I was just commenting on that," Thalaric said. "They are creatures of the night. What can this mean?"
Fyodor adjusted his grip on Bastard-Slayer. "It is strange," he said solemnly. "But then again, we have seen many strange things as of late."
"Like what?" Boldar asked glowering at the trees.
"Like a wasp big enough to eat you for dinner, my fine bearded friend," the elf replied. "Or perhaps a staff which is potent enough to erase the tracks of steel."
"Or elves born to humans," Fyodor said, smiling somewhat. "And humans born to elves."
"How about shrieking fungi?" Thalaric continued, a smile beginning to grow on his face as well. "Or a castle occupied by orcs?"
"Or an alliance between orcs and an elf!" Fyodor shouted, seeming to forget the group's situation in his mirth. "Or a woman who could change into a tiger! Or-"
"Or, or nothing!" Boldar said. "By Kagyar's bones you two are impossible! Enough of this! Keep moving, you. I'm not going to drag your corpses all the way back to Eltan's Spring when a goblin catches you unaware with a spear-thrust!" With that, Boldar stomped on up the trail, leaving Fyodor and Thalaric struggling to contain their laughter, a combination of battlefield ecstasy and their sheer joy in tormenting the dwarf.
Varis set his face in a stoic mask. Far from bemoaning their jokes, he inwardly praised both Donar and Korotiku; for the philosopher was able for the first time to step back and realise what was happening to them, what in fact had been happening ever since their first meeting on the road north of Stallanford. They were becoming something greater than the sum of their parts, something that laughed in the face of adversity, not out of folly and immaturity, but out of wisdom and confidence. This was the joy of the blessed, and theirs was a bond that could not be broken.
* * *
"Or that pyramid in the sewers. That was strange." At the elf's comment, Fyodor snorted so violently he almost lost his grip on the rocks.
"Thalaric, why won't you PLEASE be quiet." Boldar turned from his vantage point above him and glared at the elf. There had been no further attacks from the goblins, but he knew that it would not do for them to allow themselves to relax into unpreparedness. Especially now, of all times, when the company should be moving along quickly and silently, Thalaric and Fyodor were doing their best to induce hilarity in the other. They would be silent for a length of time, and then one (Thalaric more likely than not) would bring up some strange occurrence of the past few weeks with predictable results.
Boldar had heard nearly everything that they had gone through together recapitulated in the past half-hour. Everything from the gnomes' ferry to the Ylari prayer service to Lady Penhaligon's alleged unnatural appetites. Every utterance had greatly delighted the two of them, and the dwarf could have sworn that even Varis had cracked a smile on a few occasions.
The dwarf sighed inwardly as the elf's giggles faded away into quiet. The terrain was difficult enough without all of these distractions. The slope that they climbed was quite steep, and the friends moved slowly, almost crawling in places. Thankfully it was broken by a few small ledges, spotted with mountain grasses and wide enough for the group to sit and rest briefly. Gernon's map indicated that they were near Bertrak's grove, and the entire party was anxious to find the priest and solve the mystery that had puzzled both Aleena and the inhabitants of Eltan's Spring.
The companions struggled up the last sheer ascent and, pausing only a moment for a quick drink of water, pressed onwards. The beaten trail continued on through corridors of mountain pines, towering above them on each side. Only minutes later, as the path widened, Thalaric suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. "Hold," he said, his face a mask of concentration. "Do you hear that?"
The others strained their ears, and first one, then another could hear it: a strange tinkling sound on the wind, faint and distant yet seemingly clear and close at the same time, crystalline and pure yet somehow ominous and foreboding. "What is that?" Boldar asked, his axe already in hand. The tones were decidedly unsettling, setting his fingers drumming nervously on the shaft of his weapon. None of his friends seemed to have any answer to his query for they remained silent. And so, slowly and as noiselessly as possible, their nerves on edge, the four continued up the path, weapons at the ready.
The sound grew louder the further they advanced down the trail, seemingly with every step that they took, and within minutes the path ended in a grove little more than fifty feet across. The clearing was dominated by a single oak tree, ancient and majestic, its outspread branches gently shading the area. Underneath the tree was a small cottage made of logs and a thatched roof. A stone chimney rose up on one side of the humble home. The entire glade was weed-ridden and overgrown, and the path that led right to the door of the hut was spotted with new growth. The companions, after a moment, soon realised the source of the strange noise: nothing more than a set of wind chimes hanging from the colossal tree.
"I have never seen an oak in the mountains," Thalaric said with amazement.
"One oak tree in a forest full of pine," Fyodor puzzled, testing his grip on Bastard-Slayer. He submerged the idea of joking about it with Thalaric. He knew that this was not the time.
"Let's find this damn priest and get out of here," Boldar grumbled. "Those chimes are driving me crazy." A soft, steady breeze blew through the glade, and the chimes responded to its gentle urging, filling the companions' ears with its amelodic ringing.
"Wait a moment," Fyodor whispered, suddenly struck by something. "Boldar, do you remember what Liselle said last night? Do you remember? Chimes! She said that Bertrak was talking about chimes!"
Boldar nodded his head. "I remember. So where's the raven-haired woman? That was the other thing he was babbling about, right?" Fyodor nodded thoughtfully. "Well. This is undoubtedly Bertrak's home. Shall we ask him about her?"
"Boldar's right, let's go," Varis said, rubbing his forehead. "We have to talk to Bertrak."
"Right," Fyodor said, hefting his weapon. "Let's pay him a visit."
"Perhaps a friendlier approach might be wise?" Thalaric said, pointing to the young Traladaran's mighty sword.
"Oh...yes. Right, no swords, then." Fyodor reluctantly sheathed Bastard-Slayer and his companions likewise put away their weapons. Straightening his shoulders, Fyodor strode right for the cottage, his friends in tow. Stopping under the lintel, he knocked politely on the door. The companions unconsciously fanned out, hands resting casually on their belts, ready for anything.
Getting no response, Fyodor knocked again, this time accompanying it with a cry of "Hullo! Bertrak? Are you home?" Silence answered his calls.
"He's not home," Thalaric said, peeking through a window.
"Then he won't mind if we look around," Boldar said, elbowing Fyodor aside and pushing open the door. The others followed more cautiously. The interior of the cottage was small, perhaps fifteen feet square, and occupied only with simple wooden furniture. With its rumpled clothing strewn all over, dirty dishes gathering flies on the table, and ashes from the fireplace scattered over the hearth, it reminded Varis more of seminarian's quarters than those of a priest.
"The embers are still warm," Thalaric said. "He's been here recently."
"Maybe we should wait outside for him to come back," Varis said, uneasy about their intrusion.
"What's that smell?" Boldar asked, crinkling his nose.
"There has to be some clue here," Fyodor said, casting his gaze over the room until it alighted on a footlocker at the edge of the bed. He bent over and fumbled with the clasp. "Something that will tell us about Bertrak's madness, or-" As the young Traladaran opened the crate, his companions saw his eyes widen in amazement and shock, then watched with alarm as he slammed the chest shut again, leaned over, and vomited.
"Fyodor!" Varis cried, moving to his side in the cramped quarters of the cottage. "What's the matter?" The philosopher's eyes were trained on the chest.
Fyodor just shook his head and spit regurge from his mouth. "Petra..." he said painfully. Boldar rushed to his side and threw the chest open wide. Revealed therein were two severed human heads, putrifyingly ripe, stacked neatly atop the rest of their bodies, carefully hacked and trimmed, packed away with the care of a merchant packing his goods.
The companions turned away, almost disbelieving the sight in their utter horror. What kind of monster is this Bertrak? Varis thought. How could he have done such a thing?
"Who are they?" Fyodor asked, wiping the bitter vomit from his lips.
"One man, one woman," Boldar said before closing the chest with his foot. His expression was implacable despite his ashen complexion. "Do you suppose they are Aleena's servants?"
"Most undoubtedly," Thalaric said quietly. "Considering what kind of man this Bertrak has turned out to be, I think it best if we were not found in his home uninvited."
"For once, I agree," Boldar replied. "He is mad."
Varis was completely at a loss. "Bertrak was beloved of this community," the philosopher argued. "Surely he couldn't have done such a thing. There must be something-"
"Did you not hear what Gernon said about sacrificing to their god?" Fyodor shouted hysterically. "This whole place is accursed, cursed by their interbreeding, cursed by the dark god they worship, cursed-"
"Someone approaches!" Thalaric cried. The friends hurried to stare out of the window or the open door. There, at the edge of the clearing, stood a man in brown robes. His hair was long, unkempt, matted with leaves and dirt. He held a cudgel in one hand. He appeared to be deep in conversation with a woman standing beside him. With the pines cloaking her in morning shade her features were invisible to the companions, everything save her long dark hair.
"The raven-haired woman," Fyodor said softly.
At the edge of the grove the pair spoke for a moment before the woman turned sharply and disappeared into the forest as effortlessly as a shadow. Thalaric thought that he saw other movement in the trees, farther off, but he couldn't be sure. Regardless, his attention was snapped away from this speculation as the man, who could be no other than Bertrak, began stumbling towards the cottage. The companions slowly began to exit from the cottage, uncertain as to their course of action. Then Bertrak- up until now throwing one foot in front of the other with the wavering precision of the mad, his eyes watching the ground in the manner of cattle- stopped in his tracks and looked upwards. A swift wind rushed through the grove, setting the chimes to chattering chromatically, louder than ever. It was all that the friends could do not to clap their hands over their ears to keep out the maddening sound.
The four saw the priest's eyes widen in his unshaven face. "Who violates my home? Intruders!" he spit, raising his cudgel high in his obviously strong hand. Bertrak cocked his head, as if listening to something. "Belnos is angry; he demands destruction of you!" With that, he threw back his head and roared. None of the companions had ever heard a sound like that before, so bloodcurdling, so full of power and rage and ferocity. And then Bertrak charged the group.
The priest wielded only a club and was armoured with nothing more than his filthy robes. The companions bore enchanted steel and sturdy armour. And yet they were at a loss. They had faced skilled swordsmen, warrior-priests of necromantic orders, the dead themselves raised from their graves, but they had never encountered such raw elemental bestiality before.
"Do we kill him?" Fyodor asked in a panicked voice.
"No!" Varis cried, unsure of why he did so. "Make for the forest!"
None of the companions much relished this combat, and so they turned tail and fled for the forest. The picture of the dismembered bodies in the trunk, plus the warnings of Gernon, served to inspire them with the belief that perhaps it was more prudent to face Bertrak's rage in a different fashion.
They had almost escaped the clearing when Boldar changed his mind. Feeling suddenly foolish that he was fleeing in such fashion, he ceased his flight and turned to face his pursuer, snatching his axe from his belt. But as Bertrak adjusted his course towards the dwarf, his cudgel held ready, Boldar realised that attacking the priest might not be the wisest of ideas; for they had been sent from Eltan's Spring not to slay Bertrak but to discover the reason for his behaviour.
And so, as the Chosen of Belnos was about to bring the weight of his club down upon the dwarf, Boldar gracelessly threw his weight to the side, stumbled awkwardly, and resumed his mad dash for the forest. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw to his surprise that Bertrak no longer pursued him but, for a reason known only to himself, had veered away after the others.
But by this time the friends had managed to scatter into the pine forest and put some distance between themselves and the priest. Breathing heavily, Varis hoped that Bertrak would allow him a moment to rest and to regroup with his friends. It had been a while since he had been forced to run in his armour and the philosopher was beginning to remember exactly how heavy his breastplate was. Perhaps even more importantly, Varis desperately needed a break to discuss the strange turn of events with his companions. His confused and frightened mind did not relish having to face the twisted remains of Bertrak's victims without a better plan of action than before.
He soon got his wish. Catching a glimpse of the solitary priest through the pines, Varis saw Bertrak suddenly stop, as if he had suddenly lost interest or had forgotten what it was that he was doing. The philosopher slowed his frantic pace and watched with interest as he turned and staggered off back towards his cottage.
Varis almost screamed aloud when he felt the hand on his shoulder, but it was only Thalaric, who had silently slipped up behind him in his enchanted boots. "This is getting strange," the elf said, without a trace of the humour that he had exhibited earlier.
Boldar and Fyodor drew near the pair. "Well," Fyodor said. "What on earth are we to do now?"
"I think that the dark-haired woman is the key to all of this," Thalaric said thoughtfully. "From what you told us about your conversation..." The elf broke off his speech and tilted his head slightly, his eyes focusing on a point behind the rest of his companions. "Why, hello."
Varis spun around, his heart in his throat. To his great amazement, there, sitting on a branch of a pine tree, were a pair of what the philosopher could only describe as fairies. Less than two feet tall, they sat with their legs crossed as if they were waiting to be seen and acknowledged. Their hair was red and poked out in soft downy tufts wherever their green clothing did not cover. Like Thalaric, their ears were pointed, though they were proportionally far larger than the elf's. Their faces were round, almost circular, with narrow eyes and small button noses that marked the centre. From their backs sprouted beautiful wings, green, insect-like, translucent in the broken beams of sunlight that pierced the canopy of fir.
"Far you are from Alfheim forest," one of the fairies spoke in elvish.
Thalaric was stunned. "I hail from the Dymrak, Good People," he replied. "I am Thalaric of the Blueleaf Clan of the Vyalia. Forgive the silence of my friends, but they do not speak the tongue of elves."
"We shall, of course, address them then in that of tongues oft spoke by men," the other said in Thyatian. Boldar's jaw dropped.
"Who...what..." Varis stuttered, taking a step back.
"You seek the cure for a mind in chains," one of the pixies said, standing up on the tree branch and resting a hand on a slim sword belted to his waist, "a mind in chains, a mind in chains. Bertrak slave to elder gods has gone astray, his trust betrayed."
"'Tis she, you see, who seeks to be his mistress and his master," said the second, swinging his tiny legs back and forth.
"Who is 'she'?" Fyodor asked. "The woman with the black hair?"
The fairy standing on the branch cocked his head. It smiled a smile so broad its mouth was as curved as the horned moon. Varis could barely hold back a shiver at the freakishly unnatural grin. "From ancient days she's walked the land, cloaked in shadow, a wilting hand. Upon the tree her chimes she hung, the ladder of madness, the lowest rung."
"The chimes!" Fyodor exclaimed. "I told you," he said to Varis. "That's what Liselle said that Bertrak was babbling about: chimes and a raven-haired woman."
"I see," Varis replied, his heart still a-flutter from the sight of the pixies. He had read about these creatures. They had been spotted by reputable witnesses in the depths of the Dymrak, but he had never imagined that he himself might see one, let alone two. He wasn't sure if this should make him happy or horrified. "Is she a sorceress, then?" he asked the fairies. "And what does she want with Bertrak?"
The wings of one of the pixies fluttered slightly. "Not of human stock her life, to king no slave, to man no wife."
"First the glade of the priest does sing," the other said, "and then the land around will ring. Calling all to madness' yoke, their knees to bend and lives to choke."
Varis took a long, calming breath. Has it once again fallen to us to beat back the advances of Chaos? he thought. How can we hope to defeat such sorcery?
As if he had read the philosopher's mind, Thalaric stepped forward. "Good People," he said, holding his hands wide apart, "can you tell us how we can help Bertrak? Can we destroy the chimes?"
Both pixies shook their head in solemn unison. "Her spellcraft is too great by half: so if you wish her aims unravelled, unto her lair your feet must travel. Her spellcraft is too great by half."
"Talk with sense!" Boldar shouted. "What do you mean us to do?"
The two fairies smiled broadly and then disappeared completely, utterly vanishing from view in the blink of an eye.
"Curse you, born of rock and slow as dirt!" Thalaric swore at the dwarf. "Why did you have to insult them so?"
"Insult them?" Boldar said, his voice full of rage. "Why are you so anxious to believe those...things."
"They are of an ancient race," the elf replied sharply, "and they demand and deserve our respect."
The words were scarcely out of the elf's mouth before the two pixies suddenly popped back into view, hovering a few feet in front of the dazzled companions, their wings beating like hummingbirds'. "For everything that comes to be there lies a starkly 'posing key," one of them said. "By music discordant to her he is binded, his only succour lies in timbres most strident."
Just then, as if on cue, the mysterious sound of the glassy chimes, present yet distant, was heard wafting on the breeze. Almost unconsciously the friends' hands slipped to the hilts of their weapons and they cast their glances round about. They had been so startled by the pixies that they had taken it for granted that Bertrak was not planning to reappear, but the eerie tinkling of the chimes brought their minds back to thoughts of the ensorcelled priest.
The pixies reacted to the sound as well. Their already narrow eyes narrowed to mere slits, and they clapped their tiny hands to their long ears. "In music shall the hopes of all reside; else Eltan's Spring shall fall," one spoke, and with that, the fairies flew off together into the woods. They stopped and, turning to the companions, motioned that they should follow them.
"This is too much," Boldar said in disgust.
"Don't be sombre, my friend," Thalaric replied, patting the dwarf on the back. All trace of his anger was gone. "These creatures are friends to the forest, much as Bertrak is. Be glad that they have found us."
"Tikhon is never going to believe this," Fyodor said, shaking his head. "Well, let's be going; we don't want them to get the wrong idea."