Whispers and Warnings
They had been riding all day in the rain and Ilien was beginning to think he didn't like adventures at all. If more of this was in store for them on the long trip to Greattower he'd gladly stay behind in Evernden, if only to play dollies with some girl. Everything about him squished, his boots, his underwear—especially his underwear—and his thick cloak had sopped up so much water that it threatened to topple him off his horse if he didn't sit perfectly square in the saddle. He gathered that all the blankets were wet by now as well. Gallund and Thessien rode before him with their hoods up and their heads down, seemingly oblivious to his suffering.
Ilien's small horse tugged at her reins and whickered. Even she was sick of adventures.
"I bet old Winnie wouldn't mind," Ilien chided, reaching up to knuckle the rain from his eyes.
His horse jerked to a halt and Ilien sailed forward with a cry, the weight of his water-logged cloak dragging him all the way up to her ears. He balanced on her head for a moment, looking to see what had spooked her. The rain's grey curtain blurred all but the closest trees.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean it." He shimmied back to his saddle. "I don't like this any better than you, but we're falling behind. Now come on."
He nudged her forward again. She stamped her feet and shook her head. He snapped the reins, but she refused to move. He kicked her. She moaned and blew out steam like an overheated kettle.
Then Ilien felt it too—a sudden, unexplainable fear. He tried to call out to the others but an invisible hand seized his throat, cinching it shut like a sack of marbles. He couldn't breath. Something held his arms. His horse threw her head, eyes wide with terror. Fighting panic, Ilien tried to remember the Lightning spell he had studied. Unable to speak the words, he recited them in his mind.
The rain stopped as the air crackled with power. An explosion tore the sodden cloak from Ilien's shoulders and drove him back into the saddle. He heard an angry shout, the bark of a mad dog, and his horse reared in fright. Another stroke of lightning clawed the air like a skeletal hand. The ground dropped away beneath him, and his screams were swallowed by the wind. He fell in a void, still on his horse, the gale howling in his ears.
A voice cut through the tumult, a sharp hiss in his ear.
Ilien Woodhill. I know you.
Ilien woke with a start, stifling a cry of panic. He held his breath, afraid to move. His heart pounded in his ears. It was only a dream, he told himself. Just a dream. Nothing more.
The cold night air washed over him and slowly he came to his senses. He suddenly felt foolish. Twelve, and still afraid of the dark. He blinked and sighed, feeling his muscles relax. Rain drizzled down through the darkness of their small clearing, pattering among the dead leaves around him. Surely the others were still asleep. He hoped they hadn't heard him, whimpering like a child. What time is it anyway, he wondered?
Without warning, a shadow rose before him and he froze in terror. The shadow stood motionless, watching him, then a whisper—
Ilien lay paralyzed, breathless, rain pooling in his eye sockets.
"Ilien Woodhill. Get up. It's time to go." Thessien hovered over him.
Ilien sat up fast, blinking water from his eyes. Cold rain trickled down his back. "I'm awake," he said, but his heart still raced. His pet frog crouched on his pack, grinning at him in the rain. "What are you so happy about? Shoo! Go on! You're free to go if you like it here so much."
He bit his lip, watching the frog shift about. He really didn't want it to go. He had spoken out of anger, but it did look happier sitting in the rain instead of in his pack. He poked it gently and it hopped away into the forest.
Gallund and Thessien were already packed and ready to march. Ilien jumped up, wolfed down some soggy bread and grabbed a piece of jerky for the ride. They mounted up just as the sky above the trees turned grey.
The forest canopy offered little relief from the rain, but as they plodded further northward they found the going easier despite the steady downpour. The hills receded, the trees grew farther apart and soon their horses were prancing down the long, leaf-strewn lanes, their bodies steaming in the cool morning air.
Yet Ilien couldn't shake the nightmare. An aching cold had settled beneath his skin. He recalled that hissing voice and he shivered. NiDemon. Witches and Runestones. Necromancers. He had learned more about evil in the past two days than he had in his first twelve years.
He looked over at Gallund hunched in his saddle, cane in one hand, reins in the other. Not quite the imposing figure of an all powerful wizard, he thought.
Thessien steered his horse along side Ilien's. The big black trotted high-hoofed beneath the soldier, its back nearly level with Ilien's head.
"Something troubling you?" Thessien questioned, peering down at him grimly.
Ilien smiled up at him. "No. Nothing at all. Why?"
Thessien looked away, studying the surrounding forest like a surveyor. "I've spent twenty years judging the manner of people from the looks on their faces, Ilien. I am a soldier. My life has often depended on discovering the lies hidden beneath cool smiles." He turned back and pinned Ilien with a solemn stare. "Men often tell me more with a single look than they've told anyone their entire lives."
Ilien slowed his horse, letting Gallund get further ahead. Satisfied that the wizard was out of earshot, he asked, "What are these NiDemon that worry Gallund so much? And what was all that about Law and Legend yesterday?"
Thessien, too, glanced up at the wizard, tightening his reins. When he looked back at Ilien, his eyes admonished caution.
"The NiDemon are hunters."
"Hunters?" Ilien spoke louder than he meant and he winced.
"Hunters of Nomadin," Thessien said, seeming to take no notice.
Ilien's horse stumbled and Ilien grabbed its mane to steady himself. "What do you mean, hunters of Nomadin?"
Thessien frowned at him. "Could I have put it any clearer? They are sworn to slay Nomadin, all Nomadin. They cross to our world for that purpose alone."
Ilien sat up straight. "Then Gallund is in danger?"
"Yes," the soldier replied.
Again his horse tripped, and Ilien asked awkwardly, "But are they really powerful enough to kill a wizard?
"A wizard, yes," Thessien answered. "But Gallund is Nomadin, and Nomadin are not merely wizards."
Ilien steadied himself in his saddle and urged his mount to keep up with Thessien's black. "But what's the difference?"
The soldier picked a stray twig from his horse's mane. "A wizard is human," he said, flicking the offending stick into the forest.
"If the Nomadin aren't human, then what are they?" Ilien glanced over at Gallund as if he might suddenly sprout wings and fly to Greattower.
"They are Nomadin, Ilien, and only a Nomadin can master the True Language of magic. A wizard merely speaks. A Nomadin understands."
"Well he sure looks human to me," Ilien observed, watching as Gallund scratched his back end with his cane.
Thessien laughed. "He does, does he?"
The wizard seemed to take no notice of them as they trudged along in the rear, but Thessien sat up in his saddle as if to end their conversation anyhow.
"One more thing," Ilien persisted. "You say the NiDemon cross to our world. Cross from where?"
Thessien looked surprised. "From Loehs Sedah. From the realm of the dead. Has Gallund taught you nothing as an apprentice?"
"Nothing about NiDemon and crossings."
Thessien shook his head. "It's not my place to teach you the Laws and Legends of old if Gallund thought it unwise to do so himself. Be content to know that Loehs Sedah is far away, but closer than you think, and the Crossings are gates from there to here, and here to there. The last one was shut a thousand years ago. Now a new one has been opened, or an old one rediscovered more likely, for not all the crossings could be found in the open spaces of the world, and the miners of Berkhelven have been known to delve deeper than is wise in search of gold and jewels."
At that Thessien turned away and fell silent, paying heed to the terrain before him.
"Last night Gallund spoke of the wars," Ilien continued, not taking the soldier's hint. "He mentioned the second rising of the Necromancer. Just how many were there, risings, I mean?"
Thessien spurred the big black forward. "Two. Three have been foretold, the third to be the last."
"The third to be the last?" Ilien bounced about as his own horse followed at a trot. "That doesn't sound too comforting." He eyed the passing trees in the mist and suddenly realized how far he was from home. "And is the third yet upon us?" he asked.
"We shall see," Thessien said with a smile. "We shall see."
Ilien slowed his mount, knowing he had pushed for too much information from the taciturn soldier already, but wishing he could ask more questions, especially about what the witch had said. Law and Legend? What was that all about? He sighed, resigned to the fact that Thessien would say no more.
Throughout the day, Ilien noted a change in the forest. They'd been marching beneath old, fat oaks for nearly two days, but now young pine trees grew straight and lean in their place. Ilien noticed the crows also, big black brats that cawed at them from their front porches high above. At first he liked the familiar company of the crows, but after a while he thought their cries sounded like laughter. He felt miserable enough with all the rain. He didn't need to be made fun of as well.
At noon the rain ceased. The dark expanse of clouds parted and the sun speared down brightly through a hovering mist. They rode into a broad valley, a shallow basin surrounded by low, wooded hills. A grassy marsh, flooded by the day's downpour, stretched the length of the valley to the foot of a rocky slope forested with pines. The plodded on, but when the ground began to clutch at their horses' hooves, Thessien raised a hand and they stopped and dismounted.
The soldier drummed a lean finger against his saddle as he studied the marsh. "It's too muddy. We'll have trouble with the horses."
Gallund shielded his eyes from the sun. The marsh was nearly a mile wide, probably twice that in length, all grassy tussocks and broken brambles. He poked the ground with his cane. Water pooled around its tip.
"Agreed," he said. "We'll go around."
As they turned to mount up, Thessien called for silence. Ilien and Gallund both trusted Thessien's senses enough to freeze in their tracks. The breeze hurried over the tall marsh grass and a crow called somewhere over the hills, but no one moved. For a full minute they remained that way, Ilien and Gallund stone-still in silence, Thessien looking to and fro.
"Perhaps I'm wrong," Thessien muttered, "but for a moment it felt like we were to be ambushed."
"Yes. Perhaps you're wrong," Ilien said, eyeing a suspicious looking clump of grass anyhow.
The soldier cast a furtive glance across the marsh. "Perhaps. But I know the feeling well."
A bird flew up from the clump of grass in a rush of wings. The horses reared in fright. Ilien lost his balance and pitched face first into a pile of mud. He pulled his head from the muck with a loud sucking sound and looked up sheepishly at Gallund and Thessien. They were only grinning, but they might as well have been holding each other in fits of laughter.
"On second thought," Thessien mused, scratching his chin, "perhaps I am wrong."
At that, the two adults of the group burst out laughing. Thessien stomped around in the rain soaked grass clutching his sides. Gallund buried his face in his saddle. Even the horses seemed to be grinning.
"It's not that fun—"
In all their hysterics they didn't notice that Ilien hadn't finished his sentence—until the marsh grass seized them too.
Thessien reached for his sword, but the grass wove quickly around the pommel. He fought to move but his boots were tied fast to the ground. Frenzied green tendrils sprang from the sodden earth and snaked violently up his legs as he sought to free his weapon. The soldier turned to Gallund, but the wizard fared worse. Bound to his waist, Gallund held his cane aloft as his horse panicked beside him. The ground split beneath him and roots sprang from the muddy earth, wrapping about his arms and seizing his cane. Ilien watched in terror as the wizards sank helplessly into the bog.
A sword rang from its scabbard and peeled like a bell over the marsh as Thessien tore free of his bonds. The tall grass cowered beneath his blade as he cut his way forward. But for every blade he scythed, another rose in its place. He couldn't reach Gallund.
"Fieri fundari!" shouted the wizard. His cane burst into flames, searing to ash the grass all around him. With a word his silver wand appeared. He held it high, prepared to strike again, but before he could utter a another word, the roots pulled him beneath the ground and he vanished.
Ilien lay helpless, wrapped like a green ball of yarn, his pencil squirming in his back pocket. But as soon as the ground closed over Gallund the grass released him. Freed, he rushed to Thessien, who was already digging in the spot where Gallund had disappeared. Together they clawed frantically at the muddy ground. After several minutes they uncovered Gallund's silver wand in the soft earth. Still they continued to dig, but the deeper they went the quicker the marsh water poured in to thwart their efforts. Ilien buried his face in his muddy arms and began to cry.
Thessien rose and sheathed his sword. As if on cue, his horse approached and he swung himself up into the saddle.
Ilien wiped away his tears and began digging again, ignoring Thessien's command.
The Eastlander snapped his reins in anger. "Get up!" he shouted, holding his horse steady. "We're leaving."
Ilien spun on him, his fists full of earth. "What good will it do to ride on now? Gallund is gone!"
"This is the work of the NiDemon, Ilien. We must ride north at once."
Ilien could feel his tears coming again. "For what? Your precious mission? In case you haven't noticed, it's over. You failed!"
"You will turn back at Evernden," Thessien said evenly, "as Gallund had wanted. I will continue on toward Greattower. Now get up."
Ilien looked around the quiet marsh. He glanced down at the wizard's wand, scooped it up and held it to his chest.
Thessien's horse danced madly forward. "I grieve for him too," the soldier stated. "I knew him twenty years. He was my friend and mentor. But my loss, and yours, pales now before what is at stake. We must ride on at once."
But Ilien was not a soldier on a mission, and though he held back his tears for the moment he couldn't bring himself to leave. He sat in the mire, staring at the scarred ground. Tears came again, stinging his eyes and streaking the mud on his face.
Thessien peered over the marsh at the lengthening shadows. He would be patient and let Ilien cry. It was a luxury he knew the boy would never have again. With Gallund gone, Ilien's chances of survival were slim. Oh, he would do his best to protect him. But even he, a soldier with a hundred kills to his name, would not be enough. He grimaced and glanced over at the grieving twelve-year-old. He hoped Gallund was right, that looks were deceiving, because if not, they were all doomed.
"At least let me lay a headstone for his grave," Ilien mustered, wiping the tears from his eyes.
Thessien nodded as Ilien walked off to find a suitable stone, but his impatience was growing. He watched as the boy returned and laid a small, flat rock on the ground where Gallund had disappeared. He also planted a tiny oak sapling nearby, as was custom.
Thessien stilled the thoughts running through his mind. A moment of silence for his fallen friend was only appropriate, but things were progressing quickly. The enemy paused for nothing, and they were surely under a dark watch now. They had to keep moving.
Ilien carefully arranged the soil around the base of the small sapling. He looked angrily at the marshland around him, then back at the tiny oak he had planted.
"Grow quick and strong," he said, gazing out over the scrub brush and tall grass of the marsh, envisioning a mighty oak forest in its place.
Thessien's horse nickered quietly. "Ilien. It's time to go."
Ilien reluctantly climbed on his horse and they set off, leading Gallund's grey mount behind them. They skirted the marsh, staying a safe distance from its muddy edges, and soon were climbing the low rocky hill on its far side where the pines grew in small groves. Ilien looked back down on the ill-fated wetland.
"Farewell, Gallund," he said, then turned and gave heed to the terrain, crying silently as his horse picked its way between the boulders. All the while he held fast to Gallund's wand, wishing he could somehow cast a spell to turn back time, to make it all go away—to have Gallund back again. But he knew he couldn't. There was no going back. Not now. Not ever.
"The kingdom of Evernden," Thessien said suddenly.
Ilien looked up. They had reached the top of the hill. Below them, a vast forest of tall evergreens stretched to the horizon in a calm, green sea of needles. In the distance Ilien could see a tiny island of blue.
"There," Thessien proclaimed, shielding his eyes from the low western sun and pointing toward the blue land on the horizon. "Dry your tears and harden your heart, Ilien. We travel hard from here on out, but at least our aim is in sight."
As Ilien peered out over the still, green sea he saw a strange pool of darkness midway to the blue land of Evernden. But before he could ask about it, Thessien urged his mount down the hill and Ilien followed, leading Gallund's grey horse behind him.