THE BOWMAN OF NORVELL WOOD
Willbrand woke up, looking around sleepily. The barn was dark. It was still night, though he could see the faintest glimmer of light through the barn door that signified dawn was not far off. It was still raining out, a steady thumping on the roof. Was that what had awakened him?
He lifted his head, suppressing a groan at the stiffness in his back as he did so. Although there was straw on the ground underneath him, it was lumpy and uneven and he could feel the hard cold earth underneath it. He had gotten used to roughing it a bit since his adventures began, with nothing but a bedroll beneath him, but now he didn't even have that, nor anything to cover himself with. On top of that it felt much colder now than it had been before. With all that, he wondered how he had ever fallen asleep in the first place.
Shifting his arm he felt it come up against something soft and warm. He turned to see the dark form of Merigan curled up beside him.
He looked at her for a moment in surprise. She hadn't been this close when he had fallen asleep. It was obvious she must have moved closer too him sometime during the night.
He sat up, feeling suddenly uncomfortable to be in such close proximity. He thought she was asleep, but as soon as he moved, she shifted uneasily and wrapped her arms around herself.
"So cold..." she said softly.
He sat there for a moment looking at her. It was obvious she had come over to him in the first place seeking some warmth, and, feeling the chill in the air, he couldn't blame her. Yet, logical as that might be, he was reluctant to lie down again beside her. A gentleman did not lie is such close proximity to any woman other than his wife. Or at least, that was what he had learned in the court of Crotasia.
Still, he didn't have to remind himself again that they weren't in Crotasia, and it was obviously what Merigan wanted.
Slowly he eased himself back down beside her, still not feeling at all comfortable with it. Immediately she pulled herself closer still, resting her head against his chest just under his chin. She was shivering. Tentatively he lifted his arm and put it around her, his hand resting on her back.
They lay there quietly for some time. Her shivering stopped, and soon her soft breathing told him she had fallen back to sleep. He lay still, looking down at her raven black hair, the scent of it in his nostrils. Whatever discomfort he felt was rapidly fading, replaced by a warm feeling he couldn't quite describe. In spite of the fact that it was only because she was cold, it felt good that she wanted him beside her. It felt good to be beside her.
He lifted his hand, bringing it to rest on her bare arm. Her skin was so soft. He didn't think he's ever felt anything like it. He was wide awake now, all thought of sleep having been driven from his head, replaced by...he wasn't sure what. He had never realized it could feel so good to just hold someone in your arms.
He had been a friend of Shallana since childhood. They had often played together as children, and had still spent a lot time together when they got older. He considered her a good friend, and perhaps it would have led to something more eventually, but even she had not inspired this feeling in him.
One of the horses neighed softly. Merigan stirred, her head lifting. She sighed, but her eyes did not open. He could see her face now, right in front of his own. He lay there just looking at it for a long time. She was beautiful, as beautiful as any girl he had ever seen. She felt so warm against him. She was pressed against him now, and he could feel the slow rise and fall of her bosom against him as she breathed. He wasn't cold anymore. On the contrary, he felt the heat of passion welling up inside him.
Abruptly he realized where his thoughts were taking him and he forced himself to his feet, taking a step away from her.
Merigan immediately opened her eyes.
"Where are you going?"
"I...it might be better if I stayed over here," he said, nodding toward the far corner.
"But I'm still so cold," Merigan complained, hugging herself.
"I..uhh...," he stammered. "I'll look around and see if I can find something to keep you warm."
He walked back into the stalls, looking around, feeling the heat inside him begin to cool. He hardly knew Merigan. Had just met her really. He had no right to go around thinking of her like that. He didn't know how she felt about him. Hell, he didn't know how he really felt about her. They had been thrown together by circumstances. It wasn't like she had chosen to be with him like this.
He came back a few minutes later with a saddle blanket that he discovered in the back of the barn and placed it over her.
"It doesn't smell too good, but it'll warm you up a bit," he told her.
She didn't seem all that satisfied with it.
"But you'll still be cold," she told him. "There's more than enough room for both of us under this."
He sat down, his back against the barn wall.
"It's okay," he said. "It wouldn't be...proper."
"Proper?" she questioned. "It's okay, I don't mind and there's no one else here. Now don't be silly. There's no reason for you to stay out in the cold."
He shook his head.
"It's alright. It's almost dawn anyway. I'm not tired anymore."
He got up and walked over to the barn doors. Merigan looked at him for a moment, wondering what had gotten into him. She had to admit it had felt good to have him lying next to her. He had seemed to like it too. Had she done something wrong?
Whatever it might be he didn't seem inclined to talk about it. With a shrug she turned away, pulling the blanket closer about her, even though it was a poor substitute.
Willbrand looked out the open doors at the fields beyond. The rain had slowed considerably and was merely a drizzle now. The sky in the east was bright though still overcast. He ran his hand through his hair, still trying to get thoughts of Merigan out of his mind. He looked over at the farmhouse, but he could see no movement there.
No movement there, but there was some beyond that, on the road that ran in front. Three or four men on horseback.
He ducked back behind the barn wall, and then peered out cautiously. Their purple and gold colors revealed them to be soldiers of Galias. Not quite as bad as Imperial Knights perhaps but bad enough. They seemed to be debating something, but now they turned and rode toward the farmhouse. He quickly turned and walked back to Merigan, kneeling down beside her.
"We have to go," he said.
She turned to look at him, a frown on her face.
"What..." she began but his serious expression gave her pause.
"There are four Galias soldiers outside," he said.
Merigan was instantly on her feet. Quickly they gathered their things together, then Willbrand went over to the door and looked out again. He couldn't see the soldiers anymore, but he couldn't see the front of the farmhouse from here.
"C'mon," he hissed.
Taking her hand, he led her around to the back of the barn.
"Where are we going?"
"I'm not sure," he replied. "Away from here."
He led her out into the fields, keeping the barn between them and the farmhouse. The entire area was farmland, covered with plowed fields. There were almost no trees. A dirt trail led behind the barn, the path for the farmer's cart and plow. To the left of it stood the farmer's cornfield, the stalks rising up over their heads. He immediately headed for it. There was no place else to hide.
"How could they have found us?" she asked.
"I don't know," he said, feeling better as the cornstalks concealed them from view. "Maybe they haven't. Maybe they're just searching at random. Unless the farmer tipped them off."
Merigan looked back doubtfully, though all she could see now was the plants surrounding them.
"I don't think so," she said. "If he had they probably would have come straight to the barn."
"This is the wrong way," she pointed out after a few moments. "We're headed south and we have to go east."
"Nothing we can do about that at the moment," he replied. "The ground was open in that direction. Let's get farther away first, then we can turn east."
She nodded, realizing the wisdom of this.
They walked on, eventually coming out of the cornfield. All around them were open fields, and they could see another farmhouse off in the distance to the left. The field of corn still concealed them from the farmhouse they had slept however. Willbrand looked around, but saw no sign of any soldiers.
They continued onward. The land in this area was made up of gently sloped rolling hills. Eventually they passed over the crest of one. Satisfied that they were far enough away from the farmhouse to remain unseen, they turned and headed east once more.
The rain was long gone now. The sun, as it rose higher in the east, quickly burned away the early morning wetness. They trudged on through the morning, passing over fields that seemed endless, with nothing more to be seen but rows and rows of crops, with just an occasional farmhouse or dirt road breaking the monotony. From the crest of some of the hills, if they looked carefully to their right, they could see the narrow line of the great east west road. Each time Willbrand would pause to stop, looking for some sign of movement. He saw only an occasional farmer with his cart; however, though he had no doubt the soldiers were still out there somewhere. He wished they had some idea of just how much farther they had to go.
A narrow stream bisected their path. They waded across, Merigan lifting her dress to her knees so as not to get it wet. Willbrand looked up, squinting at the sun when they reached the other side. It was high in the sky now, nearly at its zenith. Feeling the cool touch of the water made him realize just how hot it had become. He looked over at Merigan. She looked tired. They had been walking all morning without a break.
"Why don't we stop here and rest a bit?" he suggested.
She nodded without argument. They sat down on the grass right beside the stream, which was slightly cooler.
"Are you hungry?"
Merigan shook her head.
Willbrand fell silent. He had been hoping she would say yes. He was hungry himself, but they had almost nothing left and he didn't want to hog it all. He would resist the temptation to eat until she was ready as well.
He stared at the brook for a while. It meandered past them at a leisurely pace, the water shallow and clear. He could see small fish swimming along the bottom near the shoreline, almost close enough to grab. It they had been bigger, he would have been tempted. The sun wasn't quite directly overhead yet, and he cast a shadow on the surface of the water. Every time he moved, his shadow would mimic him, causing the jittery fish to dart away.
Merigan sat beside him, her feet tucked underneath her.
"It's so peaceful here," she commented.
Looking around he could not help but agree. In front of them a grassy slope lead up the crest of yet another low hill. The brook ran slow and silent beside them, with golden stalks of wheat and barley filling the fields beyond. They couldn't see the road from here, and there was no sign of anyone else around. The only sound was the buzzing of insects around their heads.
"I could almost make myself think we're not being pursued at all, and just came out here for a quiet picnic. Except...without the food, of course," he stated.
"I wish we were."
Willbrand looked at her thoughtfully. It was funny; he used to dream of someday running off to some foreign land and having a great adventure. It was the kind of thing he play acted at as a kid. He used to think his life was so boring. Yet here he was, off on an actual adventure and his most ferverent wish was that it had never happened, that he was home in a field in Crotasia, and this really was just a simple outing. Yes, he had seen a lot, a lot that he might never have seen if this hadn't happened. Pantaglia had been a beautiful city, and he was sure he would remember their ocean voyage for the rest of his life, but he hadn't had a chance to enjoy any of it. The fact that they were on the run exerted a constant pressure, even in what seemed like the safest of places. Even now, with no one around, with no sign of any danger, even now he couldn't really rest easy. He found himself glancing around every few minutes, half expecting a squad of soldiers to come trotting over the hill.
"Do you ever get tired of it?" he asked.
He had been with them only a few weeks now, yet even so the constant need to be vigilant wore on him.
"It's the only thing I've ever known," she replied.
He looked at her for a moment, wondering if she realized just how sad that sounded. She had been running all her life. He wondered how she could stand it, day after day, that constant worry that the slightest wrong move could result in capture and death. That wasn't any way to live.
He supposed a person could get used to anything. He wondered if not ever having known peace, not really knowing what she was missing, if that made it easier or harder.
He wished there was something he could do, if not for his own sake then for her. It wasn't fair. She deserved a chance to live in peace, but what could he do?
Not for the first time he wondered what would become of them. In spite of what he had seen since he had met Merigan, he still wasn't convinced about this magic thing. He didn't doubt that Merigan could somehow cause illusions, but that almost seemed more a trick of the mind than real magic. It had its uses, he couldn't argue that, but how far could it take them? It might be very useful for concealing oneself or distracting a small group, but Willbrand doubted that even with the help of the book, if it was any help at all, she could conjure up an army. They were still the few against the many and he couldn't see any way to change that equation. Merigan may be used to it but he wasn't. He didn't want to be running the rest of his life, but at this point, he could see no way out.
He realized, sitting there, that he was just depressing himself.
"Shall we continue?"
Better to take it one step at a time. They had to get to Donolan. Just keep his mind on that task and not worry about anything else.
Merigan just looked at him for a moment. If she was surprised at his wanting to move on so quickly she didn't show it. She merely nodded and stood up.
They continued on their way. Cresting the slope of another low hill Willbrand was not surprised at all to see the seemingly endless plots of farmland ahead of them, but farther ahead he could see a dark line of trees, marking what looked to be the beginning of a forest.
Merigan stopped immediately.
"I know where we are," she proclaimed.
He waited for her to continue.
"That's got to be Norvell Wood," she said, pointing at the line of trees. "It's about three days walk from there to Donolan."
"Three days, well, that's not so bad," he commented.
He was glad they finally had some idea of how long this trip was going to take. If they were careful, they just might be able to stretch their coin for that long.
They walked on. The treeline was still far away, and for a long time it looked as if they weren't making any progress toward it, but as the sun began to get lower in the west, the forest slowly began to draw closer. Willbrand looked ahead and saw the treeline extending along the entire horizon in front of them now.
"How big is this forest?" he questioned.
"It's quite large, at least for around here," Merigan replied. "It's nothing like the forests up north where you come from, but it will take almost a day to go through, and that would be on the road."
Willbrand thought about that for a while. He had thought of the trees as a good sign, figuring the forest would offer concealment. He didn't think it would be wise to take the road, but they also wanted to get to Donolan as soon as possible. Who knows how long they would be delayed if they had to make their way through some trackless wilderness? Willbrand had a decent sense of direction, but they had no maps and there was always the possibility that they might get lost. He had to keep in mind that they didn't have much food, and though there might be game in the forest but they didn't have the equipment to catch any.
"Is there any way around?" he questioned.
"Of course," she replied. "We can head north and go along the coast again, but the land bulges out to the north here, and it'll delay us by days."
Willbrand nodded. That was not acceptable.
The walked on, past more farmland. Willbrand saw a man plowing a field off in the distance, but no one else. They hadn't seen anyone all day in fact, not since the morning. He wondered if the soldiers he had seen had just happened by and had not been looking for them at all.
Eventually they made it into the shadows of the trees. The sun was low on the horizon by then, and Willbrand was both tired and hungry, and he was sure Merigan felt the same, but he didn't want to stop. They couldn't continue in the dark. They'd get lost for sure then. He wanted to get as far as possible while it was still light.
They pushed their way through the forest but soon found the going difficult. The underbrush was thick here, hindering their every movement. They had to constantly adjust their direction to get around impenetrable areas. After going on for quite some time, Willbrand realized they weren't making much progress.
"At this rate it will take three days just to get through the forest," he commented.
They stopped as if by mutual consent. Merigan looked at him and nodded.
"Should we try the road?"
That had been just what he was thinking. Obviously the road was more dangerous and might be watched, but again, he hadn't seen any sign of pursuit lately. Their enemies might be off looking in some other direction for all they knew, or had given up. It would take them forever to get through this forest without a trail. It seemed a reasonable risk.
"Yes, lets," he agreed.
They made their way south, knowing that the road lay not far off in that direction, and it was not long before they found it. They walked out into the center of the dirt track, thankful to be out of the brambles. Willbrand stared down the road in both directions, but saw nothing.
"C'mon, let's get going," he said.
Walking swiftly he stared eastward. It felt good to be out of the underbrush, but Wllbrand didn't relax. Their gain in progress was tempered by the greater risk of being spotted. He kept his eyes open, looking ahead and glancing back every few moments. The light was starting to fade now as the sun sank in the sky. On the road they couldn't get lost, so they could perhaps walk on even after dark, but he didn't think they'd get very far. Merigan hadn't said anything, but she had to be hungry by now, and he was starving. They'd have to stop to eat soon. One thing he knew for sure, they'd be sleeping under the stars tonight. Or the trees rather, he thought, looking up at the canopy above them. He just hoped it didn't rain again.
He looked down, and saw figures ahead of them.
He stopped, Merigan beside him, noticing them at the same time. Six or seven men on horseback had come around a turn ahead of them. The men had stopped as well and were looking at them. Even though the light was fast fading, Willbrand could still make out the purple and gold of Galias soldiers.
"Into the woods!" Willbrand hissed.
Even as the said that the man spurred their horses forward and rode toward them.
Grabbing hold of Merigan's hand, Willbrand ran to the left. They heard the men shout for them to stop, but that just made them run faster. Willbrand scrambled through the trees, unheeding of the underbrush as it tore at his limbs. He heard the thudding of hooves on the ground behind them, then the shouts of men and the sounds of pursuit. A branch whipped back at him after he pushed it aside, scratching his face and just missing his eye. He glanced back and got a glimpse of the men chasing them. They didn't seem far behind.
He felt Merigan tugging on his hand.
"Over here!" she hissed.
She pulled him to the left, behind a huge oak tree whose limbs towered above them. She crouched down, dragging him along with her. For a moment he didn't know what she was doing. They couldn't hide here, their pursuit was too close, but then he saw the look on her face.
He crouched down beside here, realizing she was about to do that thing she did so well.
Willbrand stared at her, trying not to move a muscle, but curious as to exactly what she was doing, what she was thinking. Her eyes seemed unfocused, but her face held a look of intense concentration.
A figure appeared out of the brush. Then another. The two men were just a few paces from them, and there were no obstructions, yet the men stopped and looked around bewildered.
"Where did they go?" one of them asked.
It was almost funny, Willbrand thought. They stood just a few feet away from each other.
"I don't know," the other man said, looking around slowly. "We were right behind them."
The man turned and looked right at them. Willbrand had to resist the urge to grab his sword hilt. He certainly didn't feel invisible!
But the man lifted his head and looked past them.
"They've got to be around here somewhere."
He heard other voices.
"I don't see them anymore," the man who had first spoken called out. "Spread out and search the area."
The men did as they were told. They scattered around the area, searching through the underbrush. Unfortunately, they didn't go very far, intent on searching the area where they had last seen their quarry. They kept crisscrossing back and forth, sometimes farther away, sometimes closer, but never going far enough away to give Willbrand and Merigan a chance to escape.
Willbrand glanced at Merigan and saw perspiration forming on her brow. He knew maintaining an illusion took a lot of her energy. He wondered just how long she could keep it up. He wanted to ask her, but he knew he couldn't break her concentration. He looked at the men, hoping it would sink in that they were not going to find anything here, but they didn't seem in any hurry to leave.
One of the men was coming back toward them. He seemed to be looking right at them. Again Willbrand had to resist the urge to draw his sword. If the man had seen them, surely he would have said something to the others.
He walked closer, and Willbrand realized he was looking at the tree. It was obvious he didn't see them now and was just interested in the tree for some reason. Willbrand wondered what would happen if the man walked into them. He didn't think Merigan could maintain an illusion if that happened!
The man walked up to the tree and stopped. He was so close to Merigan she could reach out and touch him if she chose.
The man looked around for a moment, then turned back toward the tree. Willbrand's eyes widened as he realized the man was going to relieve himself.
He looked at Merigan. Her eyes were open but she did not seem to see the man at all. Perspiration flowed freely from her brow and all her attention seemed to be focused inward. He wondered if she would at least hear the man, but she gave no indication that she even knew the man was there as he did his business against the tree trunk.
Willbrand felt a deep feeling of relief when the man finally finished and turned back to join the others. He looked at Merigan again, but she still showed no sign of realizing what had happened. She was just staring into space, and he could see her arms were shaking. If the situation hadn't been so dire, he might have laughed.
"Montes, where the hell are you?" Willbrand heard from the distance.
"I'm coming!" the man walking away from them said. "I just had..."
Something shot past Willbrand's head.
Montes let out a cry then fell forward, an arrow protruding from his back.
Willbrand heard cries off in the distance, then screams as more arrows shot through the air. He wasn't sure what the men were shouting, but some of the cries were obviously cries of pain.
He heard more scrambling in the brush, and then a few more shouts. Willbrand remained motionless, wondering what would happen now. It was obvious that the soldiers had run into some bandits of the woods, but he wasn't sure if that was good for him and Merigan or not. He had no idea if bandits would treat them any better than those soldiers had planned to.
Even so, this might be their chance to escape. If they were lucky they might slip away before either the soldiers or the bandits saw them.
He was about to grab Merigan’s arm to snap her out of it when another figure emerged from the woods.
It was a tall man, dressed all in green and brown. He held a bow in his hands, cocked and ready to fire. He was looking right at them.
Merigan suddenly shuddered and cried out. She fell to her hands and knees. Willbrand stooped down beside her, forgetting the man for a moment.
"Are you all right?"
She didn't answer, just remained where she was, her arms still trembling. It seemed like she could barely remain upright.
"Is the lady ill?"
Willbrand spun around to see the man standing but a few fee from them. He had lowered his bow, though he still held an arrow at the ready.
"She'll be...all right," he replied. "She just needs some rest."
Willbrand stood up, his hand hovering by the hilt of his sword.
"Who are you?"
The man looked them both over curiously before speaking. He had short but thick brown hair. A pencil thin mustache ran below his slightly hooked nose. He looked at them with piercing gray eyes.
"I don't know where you hail from," he said. "But in this region of the kingdom it is the guest who declares himself first."
"Guest?" Willbrand questioned. The man made it sound like they had entered his house.
"Yes, guest," he replied. "You are in Norvell Wood, and Norvell Wood is my home."
"I thought this land was owned by the King," Willbrand stated.
The man laughed.
"And so does he! But the King does not come here. He may have title, but the land is truly owned by those who live on it, those who see it every day, those who's bones it is in, if anyone."
Merigan eased herself into a sitting position beside him. She seemed to have recovered a bit, enough to look up at the man in front of them. Willbrand realized he was wasting time. They couldn’t stand here chatting. The sounds of battle around them had ceased, and he could see more men dressed in green appearing around them. There was no chance to get away, but the man didn't seem like he was going to cut their throats, at least, not yet, and they had fought the soldiers so they were obviously not King's men. He didn't know if more soldiers might show up, and Merigan needed somewhere to rest. He had to trust them, at least, to some extent.
"My name is Willbrand," he stated. "We were with a group of merchants heading for Donolan when we were ambushed by thieves one night. We barely escaped with our lives, but we were separated from the others. We're on our way to Donolan to try to find them again."
Another man came up beside them.
"Alios, we must go," he announced. "There are more soldiers on the way."
"Very well," the bowman said. "Bring them along."
"We're taking them with us?" the second man said.
"Aye. Any soldiers that come by are not going to be very happy with our handiwork. It seems likely they'll take it out on anyone they find nearby."
"We don't know who they are," the other man pointed out.
"And we don't have time to find out now. We'll decide what to do with them when we get back to camp. I'm not going to leave them here."
The other man shrugged and walked away. Alios nodded for them to follow him. He stood there as Willbrand helped Merigan to her feet. She could barely stand, but when he asked her if she could walk she nodded. They followed their benefactor as he led them deeper into the woods, though Willbrand wasn't sure whether benefactor was the proper term. He had been tempted to ask the man to leave them behind, that they could fend for themselves. He didn't think Merigan would be able to use her powers again for some time, but if more soldiers came they were already in the woods, they wouldn't have been easy to spot. On the other hand, it was obvious Merigan was exhausted, and they could not afford another pursuit. This
This didn't seem like the time to be asking questions. Alios led them on in silence. By now the sun had dropped below the horizon and it was dark, especially beneath the trees. They followed a meandering path that seemed to have no pattern, but there seemed to be some kind of trail, for the trained eye at least. Willbrand noticed even though the underbrush was thick around them, their path seemed unimpeded by it. He could occasionally hear some of the other men nearby, but he saw no one except Alios in front of them. Soon the thought of whether following the man was a good idea or not became moot because Willbrand was now so thoroughly lost he had no idea which direction he had to go to get them out of here.
Eventually he spotted a light up ahead and a short time later they came out of the woods into a small clearing which was obviously the campsite Alios had mentioned. The light Willbrand had noticed was from a fire burning in a pit in the center of the camp. The area had been cleared around the fire, and Willbrand could see three small structures erected from logs in the firelight. He could see a number of people milling about as well. The smell of something cooking was strong in the air, which made Willbrand remember just how hungry he was.
Alios called out, and some of the others came over. The bowman talked quickly with them, and some looked at Merigan and Willbrand, but said nothing to them. The bowman led them over between two of the buildings, near the fire. There he sat down and bade them to as well.
Some of the other men milled about, but Alios dismissed them with a wave. When they were alone, he looked at his two companions carefully, his dark eyes glinting in the firelight.
"Your lady seems exhausted," he observed. "She can rest in one of the cabins, if you like."
Merigan had sat down beside Willbrand. Her eyes were closed, and she was leaning against him, but she opened them at that.
"No, I'll stay here," she said softly.
Willbrand just looked at her. It was obvious she was dead on her feet.
"At least let me get you something to lie on then," Alios suggested.
The man called over one of the others and a short time later a bedroll was produced. Merigan accepted it gratefully and lay down beside Willbrand. Almost instantly she was asleep.
"The chase seems to have taken much out of her," Alios observed.
"Yes," Willbrand replied slowly. "She's not used to such strenuous pursuits, and we've had little rest or food the last few days."
"Well, perhaps we can remedy that then," the man said. "I know you are probably tired as well but I'm afraid we must discuss some things before you rest."
Willbrand nodded slowly, wondering just what the bowman wanted to discuss.
The man looked around, but none of the others were nearby now.
"We have no reason to trust each other. However I consider myself a good judge of character and see no duplicity in you. A man may have honest business and yet wish to hide his purpose from strangers. So before we begin let me tell you a little story and see what you think."
"My men and I were hunting a short while ago. There are a lot of deer in this area of the wood, as well as boar, which have been known to gore an unwary traveler now and then. At any rate, we heard the shouts of men, and since this area of the forest is rarely traveled, I took my men to investigate. We came upon a group of Galias soldiers searching for something in the brush."
Willbrand said nothing. It was obvious the man was talking about their recent encounter, and he was wondering where this was all leading to.
"We quickly set up an ambush, since we consider this our land, and any encroachment by the King’s men as an invasion. We don't want them mucking around in our forest, and have realized that if they pay a dear price from coming in here they're more likely to shy away in the future."
"At any rate, I had crept up within range of one of the soldiers near a big tree and brought him down when I noticed two figures crouching beside the tree he had just stepped away from. Now, the tree was in plain sight, and I could swear the two had not been there just a moment before. It almost seemed as if they had been conjured up out of thin air, and I have to admit I was very surprised to have not seen them sooner. Now tell me, did my eyes deceive me?"
For a long time Willbrand just sat there, not sure how to reply. Could he trust this man or not? Even if he did trust him, the fewer who knew the truth, the better. Even if he had no intention of betraying them, who knows what he might say if questioned by the enemy?
"The truth could put you in more danger than you can imagine," Willbrand said cautiously.
"Danger is not something we are unfamiliar with," Alios replied. "We just want to live in peace, but the King considers us rebellious troublemakers. He sends troops in occasionally to hunt for us. Fortunately, we don't seem to be so much of a threat that he bothers to send men in force. That's not even the greatest danger to us. There are others in the forest too, others a little more concerned with personal gain than we. We have to be constantly vigilant, for there are thieves who roam the forest who would be more than willing to slit our throats for our possessions."
"Come, I have brought you here, shown you where our camp is. That kind of knowledge in the wrong hands could be disastrous for us. Will you not be honest with me?"
Still Willbrand hesitated. He knew it probably wasn't a good idea to tell this man anything, wasn't a good idea to tell anyone anything, but he didn't think he could lie.
"Your eyes did not deceive you," he finally admitted, thinking how angry Ktan would be with him for saying this. "The church has declared us heretics because of what my companion can do. That's why the soldiers were after us. We are on our way to Donolan to find the others that we were inadvertently separated from. That at least was true"
Alios nodded slowly, as if he had known all along. He looked at Merigan.
"I see," he said slowly. "Hard to believe one so young, and so beautiful, could be a practitioner of the dark arts."
Willbrand just looked at him for a moment.
"She's not a witch," he stated.
Alios seemed unperturbed.
"Just what I would expect her defender to say," he responded. "Be at ease. I hold no ill will toward anyone, witch or no, as long as they do no harm to me. It is good that we discussed this in private though. There are others here who are much more superstitious than I. It would be wise to keep this knowledge between ourselves."
Willbrand just sat there for a moment, then nodded. There didn't seem to be much point in arguing. He certainly didn't think of Merigan as a witch, but he supposed what she did could be looked upon that way by others.
"We mean no one any harm. We just wish to get to Donolan," Willbrand said.
"Then we will not impede you," Alios said. "You may rest here for the night, in relative safety. No one is completely safe in Norvell Wood, but the sentries are sharp eyed, and it is unlikely that scoundrels will attempt to attack a large camp. They are more likely to wait by the road hoping to waylay the unwary. For now rest easy. Do you wish for something to eat?"
"I'm famished," Willbrand admitted. He looked at Merigan's still form beside him, wondering if he should wake her. She had to be at least as hungry as he.
Alios seemed to understand his thought.
"Let her rest," he said. "She can eat when she awakens. I'll make sure her needs are attended to. She seemed to need the rest more than the food."
Willbrand nodded and Alios stood up and disappeared past the fire. The forest was black as night around them now. He could hear the low murmur of others talking not far away, and he could see some people sitting by the fire or going about their business. An owl hooted somewhere off in the woods. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with the cool night air, and his nose with the smell of pine, fresh burning wood, and, most keenly, the odor of something roasting on the fire.
Alios came back a few minutes later, carrying two plates filled with fresh cooked meat and some vegetables.
"You picked a good day to show up," he said, sitting down once again and handing Willbrand one plate. "The day's hunt was a good one. We will all eat well for a day or two."
Willbrand did not reply; too busy gulping down the food. It was good, but at this point, he thought most anything would taste that way.
They ate in silence until Willbrand's plate was nearly empty.
"So how did you come to be here?' Willbrand questioned eventually.
"I used to be a farmer," he replied. "Over in the
"I'm sorry," Willbrand said.
"It's no matter. It's in the past now and nothing can change it. Anyway, I didn't care what happened to me. I just wanted to die myself, I suppose. I ended up wandering into the woods and met some other people who had pretty much the same idea as me. We banded together and there you have it. It's not the best life in the world, but it's better than nothing."
"More than that, I should think," Willbrand said, thinking back to the hovel the farmer they had met and his family had lived in. "I've seen the conditions the farmers here live in. It's a wonder there are not more of you."
Alios cocked his head and looked at Willbrand with a discerning eye.
"It is as I thought," he said. "The conditions here are no worse than anywhere else. Most peasants are so hardened to this way of life as to not think anything of it, but it is not so with you. You have an air of nobility about you."
Willbrand lowered his head, again not sure how much to reveal. The man seemed to have an uncanny knack for divining the truth.
"Again, your eye does not deceive you," he said at last.
"I see it is as I thought, but you are obviously still uncomfortable discussing such details with me, so we will put it aside. Be that as it may, I'm glad there are not more people here. We live by the hunt. The forest around us cannot support a large population. For that you would need agriculture. We can't afford to clear land here. We don't have the resources and it would tie us down to one spot, making it that much easier to be discovered. No, most remain on their farms, no matter how bad the conditions. There are advantages, after all. The King protects them from bandits, and they have land to till, even if it isn't really their own. The King isn't stupid enough to take so much that the framers can't feed themselves and their families. As long as people can eke out a living they can convince themselves that they are content."
Willbrand sighed, finally satiated, and put down his empty plate. The fire crackled merrily in front of them, its sparks wafting up into the night sky. In spite of how tired Willbrand was, he and Alois talked long into the night. The man was pleasant and easy to talk to, and had more than one amusing or exciting tale to tell. And though Willbrand didn't tell the man everything, he did find himself telling some stories about his own past. Merigan and her friends were loyal companions, and the first people he would want beside him in a fight, but none of them made him feel as at ease as this man did. Before long he could almost forget that he had just met the man, and thought of him as a close friend he had known all his life.
Eventually Willbrand felt his eyelids begin to grow heavy. Seeing that, Alios had a bedroll brought for him as well. Willbrand accepted it and lay down beside Merigan as Alios bade him good night. Almost before the young noble's head hit the ground he was fast asleep.
Willbrand awoke to the sun shining through the trees above him. He lifted his head and looked around. Merigan still lay beside him, facing away from him, her dark hair spilling onto his arm. The fire was out, though he could see embers smoldering and the smell of it was still thick in the air. He sat up and rubbed his eyes.
He felt Merigan stir beside him. He looked over to see her looking around slowly.
"Where are we?" she questioned.
"In Alios' camp."
"The bowman whose men fought off the soldiers."
She stared at him blankly.
"The soldiers?" he prodded. "Who chased us into the woods? Don't you remember?"
Her brow creased for a moment.
"Yes," she said finally. "Or some of it anyway. It's all kind of blurry."
"That took a lot out of you, didn't it?" he asked. He knew that using her powers sapped Merigan's energy, but he hadn't realized quite how much. That was the longest he had ever seen her hold an illusion, but even so it hadn't been that long. No wonder she couldn't do anything more impressive, it would probably kill her. He wondered for the first time if what she was doing was taking more of a toll on her than just tiring her out. Could it be doing some kind of more permanent damage?
"Yes," she replied. "It's hard. Even with all my practice I'm afraid I'm still not very good at it yet. Ktan says I'll get better though."
"It's all right," he reassured her. "You did the best you could, and you held it long enough."
The young noble turned to see Alios and another man approaching them.
"Good morn' to you," the bowman said cheerfully. "Sleep well?"
"Like a log," Willbrand replied.
"And I see your lady has recovered as well," Alios observed. He walked up to Merigan and bowed. "I'm sorry, but you have me at a disadvantage."
Willbrand suddenly realized that in spite of all their talk last night, he had never mentioned her name.
"Merigan," his companion said.
"Charmed," Alios replied, standing back up. "I am Alios, bowman and master hunter for our little group. And this,” the bowman turned to the man beside him, “is my brother, Arlen.”
The man beside Alios bowed low to them both. Now that he stood right next to them it was obvious he and Alios were related. They looked like brothers. In fact, except for the lack of a mustache on Arlen, they could easily have passed for each other.
Alios noticed them looking back and forth between the two and let out a laugh.
“I see you have noticed the family resemblance,” he stated. “And yes, before you ask, I should say, my twin brother.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Arlen spoke for the first time and even his voice sounded like his brothers.
“It is our honor,” Willbrand replied politely.
“My brother used to work as a cobbler in town,” Alios went on, “but he is a fine hunter in his own right as well and I convinced him a few years ago of the pleasures of joining our little group out here in the woods.”
"And a very interesting group it is," Merigan commented, looking around.
Willbrand lifted his eyes as well, and saw that the camp was actually much larger than he had noticed the night before. The ground sloped down to their left, and he could see a few more structures in that direction, on the shore of a river.
"Your companion has told me much about you," Alios continued. He gave Merigan a wink that Arlen could not see, and she looked at Willbrand, obviously wondering just how much he had said. "In fact, I may be able to help you. I have a proposal for you."
Willbrand tilted his head.
"Yes," the bowman went on. "I know you want to get to Donolan, but it's still at least two days walk, and the roads will almost certainly be crowded with soldiers after what happened last night. Killing a few of them seems to stir up a hornets nest. They wander around annoying the farmers, or stumbling through the forest trying to find us, and then go back to their homes when they find nothing. Still, it will be dangerous for you to be out there right now. The sooner you get away from here the better, and you'll go much faster mounted."
Willbrand looked at him in surprise.
"You have horses?"
"Yes, though not many," Alios replied. "Not so many as we can afford to just give them to you I'm afraid. We're a poor people, and a horse is a precious commodity."
Willbrand's heart sank. He knew with the little coin they had they would never be able to purchase them.
"So this is my proposal. You can take one of the horses, but there is a condition, and the condition is that I accompany you. I'll ride with you to Donolan and then bring the horses back when you arrive."
Willbrand's disappointment immediately vanished.
"We would be more than happy to have you!" he said enthusiastically. "But what about your people? Don't they need their leader here?"
Alois laughed heartily.
"Nay, I am no leader!" he contradicted. "I am the camp's master hunter and that only due to my keen sight and true aim."
Willbrand was surprised by this. The others had all appeared to listen to Alios, and he seemed to have an air of command.
"Well, then, who is your leader?"
"We have none," Alios replied with a shake of his head.
"No leader?" Willbrand said.
Willbrand just looked at him for a moment.
"How can you have no leader?" he finally questioned.
Alios seemed to be finding great amusement in Willbrand's bewilderment.
"What do we need a leader for?" he asked.
Again Willbrand did not reply for a drawn out moment. What kind of question was that? They had to have a leader. Everyone had a leader.
"But...how can you function without one?"
"What do you mean?"
Willbrand was beginning to think Alios was just making fun of him.
"How do you make decisions?" he questioned.
"If you want to do something, you do it," Alios replied.
"But what if something needs to be done and no one wants to do it?" Merigan questioned. Willbrand looked at her and saw she was having a hard time with this too. For some reason that made him feel a little better.
"If something needs to be done, someone will eventually get around to doing it," he replied.
Willbrand just stood there with his mouth open. He had never heard of such a thing.
"But what if it's something that affects the whole group," he asked. "How do you make those kinds of decisions?"
"If it's something that will impact the entire camp, like moving, we hold a council meeting," Alios replied.
"And who attends that? Your leaders, right?" Willbrand suggested.
"Everyone does," Alios answered.
"Um hum," Alios acknowledged. "Well, except for small children. We have a council meeting and talk until we come up with a decision that everyone can live with."
Willbrand shook his head. That they didn't swear allegiance to the King he could understand. The King was far removed from most people's lives. Willbrand had never met the man. He had never been to Crotasia. Yet even thieves and brigands had leaders. Every group had to have someone in charge or there would be chaos.
"What if everyone can't agree?" he asked.
"Then we continue to talk until they do," Alios replied.
"What if they never agree?" Willbrand pressed.
"That rarely happens, but it's not unheard of," Alios said. "If someone can't agree with a decision, then they don't have to go along. We've had that happen once or twice."
It still didn't make sense to Willbrand.
"So you're saying that if you decide to move and one person doesn't want to, you leave him behind?"
"Yes," Alios stated. "If they don't want to go we don't force them. People are free to come and go as they wish. If they want to leave our group, no one is going to stop them."
Willbrand didn't reply. He didn't know what else to say. It seemed to him that this way of governing couldn't possibly work. Merigan looked doubtful too, but Alios seemed to be fine with it, in fact, didn't seem to even understand their puzzlement at it.
Alios seemed to take their silence as the end of that particular conversation. He clapped his hands in front of him.
"So, are we ready to go then?"
"So soon?" Willbrand asked.
"The sooner the better, I would think," Alios answered. "Like I said, it would be best to get as far from here as we can as quickly as we can. The roads around here are the most likely to be watched. I won’t be missed much, not with my brother here. He can take care of the hunting while I am gone. He is almost as good as me."
“Almost as good as you in my sleep you mean,” Arlen corrected.
Alios merely smiled at this.
"All right,” Willbrand agreed. No time like the present. “Let's be on our way then."
"Umm, there is one thing," Merigan spoke up.
They both looked at her.
"Could it be possible for me to please have some food before we go?" she asked. "I didn't have anything at all yesterday, and I'm so hungry I'm afraid I would be more likely to eat the horse rather than ride it!"