Chapter twenty three
THE MINERS OF CEN FINDOL
“Who be you? And what do you mean bringing those dog scum down upon us?”
The man who spoke stood right in front of Willbrand and the first thing that was immediately apparent about him was that he was huge. He towered over the other men, and Willbrand could not help but notice that he himself barely rose to the middle of the man’s chest. The fire was behind the man’s back, and other details were hard to make out. His hair was shaggy and unkept, hanging down almost to his shoulders. The clothes he wore looked ragged as well. The man looked like a beast himself, and if Willbrand hadn’t heard him speak that might have been exactly what he thought.
The others around them were similarly dressed, in clothes that seemed to be stitched together from whatever random pieces of cloth could be found. In the hands of most of them were axes, picks or shovels. One or two had a dagger but Willbrand could see no swords. These were obviously not fighting men.
“My name is Willbrand and this…” And then he stopped and could have kicked himself. They were heretics, wanted by the crown and here he was telling these perfect strangers his real name. Okay, they were out in the middle of nowhere and it didn’t seem likely that any of these men would go running off to tell the King’s men they were here even if they knew Willbrand and Merigan were wanted which didn’t seem likely in the first place but still. He just wasn’t used to this outlaw thing. He was going to have to learn to be more cautious before he got them both in more trouble than they could afford.
“…is Merigan,” he continued, glancing at his companion. The damage was done. Hopefully there would be no repercussions and he didn’t know what false name to give her, if any. It was only their first names, after all, but he would have to be more careful in the future.
“We were traveling from Winsor to Zalan and got lost,” he finished. They really should have come up with some story to tell for an occasion like this, but neither of them had thought of it. He didn’t want to say that either but what choice did he have? He had to tell the man they came from somewhere and he wasn’t very good at making things up. He glanced over at Merigan again, trying to read the look on her face to see if he had already said too much, but she seemed unperturbed.
“We don’t mean to trouble you, or the creatures outside,” he went on. “We came upon them by chance. We were lost in the woods and saw the smoke from your fire…”
He didn’t know what else to tell the man. He realized the less he said the better off he would be.
The man stood in front of them pondering this while giving them a not very friendly look at all, as if he didn’t believe anything Willbrand said and in fact was quite certain they had deliberately dragged the creatures outside here for some nebulous purpose of their own. Willbrand remained silent, trying to look as trustworthy as he could.
“Zalan is a long way from here,” the man said finally, something Willbrand could have readily guessed on his own.
“We’ve been lost for four days now,” Willbrand stated.
“We are tired and hungry,” Merigan spoke up. “If you could spare some food and shelter, we would be grateful.”
“We don’t have any food to spare,” the man retorted, sounding not at all sympathetic.
Willbrand fell silent. That was not a response he had expected. The whole time they had been lost their objective had been to find civilization again. He had thought that once they found people their troubles would be over, that they would be safe. His mind had been focused on getting out of the forest, not what would happen after they did.
“We can pay,” Merigan said.
The man tilted his head, his hard gaze falling upon her.
“Pay eh?” he said thoughtfully. “How much?”
Willbrand frowned. Obviously if food could be procured by payment then the man’s statement that they didn’t have any to spare was false.
“We don’t have a lot of coin,” Willbrand spoke up.
“How much?” the man repeated, still looking at Merigan.
Willbrand still had almost seventy coin left from the sale of the horse, but even he was not foolish enough to tell the man how much he had, besides which asking for shelter for a couple of nights would cost much less than that even at a fine Inn.
He looked around slowly. The fort, if it could be called that, consisted of four small buildings and one rather larger one near the center of the complex. Like the clothing the men wore, the buildings seemed to be put together from whatever materials could be found lying around. There were some crudely cut planks, but most of the walls seemed to be made from tree trunks fitted together rather badly, the spaces between them filled with what looked liked dried mud when they were filled at all. Ropes, barrels and other equipment were strewn about in a haphazard fashion all about the buildings. The place was a run down dump, in Willbrand’s opinion, not any better than the farmers hovel they had stayed in after they had made shore on the Galian Pennisula, and they had paid five coin for that.
This didn’t seem worth even that but he did not say that. He was, slowly, he would admit, learning to be a bit more diplomatic. The people here might not have the same opinion of the place that he did. Besides, they had let them in, saving them from what would almost certainly have been a gruesome death. That alone was worth reasonable compensation, now wasn’t it?
“Ten coin,” Willbrand said, an amount he thought more than generous. “Ten coin for food and shelter for the night.”
“Fifty,” the man countered.
Willbrand’s mouth fell open.
“Fifty? That’s outrageous! I could stay at the best Inn in Crotasia for less than that!”
“But you’re not in Crotasia now are you?” the man pointed out. “Fifty or out you go!”
Willbrand glared at the man, not able to believe he was serious, but the look on the man’s face told him otherwise. It was robbery; that was plain. There was no way he was going to pay that! The man had to be bluffing. He wouldn’t put them out again if they didn’t pay. He couldn’t. It would be certain death.
“You would feed us to those wolves outside if we can’t pay?” he spat.
“They are not wolves. They’re dog men. The cursed beasts have been killing our people since we came here.”
The man waved his arm at the compound around them.
“We are miners, come here to extract gems from beneath Cen Findol, the mountain whose shadow you now stand in. You are interlopers here, we didn’t ask you to come. If we let you stay we will have to be resupplied that much sooner. No one can go out alone. Each time we leave we have to go in a large group. Sending out a party like that costs coin. They have to be fed and supplied for the trip. These hills are crawling with those dog beasts. I’ve lost a dozen good men to them over the last couple of months. Why do you think I would care what happens to you?”
Again Willbrand had no response. Perhaps what the man was saying was true, even so, he could hardly believe they would be so cold hearted as to toss him and Merigan out.
He looked at the other men there. Their faces were impassive, and it was obvious he would get no help from them. The man in front of him was obviously the leader and it didn’t appear that any of the others would dare to disagree with him.
“We can work,” Merigan said.
The man glared at her.
“You said yourself you’ve lost men to those beasts out there,” she went on. “You’re short people. If we work, if we pull our weight, can we stay then?”
Instead of replying the man suddenly burst into laughter.
“A little slip of a thing like you?” he spat out. “What could you possibly do to help? We’re miners; we haul ore and gems out of the mine. It’s backbreaking work. The boy might be of some use but you, you’d be worthless.”
This was just about all Willbrand could take. By now it seemed evident to him that the man in front of them was nothing more than a scoundrel. What was he saying now, that Willbrand could stay but Merigan could not? Did they think he would just stand there while they threw her to the beasts outside? That would happen over his dead body.
Willbrand felt his grip tightening on his sword. None of the men here looked trained to fight. None of them had real weapons. Nevertheless the man in front of him was twice his height, and built like a bear, and a pickaxe to the head could cause just as much damage as the finest sword in the land. Besides that, there were two dozen of them and only two of him and Merigan. To fight would be suicide.
Nevertheless a fight they would get if they attempted to throw Merigan out.
“I can cook.”
Willbrand looked at Merigan, but he couldn’t tell what she was thinking, or whether what the man was saying was upsetting her as much as him.
“We have a cook,” the man retorted.
“But if I cook you’ll have one more man available to work in the mines,” she replied.
At least the man didn’t reject this outright for once, but instead stood there for a moment looking Merigan over.
For the first time, one of the other men spoke.
“We could use some decent cooking.”
“What’s wrong with my cooking?” another man snapped.
“Nothing, if you don’t mind eating food that tastes like sawdust,” another of them said.
“Shut up the lot of ya!”
Instantly they fell silent.
The man in front of Willbrand turned toward the young noble once more, this time his gaze falling upon the sword gripped in the young man’s hand.
“You know how to use that thing?” he questioned after a moment.
“Of course I do!” Willbrand retorted, making no attempt to hide how insulted he was by the question.
The man’s response was to look at him skeptically, but he said nothing, just stood there looking back and forth between Willbrand and Merigan, his hand coming up to scratch his chin.
“We don’t have any decent weapons here,” he said finally. “We have to go out of the compound to get water every day, and also to retrieve anything caught in the traps we’ve set. We don’t get all our supplies shipped in you know. That’s how most of my men have been lost. We could use someone with a decent blade to accompany those who make the trip. And the girl can cook for us but,” and here he leaned forward, glaring at the both of them, “you’ll work in the mine too, the both of you, when you’re not doing your other work, just like the rest of the men. Don’t expect any special treatment cause you’re not going to find any here. Do we have an understanding?”
Willbrand wasn’t really happy with those conditions. He didn’t think Merigan should be subjected to that kind of work. He didn’t like this man at all, he didn’t like this entire situation, and was starting to think they might have been better off having remained lost in the woods. Still, it seemed like the best they were going to get, and at least it removed the threat of being tossed out into the arms of the beasts outside. After all, he was only planning on staying long enough to get their bearing and some food in their stomachs. The beasts outside couldn’t stay out there waiting forever. He didn’t plan on hanging around here a second longer than was necessary.
“All right,” he agreed.
A grunt of assent was all they got, then; “Brant! Find them some place to sleep.”
One of the men stepped forward. He jerked his head for them to follow, and without a word or a look back walked off toward one of the buildings.
Whereas the leader of the group had towered over them, Brant barely reached Merigan’s height. He walked with a limp, and odd loping gate that reminded Willbrand of the creatures outside, but this man was obviously human. His legs were downright spindly but the man’s barrel chest and thick arms more than made up for any deficiency in leg size. Willbrand decided it wasn’t one of the dog beasts the man resembled after all, but instead some kind of grotesque monkey.
Willbrand and Merigan followed. The door creaked as it opened, and Willbrand was not surprised to see the inside of the building looked just as run down as the rest of the place. It was only one room and appeared to be the men’s sleeping quarters. Rags lay strewn upon the ground, covering most of the floor. The place stunk.
Brant walked over to one corner and kicked the rags out of the way.
“You can sleep here,” he said. “The two who used to use this spot won’t be needin’ it any more.”
Willbrand and Merigan just looked at one another. About the only advantage either of them could see to sleeping in here was that it was marginally warmer than outside. Willbrand wasn’t sure at all if that one advantage offset the disadvantages.
With a shrug Merigan knelt down and started to lay out her bedroll while Willbrand turned toward Brant.
“We haven’t had anything to eat since noon,” he stated. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of us getting any food before we turn in?”
He had a feeling he was wasting his time asking and that feeling was confirmed a moment later.
“We be eating in the morning,” the man replied and Willbrand couldn’t help but notice he seemed to take some pleasure in saying so. “You’ll wait til then. Like the Warden said, you’ll be gettin’ no special privileges.”
Willbrand was not surprised at all, that is, until his mind suddenly did a double take.
“Warden? What do you mean by warden?” he questioned, but the man just gave a short cackling laugh, and then walked away without replying.
Willbrand stood there watching even after the man disappeared out the door. Eventually he turned to Merigan, who now had her bedroll out and was already lying down.
“Warden? Are we in some kind of prison?”
Merigan wasn’t sure if that was a rhetorical question or not. She had heard the man as well as he, but it was obviously something she could not possibly know.
Their heads turned as the door opened again. It wasn’t Brant. Another man came in, for once a man with typical human proportions. Willbrand recognized him as the one who had said they could use a good cook.
He slowly walked over and stopped in front of them. He was just as dirty as the others had been and seemed considerably older. His hair was grey and matted down on his head. Even so, he had the typically physically fit look of the others, and had obviously spent a good deal of his life in strenuous labor.
For a moment they all just looked at one another.
“You said your name was Willbrand?” the man ventured.
The young noble nodded.
“I’m Dun,” the man said. “And I’ll wager by now you’re ready to skip out of this dump as soon as it’s light.”
This was true, but Willbrand was unsure whether to state that or not. He didn’t know this man, but it seemed as if they had ventured into a nest of vipers. It seemed unlikely to him now that he could trust anyone here. If they found out that was indeed his intent, would they do something about it?
“We don’t usually get visitors here,” the man continued, apparently not looking for a response anyway. “Well, that’s not exactly true. We don’t get visitors period. Not with those beasts out there. Not that anyone would want to come in here anyway. Most people’s thoughts, if they think at all about this place, is on getting out.”
Willbrand nodded, not sure at all what to say, if anything at all. He had to admit, this man at least wasn’t glaring at them like they were intruders whose only use would be to feed the beasts outside.
“Brant called the man we talked to the Warden,” he finally said. “Why is that? Is this some kind of prison?”
The man gave a short bark of laughter.
“Indeed it is, in a way,” he replied. “Most of the men here are convicts. They were given a choice, stay in prison or come out to the Kings mines and shave a few years off their sentence. A few of them were just so poor they came here as a way of paying off their debts. Nobody wants to be here except maybe for the Warden. That’s what we call him, the Warden. Nobody knows his real name. He’s in charge of this hellhole, and there is no need for any guards, those dog men outside see to that. I didn’t think anyone could get past them. Didn’t think anyone could make it in or out. You got in somehow though, how did you do it?”
“It was luck really. We didn’t know about the creatures. We barely made it.”
“Which direction did you come from?”
“The east,” Willbrand replied. “We left Winsor six days ago headed for Zalan, but we lost our way. We were headed up into the mountains hoping to spot Zalan, but we saw no sign of it and eventually gave up and headed west. We saw smoke rising from your fire and followed it here.”
Dun seemed to muse over this for quite some time.
“The east you say,” he said slowly. “Very well. Perhaps it was just luck. Men have tried to get through them before, all of them going out of course. No one has ever made it, that we know of. So if you’re thinking of leaving…”
He left the rest of the sentence unfinished.
“But people do leave here,” Willbrand responded. “The Warden said so himself. Supplies have to come in and gems out, right?”
“Aye, that they do,” Dun replied. “Every month the King sends a caravan to bring in supplies and take out the fruits of our labors. They are heavily armed but, of course, none of us are allowed to go with them.”
“What about us?” Willbrand asked. “Surely they would not deny us passage. We aren’t convicts.”
At least, not that anyone was aware of, he thought. They were still heretics, outlaws. If the Kings men came here, would they be recognized?
“That may be true,” Dun replied. “Perhaps they would take you with them when they go. I can’t speak for them. Though they won’t be back again for a few weeks.”
A few weeks. Willbrand couldn’t imagine staying here that long.
“And there’s no other way out?”
“Not unless you want to take your chances with those beasts outside,” Dun replied. “Not exactly sure how close we are to Zalan but it’s at least a few days away, maybe as much as a week. Plenty of time for those dog men to hunt you down. You’d never make it. It’s a miracle you even got here.”
Willbrand wasn’t so sure. They had made it all the way here, after all. If they could get in, they could get out.
The door of the building opened once more, and a number of men came filing in, talking among themselves. Dun glanced over at them, then turned back to Willbrand and Merigan. Leaning closer, he spoke in a voice that could not be overheard.
“Well, I’d like a few more words with ya about just how you got in here, next time ya get a chance.”
Willbrand nodded and Dun turned away, sauntering over to a pile of rags that was obviously his, he lay down. Most of the other men were doing the same. Almost all of them ignored the young couple. The looks on the faces of those who didn’t were not at all friendly. Willbrand eased himself slowly down on his bedroll. Merigan immediately reached out and grasped his hand. He turned to face her. She was looking around slowly at the other faces.
“I don’t like it here,” she whispered.
Willbrand agreed wholeheartedly.
“Don’t worry, we won’t be here long,” he replied, hoping his voice held more conviction than he had.
The next day came much too quickly. The Warden sent Brant around to wake them up before the break of dawn. Since Merigan was now the official cook, she was the first one roused in order to start preparing breakfast. She soon found that the choices in the larder were limited. Whoever selected the supplies seemed to suffer from a distinct lack of imagination. A large supply of the ubiquitous bread and cheese, of course, though the bread was stale and the cheese of obvious poor quality. A small supply of dried meats, only a few days worth and apparently meant to be supplemented by whatever the men trapped on their own. She found a small supply of fruits in wooden barrels with the stamp of one of the southern Kingdoms upon them in the back of the larder. Inspecting them she found they were bug infested and half of them were already rotting. The rest of the supplies consisted of assorted grains, which seemed to be the only thing in the entire larder of decent quality. There were no vegetables.
Gannon was the name of the man she had supplanted as cook, which she soon found out because he was awoken with her to show her around the kitchen before he was sent off to do other work. Other work, it became obvious right from the start, which he had no wish to partake in. Being the cook was considered a desirable job for the simple reason it got you out of working in the mines for at least a little while, and the man was not happy at all to be relieved of what he considered a rather cushy job.
So he showed Merigan around begrudgingly and didn’t try to hide his unhappiness in the least, or hide his opinion that he thought the whole affair was her fault.
"Is this all there is?” she questioned when he had finished showing her their stock. Dun had mentioned that they wouldn’t be resupplied for three more weeks. What she saw in here didn’t look like it could feed the two dozen men here for more than one.
“Aye,” Gannon replied curtly.
“It doesn’t seem like near enough,” she couldn’t help but observe.
“It’s what we get all the time,” Gannon snapped. “It’s up to you to ration it out proper. If we run out you’ll get hell from the Warden.”
The impression she got was that such an occurrence would not trouble him at all.
“Rationing this out over three weeks will barely keep the men alive,” she responded. “The bread is already stale, half these fruits are rotted and will have to be thrown out. There’s only enough meat here for a few days.”
“It’s the same amount of supplies we always get,” Gannon snapped. “You’ll just have to make do. We’ll get more meat from trapping and you don’t throw anything out, you understand? If the fruits are rotting put them into a pudding or a pie so's no one will notice.”
Merigan opened her mouth to protest that but nothing came out. She could see by the look on the man’s face any objection on her part would be pointless. She was beginning to see, however, why the other men weren’t all that displeased to see their cook replaced.
The rest of the little tour Merigan said nothing at all. Eventually and with obvious reluctance Gannon realized there was little more he could tell her and off to the mine he went. The mine itself was located near the back wall of the stockade. It was not a military post, its sole purpose was to protect the mine and the miners. As such, Willbrand couldn’t help but notice when he looked around the next morning it was not exactly strategically placed. The outpost was on a steep slope, the ground above rising up much higher and giving any would be attacker the perfect place to fire down at those within. In addition to that there was no source of water in the compound itself, and it had to be hauled here from a small stream some distance away, a tedious, not to mention dangerous, undertaking. As a military outpost the place was untenable, but of course, it wasn’t a military outpost, and the only enemy it had to keep out was the beastlike dog men. And for that, it seemed, the place was more than adequate.
Willbrand was no cook, and couldn’t help Merigan in any case, for the Warden had his own ideas for the young man. His first chore was to lead a party to get the aforementioned water for the day. He and four other men were weighed down with large leather waterskins, then sent off to collect the water. Each of them was heavily armed, for outside the fort they were in constant danger of being attacked. Since it was so dangerous, the men all took turns whenever a task that required leaving the fort was called for. Willbrand and Merigan soon found out that these turns were bartered like gold, and were constantly traded among the other men for various favors.
Willbrand, however, had no such luxury. As the only trained fighter in the group the Warden made it clear that he was expected to go out on every excursion outside the fort. His job, it appeared, was to be the most dangerous of all of them, and later on he found out the men had started a pool on just how long he would live.
That first day they retrieved the water without incident, and soon after Willbrand found himself in the mine and realized that when the Warden had mentioned backbreaking work he had not been exaggerating. Willbrand’s studies had never included mining. He knew nothing about it, and he was as likely to spot an uncut diamond among the rocks as pigs could fly. As a result his main contribution was to do only menial tasks, and the menial tasks also just happened to be the most physically challenging. The operation here was not particularly sophisticated. The men cut through the stone at the bottom of the mine, piling anything that looked vaguely valuable into large wheelbarrows that had to be pushed all the way up into the compound. The wheelbarrows were heavy enough as it was fully loaded but also often got bogged down in the soft sand the covered the floor of some areas of the mine which made the chore twice as difficult. The mile was almost a mile long and by the time Willbrand had gotten the first wheelbarrow up to the surface he was exhausted and his entire body was sore. But that was just the beginning. Haul after haul had to be brought to the surface, all day long with barely any breaks to rest at all. Each time he brought the wheelbarrow back down there was another full one waiting for him. If he didn’t come back down quickly enough the men berated him, telling him he was slowing down the entire operation. They didn’t stop until darkness began to fall outside, and by then Willbrand’s hands were blistered and his body ached so badly he could barely move.
His intention had been to leave. That had been the plan when he had gone to sleep the night before. The opportunity, however, really hadn’t presented itself. Though they had not been attacked by the dog men when they went to fetch water he had seen them, staying in the shadows, out of view for the most part but for his trained eye. There hadn’t been many, and perhaps that was why they had not attacked, but then again, perhaps he was giving them more credit than they deserved. They were just beasts, after all.
No, they didn’t try to leave that day, nor the day after. Willbrand wasn’t sure why. He had to admit the conditions here were miserable, and wandering about lost in the forest didn’t seem all that bad in comparison. Still, no one they talked to, when anyone would talk to them at all, seemed to have any idea in which direction Zalan lay. Without any idea of where to go, they might be no better off leaving than they had been before they came here. In addition to that, Merigan had told him the place was dangerously low on food. If they stole any, and that was pretty much the only way they were going to get out of here, for neither of them had any illusions that the Warden would allow them to take any if they left, the supplies couldn’t possibly last. Willbrand wasn’t all that concerned but it seemed to bother Merigan. Given all that, leaving just didn’t seem worth the risk. They both knew the place would be ressuplied in a few weeks and that they could leave safely then. Or so they assumed.
At first the other men treated them as if they had some kind of severely contagious disease. No one except Dun seemed to want to have anything to do with them, much less talk to them. As for Dun, it soon became apparent his main concern was just how they had gotten here without being eaten, and whether it was possible to return the same way. Willbrand began to suspect the man’s only motive was to find a way out of here himself.
Not that there was anything wrong with that. If Dun wanted to leave, then they were working toward the same purpose. The man might be of some use in that case.
The third day there the water retrieving party was attacked by almost a dozen of the dog men. Willbrand helped fight them off, killing three of them in the process and they young noble got his first close up look of the beasts. They were slightly smaller then men, and had a man’s general shape. Their faces, however, were much closer in resemblance to a dog or wolf than a man. Willbrand found it very unnerving to look at them. They were covered with a fine brown hair and had tails. The fingers on their hands were shortened, ending with long claws, more like a dog's paw than a human hand, and though they most often moved on two legs, they ran on all fours. Their elongated snouts held nasty looking fangs and their eyes were yellow. He had never seen or heard of anything like them before.
One good thing came of this at least. After the battle the other men seemed to warm up to him a little. He got some grudging respect, and they no longer shouted insults at him when he didn’t bring the wheelbarrow down to them as fast as they would like.
Merigan was also gaining some respect, for her meals were far superior to the previous cook's repasts. So the conditions for the young couple were at least tolerable, and they began to think that things weren’t so bad, that they could stay here the couple of weeks it would take for a resupply convoy to arrive and thoughts of a risky departure fell from their minds.
Nevertheless their situation was far from idyllic. The food situation was rapidly getting worse. One of the reasons Merigan’s meals were praised was because she was more generous with the portions than the previous cook had been. Although this earned her favor with the men it soon became apparent to her that the supplies would just not last given the current rate of usage. She didn’t think the favor of the men would last very long when she had to cut down on their portions severely in the coming days.
As part of their excursions outside the men set snares in the nearby woods to catch wild animals to add to the larder, but since no one was anxious to leave the fort without good reason, there were not many of them and they were often left unvisited for days. They needed more food, it was as simple as that, and the snares were the only way that Merigan could see to get more. Perhaps the men would be more motivated to check them on a regular basis when there was no food left but she didn’t want to wait that long. She realized very quickly that if she wanted it done she was going to have to do it herself.
Still, it was simply too dangerous for her to wander around outside the fort alone. Willbrand, of course, volunteered but she could not get any of the other men to agree.
In addition to that, the Warden would not allow them to miss any work, which meant that they had to get up earlier than they normally would so they could go out and check the traps before Merigan had to make breakfast and Willbrand had to lead the water detail.
Nevertheless Merigan was determined to see it through. So it was that the next day she and Willbrand found themselves outside the fort, tired and still sore from their previous days labors, before the sun had even risen.
The area around the outpost had been cleared of trees for many paces in all directions. Now the two of them stood there looking at the forest around them, the canopy of treetops still shrouding the ground beneath them in darkness.
“Can you sense anything?” Willbrand asked.
Merigan’s ability to sense the beasts was one thing neither of them had mentioned to the others. They both realized it would have led to too many awkward questions. Still, it was a significant advantage for them and the main reason Willbrand had agreed to this at all.
The young girl stood there for a moment staring off into space.
“No, there are none nearby,” she announced.
“All right, lets go then,” he replied.
Even with Merigan’s ability Willbrand wasn’t all that comfortable with this idea. He had seen the dog men up close by now and knew with their fangs and claws they could be formidable enemies. He couldn’t help but feel a bit of admiration for them, not only for their fighting ability but tactics they used. As any wise man with military training would do he had been observing the enemy since they had arrived here and he had to admit they did not conduct themselves like stupid animals. He had seen them watching the fort many times, just one of two of them. Hardly enough to attack but more than enough to observe. He couldn’t help but think of them as scouts, sent to watch over the fort and report if any men departed from it. Nonsense, he supposed, yet still he couldn’t seem to dismiss the thought. Also, he noticed they never attacked unless they had a large group together. He had seen them dogging the men as they went for water or to check the snares, following along but not attacking until they had gathered enough of their own members to outnumber their opponents. He had been in battles with them twice now, but had not been attacked at all in the last two days. It almost seemed as if they had learned from their loses, that they knew better now than to attack any party guarded by the man with the sword.
He was sure he was giving them more credit than they deserved. They were just beasts after all, no matter how much they might resemble men. Or at least, that’s what he kept telling himself.
With a shrug he followed Merigan as she led him off into the woods.
Even with Merigan’s senses Willbrand was still nervous. Though they were similar to humans in size and shape, their doglike characteristics were much more evident. Pound for pound they were stronger than the average human, and though they moved mostly on two legs, when they were in a hurry they switched to four and could move much faster than a human could run. Whenever he had left the fort it had always been with a minimum of four other people. Now it was just him and Merigan. If they wandered too far from the fort, if the dog men caught them with a large enough party, they could be easily overwhelmed in spite of Willbrand’s fighting skill.
Willbrand didn’t want to waste any more time out here than necessary but Merigan seemed to be in no hurry at all. Neither of them had learned much woodcraft, but Dun had given them a crash course the night before on how to make a simple leg snare. They made their way through the forest, checking the snares they had been told about and setting up a few of their own as they went. There was a large beaverlike animal endemic to the area that was the main target of the snares. Dun had told them the animals were plentiful, the meat flavorsome and also that the creatures favored areas near water. There was no water near the fort, though that was where most of the snares were, and they were all empty. Willbrand suspected the snares were only set here because the men did not want to venture very far from the safety of the compound, and any creatures they actually caught was more by luck than any other factor.
They made their way farther west, closer to the water as Dun had suggested. Willbrand kept a close eye on the forest around them as they moved farther away, but saw nothing. Merigan seemed more concerned with hunting for just the right place to locate a snare than with the dog men showing up, and she led them farther and farther from the fort until Willbrand finally had to put his foot down, telling her continuing was flatly too dangerous, with her abilities or no. Acquiescing to his wishes they turned and started making their way back, though on a roundabout route that gave her time to continue her looking for good places to position a snare.
By now they had set more than a dozen of their own snares. Willbrand wasn’t sure how much good they would do. Though Dun had showed them how and they had seen the one’s that were already set up he still wasn’t sure if he was doing it right and thought perhaps they were just wasting their time. Merigan seemed to be better at setting them than he did.
They were nearing the clearing where the fort lay when Merigan suddenly lifted her head and stared off into the forest.
“What is it?” Willbrand questioned, his hand reaching for his sword.
“There’s one of them nearby,” she said after a moment.
Willbrand stared off in the direction she was looking. Merigan noticed that and turned to look in another direction. The few people who knew about her abilities still misunderstood them, even Ktan and Jenya sometimes. They seemed to think because she could sense another being she could tell where it was. This was not true. She knew one of the beasts was nearby, but she had no idea in which direction it was.
“Only one?” he questioned.
Merigan merely nodded her head.
Neither of them moved for a moment.
“C’mon, let’s head back,” Willbrand suggested. One was hardly much of a threat against a fully armed man, but he had found that where there was one, there were others not far behind.
“There,” Merigan said softly.
Willbrand turned in the direction she was now looking. Up the slope, standing at the base of one of the huge pine trees he spotted one of the beasts. It wasn’t that close, not nearly close enough to be a threat, but that was still closer than Willbrand wanted.
“Let’s go,” he repeated.
He started off, but only took a few steps when he stopped, turning back to look at Merigan. She hadn’t moved, just continued to stand there looking at the beast. He looked up again and saw that it too was motionless, both of them just looking at one another.
Willbrand waited patiently, wondering just what Merigan was up to. He was finally about to suggest yet a third time that it might be wise to return to the fort when she spoke again.
“I wonder what its thinking?”
He wasn’t sure if the question was directed at him or whether she was just thinking aloud. In any case it seemed like a foolish question.
“What a good meal we would make?” he suggested.
Merigan didn’t reply and once again the silence stretched on for an annoying long time.
“It’s just an animal,” Willbrand tried again, more seriously. “Its not thinking anything at all.”
“It’s not an animal,” she replied.
Willbrand just looked at her.
“What do you mean? Are you saying its human?”
The very idea was preposterous.
“No,” she answered. “But it’s not an animal either. It’s something… else.”
Willbrand had no idea where this was going and was not in the mood for riddles.
“Speak plainly,” he commanded.
Merigan drew her eyes away from the beast and turned to him.
“Remember I told you that I could tell an animal mind from a human one?”
“Yes, yes,” he replied.
“Well there’s a little more to it than that,” she continued. “Animal minds are different from human but all the same to each other.”
Willbrand just stood there. Was this her idea of speaking plainly?
The look on his face must have given away what he was thinking.
“In other words,” she went on. “Humans are different from animal minds but all animal minds are the same. If I feel the presence of say, a cow and a dog, I know there are two animals nearby, but I can’t tell that one is a cow and one is a dog. Its not that selective. If the dog men were the same, all I could tell you was an animal was close. It might be a dog man, or it might be a raccoon.”
“But you did know it was a dog man,” Willbrand stated slowly, what she was saying finally sinking in a little.
“Exactly,” she replied. “The dog men’s minds are different from any animals. Not the same as human, but not animal either. They are… something else.”
“Something else,” he said slowly. He understood her now, but wasn’t sure what it all meant, if anything at all. It was certainly to their advantage for her to be able to selectively tell dog men from other animals, but he wasn’t sure of any other implications.
“So what does that mean?” he questioned
“I don’t know,” she said. “Not for sure anyway. I think…”
Here she paused. He had a feeling it was because she had a theory that would be a little hard to swallow.
“I think they’re intelligent,” she finished.
He didn’t know how to reply to that. He was tempted to laugh, actually, except for the observations he had made himself. Their foe was cunning and only seemed to fight from strength. They sent out observers to watch their enemy. He looked up at the beast on the slope above again. It was still there, had made no attempt to run or to attack, as if it knew it was far enough away and could move fast enough that it was safe, and that it would be no match for him if it attacked. All these things were not the actions of some mindless beast.
Even so, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was reading too much into this. There were many animals that ran in packs and only attacked from strength, and did he really know if that beast that was watching them now was a scout? No of course he didn’t. The creatures were everywhere around here. He had seen that for himself. Was it so odd to find one lingering? No, not really. Considering what they looked like, he found it hard to think of them as anything but beasts.
And if Merigan was right, if they were intelligent, what did that mean to them, to all the men at the outpost?
He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he and Merigan were alone out here now and the beasts knew they were there. If they were indeed intelligent, the worse thing they could do would be to underestimate them.
Another thought suddenly occurred to him.
“Can you make them see illusions?”
The advantage of her being able to do so was obvious, but he had no idea if they would work on something other than a human.
Merigan cocked her head to one side and pondered that for a moment.
“I don’t really know,” she replied. “I don’t think so. I’ve tried it on animals before, just as an experiment, but it’s hard to judge since an animal can’t tell you if it sees anything. I’ve been able to make something like a horse see things in its way, making it stumble, but I’ve also tried things like attempting to make a predator appear in front of a deer, thinking that would get a reaction, but it never had any effect.”
Again he wasn’t sure what to make of this. One thing he did know, however, was they had been out here long enough. He reached out and grabbed hold of Merigan’s arm.
“All right, enough speculation. C’mon,” he said, and this time he would brook no delay. “Let’s go back.