Pursuit of the Truth
Bannor spent daybreak with nothing to talk to but rocks, grass, trees and the occasional spine-berry bush. Wren let Irodee choose the trail for their pursuit of the caravan holding Sarai. The giantess picked a route that cut through the roughest territory in South Realm.
Though it was the shortest path, Bannor voted for a different way. Wren overruled him by saying if he wanted help, he’d trust their judgment. Bannor avoided saying that he didn’t think Wren could keep up through that terrain. He’d made the trek on several occasions, and he never journeyed that way unless forced. The faint track not only cut through the heart of orc territory, but gullies, rocky slopes, and dense thickets that made it treacherous as well as risky.
Wren said her plan was simple, but there had to be more to it than just rescuing Sarai and running. He didn’t get to ask because all of his breath was consumed by the run. Irodee set a brutal pace through the winding Sepacawchee river valley; a boulder infested tangle of briar-wood, itch-leaf, and snag-root.
When running with others, Bannor usually had to slow down to let them keep up. Not with the Myrmigyne. Irodee leaped over bushes, ducked through thickets, forded streams and negotiated rock falls without missing a stride. It took all his stamina to keep from falling behind. At first, he worried that Wren wouldn’t keep up. He soon discovered his fears were unfounded. She ran as if her feet never touched the ground. If anything, she maintained the pace easier than him or Irodee.
Four leagues down the valley, Irodee stopped for a break in a large cluster of boulders that lay in the shadow of an anvil shaped outcrop. A handful of scraggly trees grew in between the rocks, and clumps of blue dapple-flowers grew along the edges of a creek that ran down from a crack in the cliff.
A pair of unhappy thistle-wings chastised them from the branches of a nearby tree as Bannor dropped his pack. He slumped in the grass. His mouth tasted like old leather and his chest burned. He made fists to stop the shaking of his hands. Forcing slower breaths, he sniffed the honey-like redolence of the flowers. The scent mingled with the muted odors of algae and mineral-rich water.
Irodee sat by a boulder, stuck her spear in the ground, and took a pull from a water skin. The woman’s olive skin glistened with perspiration.
Wren sat next to him, breathing heavily. Her face looked flushed and trails of moisture ran down her cheeks.
It took a few moments for Bannor to be able to speak. “You’re a good runner.”
Wren picked up a twig and twirled it between her fingers. “You learn when you spend most of your life being chased.”
“I suppose you’ll tell me about it sometime?”
She didn’t smile. “Maybe.”
Something about the way she said it, snapped his restraint. “Why is everything a secret!? I’ve yet to get a straight answer from you!”
The twig broke in her fingers. “Bannor, lower your voice. I can hear fine.”
“Good! I understand Hecate’s threat. What you keep dancing around is why you chose to help me. What’s in this for you?”
Wren tossed the sprig away. “Bannor, I’m not any more inclined to answer you now than before. I have my own security to consider.”
He felt a rush of heat. “Your security–!”
The Myrmigyne cut in. “Irodee thinks Bannor should calm down before he takes a deep swim in a shallow stream.”
“Bannor thinks Irodee should stay out of this,” he growled back. “Wren, I don’t accept that. What about me is so secret that even I don’t have a blasted right to know?”
Wren’s blue eyes met his. “Look woodsman, shaking your fist at me won’t change my mind. I’ve faced lots worse. An ability like yours is addictive, once you start using it, it’s tough to stop. Until you have control, you are dangerous. So the less you know, the safer we’ll be.”
He’d never wanted to punch a woman so bad. Bannor slammed fist in the grass. “I don’t accept that. I wish you’d just blasted well tell me!”
A gust of hot air blew through the clearing. Wren yelped and rolled as miniature bolts of lightning attacked her from all sides. Wren’s tumbling body left a wake of singed grass. “Bannor…!”
“Wren!” Irodee dashed over, only to be knocked back by the field of crackling energy.
“Stop it!” Wren cried. A hard white glare formed around her body.
Bannor’s chest ached and thunder pounded in his temples. Clenching his hands, he felt a vibration as if he’d grabbed a swarm of angry insects. Circles of green light shimmered around his fists.
The blue radiance pushed inward again and Wren yelled.
As Wren struggled, Bannor felt a corresponding twist in his own chest. Odin’s eye, it was coming from him! He flinched back as the whiteness surged outward with a crack.
The attacking force vanished. It felt as if a hammer crashed into Bannor’s forehead.
Wren gasped. The blaze from her body hurt his eyes. She staggered to a boulder and slammed both hands against it.
Thunder rolled through the clearing. A wave of air slammed him backward into the stream. The world grayed then came back into focus. Frosty water ran around his hands and knees. A ringing droned in his ears.
He blinked. A pile of gravel scattered across the hillside was all that remained of the rock. A fifty pace swath of shattered saplings, uprooted bushes, and scarred boulders spread out from the explosion’s origin.
Bannor felt numb. All that came from him.
Face crimson, Wren strode to him, grabbed his tunic and yanked him out of the water. “Don’t you ever do that again!” Bannor could only stare at her. “You–” The woman clutched her temples and moaned. She warred with some inner demon for several moments, then appeared to get herself under control again.
“Damn. Irodee!” Wren turned to the Myrmigyne who lay in the grass groaning.
“Can Irodee kill him?” the big woman muttered, sitting up and clutching her head.
Wren examined the Myrmigyne. “You’re okay. Sit still, I’ll be back in a moment.” Obviously relieved, she rose and pointed at him. “Get up.”
He stood, hands shaking. Wren grabbed his collar and towed him over to the destroyed boulder.
“See that? What if it had been Sarai instead of me? Does this prove to you how dangerous you are?” She scooped up some gravel and let the pieces fall through her fingers. “That’s what Hecate wants–” She paused and her eyes hazed over for a moment. “The most powerful kind of savant, the Garmtur’Shak Nola.”
“I didn’t mean to–“
“I know you didn’t do it on purpose!” she snapped. “Just don’t do it again. Keep a grip on your emotions.” She was obviously struggling not to lash out at him. Behind those hard eyes Wren was scared.
He swallowed. Garmtur’Shak Nola–that was elven for master of magic’s key. In anger he’d attacked her with his talent. Somehow she’d grappled with the magic and defeated it. “How did you–?”
“I’m–” Wren started.
“Wren?” Irodee gave her a warning look.
She paused as if trying to remember something. “I’m a Kel’Varan Nola, a savant of forces.” She shook her head and went to sit next to Irodee.
The Myrmigyne put a hand on Wren’s arm and peered at the woman as if there might be something wrong with her.
A cold feeling swept through Bannor. The acrid smell of burned vegetation made his stomach churn. He stared at the debris and realized Wren was right. That could have killed anybody. He studied the two. Irodee appeared shaken, but undamaged. Wren sat cross-legged, head bowed.
He couldn’t let this happen again. What caused it? He got angry and it happened. How was it similar to the two other times his power activated? At the gallows he’d been scared, not angry. The astral traveling happened in his sleep. Neither time did the power respond as he would have expected.
Even as he considered, he saw the lure. She was probably right, ignorance would be safer. What he didn’t know about, he wouldn’t be tempted to ponder or experiment with. He glanced again at the shattered boulder. Somewhere inside him lay an incredible power, one that worked by special rules.
“Don’t you think it’s natural to want to know about yourself?” he asked.
Wren’s shoulders slumped. “Of course it’s natural. It’s just damn unhealthy at this stage in your development.”
Irodee shook her head. “Is Wren all right?”
The savant nodded. “I was dizzy. I’m okay now.” She looked at Bannor. “Your power is a lot more dangerous than the others I’ve worked with.”
He frowned. “You know other of these ‘savants’?”
Wren turned to look straight at him. “My father, my brother, and one of my best friends are savants.”
He sat by her. “That many? It sounds like you’re surrounded by them, I’ve never even heard of such a thing!”
“Neither had I, until I found out what had been done to me.” She scowled. Apparently the memory of it made her angry.
He sensed this was the crux of everything.
“What was done to you?”
Wren’s eyes hardened. “I originally came from a different land, in a city named Cosmodarus. Hecate learned that savant blood ran in the Kergathas.
When I was seven, she enslaved my parents and separated my brother and I. The priests brought me here to Titaan to the temple in Corwin to be succorond–molded as an avatar host.”
Irodee walked to where her spear and bow lay on the ground. She brought them back and started cleaning the weapons.
“Weren’t Hecate’s precincts destroyed two decades ago?”
“That’s what saved me. The forces of Ukko and Isis assaulted the temple, and I escaped in the confusion. It left me alone in the street, still in shock, my mind half wiped. I went fifteen summers not knowing I even had a family.” She gritted her teeth. “Bannor, I loathe Hecate. Her avatar Mishaka tore my universe apart simply to watch me cry.” She took a dagger from her boot and flipped it. “I didn’t want to invade your life. Flipping you on your head isn’t for fun. It makes both of us uncomfortable–“
“Makes Irodee very uncomfortable.”
Wren shook her head. “Hecate has an agenda. We don’t know what it is exactly. We do know she’s trying to figure out how savants like you come to be. How she would use you in that pursuit isn’t likely to be pleasant.”
“Being carted off as a slave is a pretty strong hint,” Bannor said with a frown.
She nodded. “You’re getting it. I hate Hecate for what she did to me. So, anything that messes up her plans is all right with me. Since you are her goal, keeping you away from her is mine. Not hard to follow.”
“No,” he responded. If indeed it was that simple. “Well, you did rescue me, I am grateful for that. I apologize for being so suspicious. Until I met Sarai, I was a loner. I trust few people and you’ve hit all my raw nerves since we met.”
Irodee chuckled. “Wren rubs everyone the wrong way.”
Bannor smiled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–“
Wren held up a hand. “Save it. I’d rather hear you promise not to experiment with your power. I told you more than I should have…” Her voice trailed off. “Let it go–this is the wrong time and place.”
He met her eyes. “There’ll be a right time and place?”
Wren snorted. “You jest? Of course. You’ll be a bloody menace otherwise.” She glanced toward the destroyed boulder and pointed the dagger at him. “I want to hear you promise.”
“Okay, but will you answer one question first?”
She rolled her eyes. “What?”
“After the gallows, you said I got talent backlash, right?”
Wren flipped the dagger and caught it. “Yes. I had to enter your mind to fix it.”
“I didn’t need it after we astral traveled. Right now, I must have just put out a hundred times as much magic. Why no backlash?”
“That’s because–” Her brow furrowed. “Damn–good question. It took all my will to counter the backlash from turning your attack…” She pursed her lips, obviously intrigued by the possibilities.
“Whatever, only curious, I promise not to experiment.” At least, not until he knew more.
Everyone refilled their water-skins and ate a few pieces of waybread. They spent the rest of the day moving at a fast march.
Irodee’s strategy was to move quickly in the cool of the early morning and proceed at double time in the afternoon. This way they could average seven leagues a day. Even with horses, a big caravan like the one carrying Sarai would be lucky to move four leagues. The slavers left three days ahead of them, and the trek through the Marin pass would slow them considerably. By afternoon on the third day they should be at the top of the mountain passage and within striking distance of the caravan.
Sarai would be back in his arms. The thought made a tingle race through him. Star, I’m coming.
They camped in a shallow grove of spice-wood where the Sepacawchee valley forked, running south into the Gragrin Mountains and northwest where it opened into Varheath Lake. They’d covered twelve leagues since Blackwater.
The odor of gnarled spice-woods permeated the air. The pungent aroma that smelled like a blend of mildew and heavy pepper-spice. Nothing else could grow underneath the acrid canopy, and the ground was a solid mat of dead leaves and crinkled pink seed-berries.
They made a small fire after clearing an area. Mists welled out of the valley and made the air wet and miserable. The flames silhouetted the spice-trees against the fog, making it look as if they were back in the astral realm. Bannor felt uneasy. Something didn’t feel right.
“We did good today,” Irodee said poking the fire with her spear. “Bannor not hold us up like I thought.”
He thrust a branch in the fire causing sparks to flare. “Scouting is my profession.”
Irodee grinned. “Doesn’t mean you’re any good.”
Bannor snorted and stood. “I’m going to look around. You want to take second watch?”
“Don’t get lost.”
“Funny.” He took an oil-dampened brand from his pack, unwrapped it, and lit it in the fire. Shaking his head, he started a sweep of the perimeter.
He found the first quarter of the circle clear except for some blackhorn tracks. A broad-wing made its distinct hooing in the limbs overhead. He stopped and rubbed his prickling arms as he caught the hint of something that smelled even worse than the spice-woods. His stomach twisted. He hoped his first instinct was wrong.
Bannor followed the odor into an open section between the trees where the ground was covered with leaves. He kicked the thick foliage around. His toe struck some covered over rocks.
“Irodee! You better see this.” He kicked around finding several more hidden circles of rocks.
The towering Myrmigyne loomed out of the fog carrying her spear. “What?”
“Take a look.” He finished clearing away the leaves that hid the fire ring. The blade from a broken iron dagger lay in the debris as well.
Irodee frowned and took his torch. She examined the blade and the stones. “Orcs–they probably broke camp this morning.”
Bannor sniffed and made a face. “From the size of that badly covered latrine I’d say over fifty of them.”
“What Irodee doesn’t like is, they’re covering up. That means–“
“–They’re looking for something. Probably us.”