“Hey, boy,” Cassanya sat down carefully on the edge of Feral’s bed, her soft hand resting gently on his shoulder. “Come on, I need you to wake up now,” she said quietly.
“Mmm?” the half-race mumbled into his pillow, making a rather feeble attempt to pull the covers over his head, as would most youngsters in their early teens tended to.
“I’m sorry, but it’s time to get up,” the leonin shook him slightly to emphasise her point. “We have to get going soon. Please?”
That did the trick. Feral’s eyes opened, and blinked a few times as he focused on her.
“Sleep well?” she smiled.
“Yeah,” he nodded, still feeling fuzzy headed. “I was dreaming about...” he stopped abruptly, suddenly realising that the last person he wanted to talk to about that particular dream was Cassanya.
“Are you ok?” she asked, looking more closely at him than he quite wanted right now. “You look a bit pink...”
“I...” Feral’s eyes crossed to follow her fingertip as she touched it to his nose for a few seconds.
“Well you don’t feel like you have a temperature,” Cassanya declared with a slightly toothy feline smile. “But if you’re not feeling well we don’t have to set out today...”
Feral shook his head, deciding not to enlighten her about more human ways of judging body temperature.
“I’ll fix you up some breakfast in about half an hour. Why don’t you go use the bath? It might be a while until the next chance for a hot one.”
“Ok,” he agreed, noticing she had brought a clean towel in with her. Setting it beside him, Cassanya smiled, then stood up and left.
Fellirion’s bathroom was something of a wonder of modern engineering, in fact so much so that Feral couldn’t help wonder if there wasn’t just a little magic in some of the pipes. Set on the ground level of the main building, the floor was neatly panelled in wood, the bath at one side of the room set into a raised platform, so that several steps ascended towards it. A portion of the stream that ran through the courtyard had been diverted down a pipe and across to the building. Where the pipe met the wall, the ground had been dug away such that a small pond formed against the stonework. Two pulleys and a loop of rope with a number of small earthenware buckets tied to it allowed water to be swiftly raised to pour into a metal tank on the side of the building. Directly underneath the tank was a pile of firewood.
With the fire lit, gravity would allow a flow of warm water in through the pipe at the side of the bathroom, and into the tub from a height of some six feet, allowing for a hot shower, or bath. Feral was only slightly disappointed to discover that control of the water flow rested entirely on a cork jammed into the end of the pipe. Having hereto considered a tin bath and a kettle to be the height of luxury, he was thoroughly entranced with this new facility, and had recently spent considerable time up to his neck in warm water, floating peacefully as steam clouded the window.
Though tempted by a bath, this morning Feral went with a shower, suspecting that Cassanya might not be too pleased if he didn’t show up for breakfast until lunchtime.
“Feral?” Tallow’s voice called through the door.
“Be out soon!” he said loudly.
He heard her giggle. “No, it’s not that. Master Forester is asking to speak with you.”
“Oh,” Feral paused under the warm flow, one hand raised over his head as he let the water run down the back of his arm. “Do you think you could get him to wait a couple of minutes?”
“Um, I guess so... come down soon as you can, please.” He heard her walk away down the corridor, and quickly began washing the soap off.
“Hi, uncle Felli,” he smiled at the old man’s upside down image, drying his hair with his towel.
“Good morning, Feral,” Fellirion grinned back. “Sorry to interrupt you. How are you? Sleep well?”
“Good,” the half-race nodded, his ears bobbing with the motion of his head. “We’re going to set out in an hour or so.”
“Yes, I remember Tallow telling me it would be today, that’s why I needed to speak with you.”
“I’ve spoken with the council. Several times, in fact.”
“And?” Feral’s ears went up in excitement. “What will they do to help? What do they want me to do?” To his concern, Fellirion looked away, and hesitated before he spoke.
“Nothing,” he said quietly.
“What?” Feral froze midway through drying his hair.
“They aren’t going to help. Not yet, at least.”
“Then... then... what the hell good are they?” the half-race demanded angrily, his expression darkening. “Don’t they get it? Don’t they get what’s happening? Or don’t they care?”
“The official statement is that they aren’t prepared to enter the conflict at this time,” Fellirion said. “The unofficial statement is that they don’t really believe me. Tanarik is open minded, I’ll give him that, but I still have no hard evidence that the war between the kingdoms is anything out of the ordinary.”
“What does he want, a dragon’s head?”
“Possibly,” Fellirion nodded. “I fear this has now gone beyond my ability to resolve among the order.”
“Then... what should we do?”
“Same as we planned. I still want you to come to Sanctuary where we can evaluate matters further and perhaps use your fascinating artefact as leverage, but first I am going to meet you in Farview.”
“Really? That’s great!” Feral smiled.
“Oh, yes, it is,” the old man looked slightly confused. “Of course it will be good to see you, though I must admit another motivation.”
“Yeah?” Feral didn’t care, he was too pleased that he was going to meet Fellirion sooner than planned.
“Yes. I intend to find Troyston Goldwood and bring him with us.”
“Son of Tarwin Goldwood?” Tallow asked suddenly, and Fellirion nodded.
“Tarwin heads the Freelands Council,” Tallow told Feral, seeing that he looked confused. “Last week’s new scroll said he’d been granted full emergency powers during a ‘time of crisis’. Right now he’s pretty much the only decision maker in the kingdom; if he decided to call for truce, then the army would follow the order without the need to convene the council.”
Fellirion nodded and continued. “Troyston has, I am pleased to say, proven more open to common sense than his father. When we do produce the proof that will finally bring the Freelands and Lordenor to their senses, I want him there as a witness.”
“What about convincing Lordenor?” Feral asked.
The old man gave a small, slightly smug smile. “I have my contacts there too. Don’t worry.”
“I hope so...” Feral gave a dubious smile, folding his towel neatly. At that moment, Cassanya looked into the room, announcing that porridge was ready, the toast almost so, and the eggs a little overdone so hurry up.
“Go on, my boy,” Fellirion smiled. “Go eat something, you look half starved!”
“Ok. I’ll see you soon, uncle Felli!” Feral waved over his shoulder as Tallow led him from the room.
They arrived in the kitchen as everyone else was just sitting down to the largest breakfast that Feral had ever witnessed.
“No point in leaving it to go off,” Archer shrugged, noticing Feral’s expression. “’Ere, get some down you.” The bread plate came skidding towards him, almost – but not quite – knocking over his cup. Feral eyed the grinning sciurel, wondering whether that had been the intended effect or just good luck.
Within an hour, the perishable food had been eaten, the supplies that would keep carefully packed, and the companions were ready to depart. Feral was surprised to find the Dragon’s Ward leaning against the wall, having decided to be a staff today. Pinging it with a fingertip, it gave off a gentle ringing tone, and he judged it to be hollow – which explained the size discrepancy. Emerging into the sunlit courtyard, he was slightly embarrassed to find it bore an uncanny resemblance in size and shape to the sandy coloured beech wood stave that Tallow was holding in her hand, right down to the slight bumps and whorls on its surface. Tallow looked like she wasn’t sure whether to be amused or not, but did point out that a staff was no bad thing to have on a long walk.
Crossing the courtyard, Feral found his gaze on the half dozen chickens pecking around it.
“There’s a farmer near Riverwood who owes me a few favours,” Tallow smiled, evidently noticing his concern. “She’s agreed to collect them later today, and look after them until we get back.”
Feral quietly wondered whether it was more of an ‘if we get back,’ but didn’t voice his thoughts. Instead, he followed Tallow as she led them out through the main gates.
If Shara was any judge of how the light filtered through a tent at different times of day – and she was becoming quite experienced at such – it appeared to be somewhere towards late morning. Which meant that she had overslept. Which meant Jinx had forgotten to wake her, or had decided there was no need to.
Which was curious.
Pulling on her boots and tunic, the girl crawled to the tent entrance and peered out. There was her orange haired companion, sitting cross legged and barefoot by the fire. On her left knee perched a raven, and across her right thigh she held a small piece of parchment upon which she was scribbling with an inexplicably long and ornate feather quill.
Shara had long since given up asking where her unusual friend kept such delicate and bulky items, since the answer invariably involved pockets, and made no sense at all. In fact, she wasn't entirely sure where the camp site was stored during the time they were travelling. Somehow there was always a reason to walk away for a couple of minutes in the evening, either to fetch water, or firewood, or see what was over the ridge, and upon her return, she would find that Jinx had mysteriously erected two tents, a campfire, and a cooking pot, and had set out wooden plates and dishes beside it.
Still, given that the rather peculiar woman had consistently been kind to her, and did keep promising that they were following – a word that did not necessarily indicate intent to catch up with – Feral, Shara had decided not to worry too much about her apparently magical storage system.
The raven was definitely new, however, and she watched as Jinx finished writing on the parchment, folded it carefully and held it out. The bird took the message in its beak, and Jinx lightly touched a finger to a patch of white feathers on its forehead. Giving a little hop, it looked around suddenly as if confused, then fluttered upwards.
Interesting, Shara thought. Now who would Jinx be sending messages to? And perhaps more important, who would it be that Shara was not supposed to talk to or be aware of? From what she knew, there was only one person she wasn't allowed to talk to.
Quickly, the girl dived towards the back of her tent, managing to wriggle out between the waxed canvas and the ground sheet, crouching and glancing up into the leaves overhead. There was the raven, perched on a branch and looking a little lost. It glanced around for a few seconds, then chose a direction and swooped off into the trees.
Shara followed, as quickly and quietly as she could manage. Happily the bird had chosen a direction that kept her tent between herself and the orange haired woman by their camp fire.
The raven paused on another branch, it's black beak pointing left, then right, then left before it chose a direction. Maybe it was lost. Shara hoped so, that would mean it would go slowly, and just maybe she could keep up with it!
Wincing, the girl stopped in her tracks, finding Jinx standing with her back against the moss covered beech tree Shara had just dashed past. For a moment they looked at each other, unmoving, in the dappled green shade of the forest. A light breeze stirred the leaves above, and a small rusting noise, perhaps a mouse or rabbit, could be heard from beneath a nearby bush.
“It's for Feral, isn't it?” the girl said accusingly, breaking the silence.
“Please let him go,” Jinx's bright orange eyes regarded Shara with a look of sincere apology.
“I want to see Feral!” Shara turned back to follow the raven, just catching it before it vanished behind a hazel tree.
“I know,” Jinx moved after her. “I'm sorry, I think it's important that you don't. He'll make different decisions if you're with him.”
“We can just tell him to keep going,” Shara protested. “Like he would if...”
“What do you think he's doing right now?”
Shara ignored her, hurrying after the raven with eyes fixed upon it as it flitted from branch to branch amid the treetops, and promptly falling over a projecting root. Jinx approached as she rolled over, looking up to try to find the bird again.
“Shara, he's looking for you... Everything he's doing is what needs to be done, but everything he's doing is because he's looking for you! I can't imagine just how wrong things might go if that changes.”
“What do you mean needs to be done? You telling me you can read the future?”
“Not exactly,” Jinx smiled, pulling the girl to her feet. “Or at least, not the way you mean. I know a few things, maybe they're things I shouldn't know, but it's not much. A few dates, places, events. All we have to do is let those happen. After that, I promise, I'll take you to your brother.”
“I... but...” it was no good, Shara realised, between the fall and the conversation, she had completely lost track of the raven. And now her cheek really hurt from where she had hit the ground. With an anguished shout of disappointment she grabbed up a handful of loose leaves from the ground which she threw at Jinx. “I really hate you sometimes!”
Looking after the girl as she stamped her way back to the camp site, the orange haired woman sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Didn't sign up for this,” she muttered. “I swear, Feral, if I didn't owe you... Ah, but I do. And I'll look after her, even when she's being a brat. Not that I can even really blame her. I'd like to see you again too, but that really would confusing things wouldn't it? Nope,” she decided, starting after the girl. “This is how it's going to have to work for a while. I'd say I hope you get my message, but I think you already did... Geez, what a headache this all is!” Continuing to grumble, she made her way back to camp.
“Did anyone see where Woodward went?” Tallow asked, a little breathless as they neared the top of a hill, the road taking a shortcut across a wide arc in the river’s path. To the base of the hill and along the far bank of the river, the trees grew thick and green, their dark shadows a strong contrast to the waving grass of the west side.
“That way, I think,” Archer gestured to the forest.
“How odd,” Tallow raised her eyebrows, leaning on her staff. “He usually likes to stay in sight when I’m travelling.”
Cassanya shrugged. “He’ll find us, he always does.”
“It’s not his sense of direction that worries me, it's that this isn’t the safest place to wander off.” As she spoke, she looked out across the lonely, windswept moorland. With the exception of Riverwood, now several miles behind them, there wasn't any sort of town, village, or even a hamlet for a very long way.
Archer chuckled. “Safe enough, when you’ve got wings – and there's not many 'unters would care for a raven. If you're gonna take pot shots at something, make it a nice fat wood pidgeon, or better, pheasant! Anyway there ‘e is,” he pointed to a black bird as it rose up from the forest and headed towards them.
“Wherever did you get to, Woodward?” Tallow raised her arm and the raven alighted on it. “And what have you got there?” she continued, noticing the folded parchment in his beak. The apprentice took it and unfolded it as the raven fluttered onto Feral’s shoulder.
“Tee?” Cassanya asked with concern at Tallow who was suddenly chalk white. “Tee?” the leonin called to her again, putting a hand on her arm, worried her friend might be about to faint.
Wordlessly, Tallow passed the parchment over. Cassanya read the message aloud.
“A second pendant lies,
“Where the dawn will never rise.
“Unfriendly are those marching,
“You must keep it from their eyes.
“Two nights from now, you must arrive,
“Else lost to you will be your prize.
“What in the world?” Cassanya looked baffled as she lowered the note, looking around her companions in turn. “Where’d he get this? Woody?” she looked at the raven as if expecting an answer.
Woodward clicked his beak and shuffled his wings in a gesture that looked very much like a shrug.
“How can you not know?” Tallow regarded the raven with suspicion.
Feral held up his hand and the bird hopped onto it with a soft, and somewhat apologetic noise as he looked back at the half-race.
“You have to know!” Tallow insisted, sounding really quite angry, but looking no less pale. “Someone gave you that!” she pointed at the parchment in Cassanya’s hand. “This is no time for games! Who was it?”
Again the shrug of wings.
“Why so worried?” Feral asked, curious at Tallow’s unexpected seriousness. “He probably just picked it up, just a piece of nonsense poetry that someone scribbled down while they were walking and threw away.”
“Not a bad rhyme, at least,” Archer chipped in, and Tallow squared up to them both, looking surprisingly alarming for a petite young woman.
“Not a bad rhyme?” she repeated, glaring at the sciurel. “Don’t you get it? That’s not nonsense, that’s a warning!” Seeing that everyone looked blank, she rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingertips. “Feral, what’s around your neck?” she asked suddenly. “A pendant,” she continued before he could answer. “An important one, at that, because it’s a fragment of the Dragon Staff, and something that many people would dearly like to have.”
“Um...” Feral suggested as she shrugged her backpack off and rummaged in it, producing several hefty looking books that looked rather larger than their container. Finding the one she wanted, she flipped through it to a page with a map on it.
“We are twenty miles south east of Twilight Wood,” Tallow jabbed a finger onto the map, holding the book up for them to see. “The site of one of the oldest abandoned mageforts on the continent. There’s a reason it’s called that, and it’s because it sits at the base of a cliff on the west flank of a mountain called the Sentry of the East and doesn’t see dawn!” She tapped a line of text on the other page to emphasise her point.
“There’s another staff fragment there?” Feral asked, suddenly excited.
“Apparently,” Tallow nodded.
“And the unfriendly things marching...?” Archer asked.
“No idea,” Tallow sighed, taking her book back and looking suddenly tired and resigned.
“But we’ve got two days to beat them there or they’ll take that fragment,” Feral said, and she nodded.
“Who would send a message like that?” Balthor scratched an ear, frowning.
“And how do we know it’s genuine?” Cassanya added.
“I don’t think we can ignore it,” Feral said, looking up and glancing between the pair of them, patting Woodward’s head absently. “We have to see for ourselves.”
“And if someone’s leading us into a trap?”
“Who’d wanna trap us?” Archer asked.
“With him carrying a piece of Dragon Staff, and that ward thing of his?” Cassanya pointed at Feral, sounding irritable. “He’s probably worth a fortune!”
“Ah, but who knows about either of those?” the sciurel pointed out, and she fell silent, looking thoughtful.
“Which way, Tee?” Feral asked quietly, and Tallow pointed along the river.
“There should be a ford in about half a mile, we can cross there. Then we head northwest, towards the Sentry. It’s not large, but it’s the only mountain known to lie this far away from the Heavens’ Circle. You’ll start to see the peak in a few hours, if we go that way.”
“We have to go that way,” Feral said. “We know what the staff fragments are being used for. If there is one nearby, it’s our duty to find it and keep it safe!” With that, he turned to start down the road.
“Feral, wait a minute!” Cassanya called after him, and he looked back at her.
“If you’re worried, stay,” he snapped. “I know this isn’t anything uncle Felli said to do, and I know it might be dangerous and he wouldn’t approve, but I have to do it anyway, so don’t try to stop me.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything of the sort,” the leonin said softly as she moved over to him, casting him into shadow. “I was going to say you’ve got your collar tucked into your vest,” she went on, sticking a finger under his shirt and straightening it out. “And I think you’re quite right. I understand why this is important to you and that you’ll do it no matter what. You can’t help it, it’s in your nature. You were going to come across something like this, sooner or later anyway, and I’d have been behind you whatever it was.”
“Oh,” Feral felt suddenly very ashamed. “Sorry,” he mumbled, looking at the floor. “Thank you,” he added, looking up.
“You will take care, though.” There was no trace of question in her voice, and Feral could only nod in response. She patted him on the shoulder hard enough to bend his knees and grinned.
“Come on then,” she declared, turning along the road and setting out at pace. They followed.
“Do you have anything but books in there?” Feral asked, locating Tallow behind her tent, her backpack spilling several tomes onto the grassy ground.
“Not much...” she answered absently, taking the plate off him as he put it into her hand. “Thank you,” she added, setting it down next to her without looking up.
“What are you reading up on?” Feral asked, sitting down as Woodward hopped onto his knee. Smiling, he held out a small morsel for the raven.
“Twilight Wood,” she said. “I wanted to find out why they abandoned the magefort.”
“What is a magefort?” Feral queried around a mouthful of hot stew.
“Um, workshops, of sorts. With libraries. Like towns,” Tallow amended.
Understandably, Feral still felt confused.
“The magi used to own far more than just the Sanctuary islands,” Tallow explained. “Centuries ago, there were centres of learning and magical study all across the continent. More than just a library, there were usually living quarters as well, and some fields for crops and livestock. See,” she turned the book on her lap and pointed to the map on one of the yellowed pages.
“Talk about the middle of nowhere,” Feral raised an eyebrow.
“That’s the point,” Tallow nodded. “You don’t build a magical research centre near civilisation because you don’t know what might happen. Accidents have occurred in the past that covered a two mile radius.”
Feral blinked. “Ouch!”
“So did you find why it’s abandoned?”
“Not really,” Tallow sighed. “I think this book was written while it was still in use. All I’ve got is this note in the margin here. ‘Thus do we learn that there are greater powers than ours.’”
“Not at all ominous,” Feral observed dryly.
“Indeed,” Tallow nodded. “But it’s been centuries since whatever happened, happened. I doubt it matters any more, most contamination effects have a short half life. Anyway, they’d have to have moved out sooner or later,” she added, closing the book and picking up her plate. “Mageforts don’t last forever, you see. Can’t keep working magic in the same place for more than a couple of centuries, the magics can leave a permanent impression in the environment, so obviously you start to get interference.”
“Except at Sanctuary for some reason... To do with being surrounded by water, I think. I remember reading something about the ionisation helping to dissipate the fields.”
“Right...” Feral felt that he was, if anything, less well informed than before. It was a feeling he was starting to get a lot around Tallow.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” she shrugged, digging a spoon into her stew. “And Balthor really does know his way round that cook pot, doesn’t he?” she raised an eyebrow.
Feral chuckled and agreed. At least that was one subject he could understand her on.
The pale crest of the Sentinel of the East shimmered in the dawn light as they headed towards its west flank, the iron grey shadows of its slopes slowly gaining definition with each step. Cassanya found herself walking next to Tallow, some twenty yards behind their friends, having taken a hint from a slowing of the apprentice’s pace and several meaningful glances.
“What’s up?” the leonin finally asked, as the young woman seemed reluctant to speak, looking uncomfortable and fidgeting with the front of her tunic for a moment without replying.
“You know you look like a stable boy waiting for an inspection when you do that?” Cassanya smiled, plucking out a blade of grass that seemed to have lodged in her friend’s hair somewhere during the course of the morning.
“Good,” Tallow said distractedly, her gaze on their friends ahead of them. “Cass, I know this probably isn’t something I should be asking, but… You’ve known the others longer than I have. How far do you trust them?” she asked quietly.
Cassanya blinked, then thought for a moment. She may have been through a lot with the other three, but Tallow hadn’t. It was a fair question, and one she shouldn’t have been surprised at being asked.
“A long way,” she said slowly. “Feral’s a good kid. Clueless and naïve, but good. He’ll do his best, and he won’t crack under pressure. Archer...” she hesitated, then went on. “Is, I think, more trustworthy than he likes to admit. He’s not let us down yet, and I don’t think he means to. He certainly doesn’t seem about to desert Feral any time soon, at least, not until he feels he’s repaid his debt. Thor I’d trust to follow me to hell and back, and I’d to the same for him.”
“You’re quite sure?” Tallow’s gaze strayed ahead, glancing across Feral and Archer lingering for a moment on the tall lupari between them.
“What’s getting at you, Tee?” Cassanya asked, noticing the look. “Thor said something wrong? I know you haven’t really talked to each other much the last few days…”
Flushing, Tallow looked up at her. “No, he’s always been polite, it’s just… I’m sorry, I know he’s your friend, but... well, he is very tall...”
“I’m not like you, Cass,” Tallow said with a hint of sadness in her voice. “You’re tall and strong, I’m short and skinny.”
“Tee, you’re far from a weak little girl, and anyway like you said; I’m taller than Thor is, but you don’t worry about me, do you?”
“No, but you’re a girl,” Tallow pointed out.
“Well of course I... Tee,” Cassanya’s tone softened, along with her expression. “I would trust him with my life, as can you. You have my word on that.”
“Well, I guess that’s as high a recommendation as anyone can get,” Tallow smiled. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t doubt anyone you consider a friend, I just feel... kind of small and fragile around him...”
Cassanya chuckled. “Well that's fair turnabout, you make me feel big and clumsy. Anyway, why did you ask how far I trusted them? Is this going to be dangerous?” her eyes narrowed a little.
“How would I know? I’ve no doubt there are guarding spells, but there’s nothing detailed in the books. And I don’t know anything about the others that are after the fragment, though I guess they’re there on our charming Prince Irontooth's orders.”
It wasn’t a very satisfying answer, Cassanya thought, but she had no choice but to let it slide. It wasn’t Tallow’s fault, she simply didn’t have more information.
“Oh, and you’re right,” the young woman added. “He is kind of sweet.”
“Who?” the leonin missed a step and stumbled as the statement caught her off guard.
“When did I say that…?”
“You didn’t,” Tallow grinned up at her with a hint of amusement in her expression. “But when you talk to him, your voice rises half an octave and your eyebrows soften,” she said, wiggling her own.
“I do that?” Cassanya’s ears flattened in embarrassment.
“You do,” Tallow’s eyes twinkled as she smiled. “But I wouldn’t worry, I think he appreciates having a new big sister.” She giggled suddenly, glancing forwards at the back of Feral’s head which was about two feet lower down than Cassanya’s. “A really big sister.” Her voice became more serious again. “I can see how much he trusts you, and it was good of you not to try to change his mind about doing this. After the trick master Forester had me try, Feral really needs someone to put some faith in him, and I think you’re the person he’ll most appreciate it from.”
Cassanya felt blood move to her cheeks, a tinge of pink appearing through the white fur. She glanced forward along the road, smiling.
“What are you looking for?” Feral asked as he noticed Tallow looking intently at the ground, apparently studying the grass underfoot.
“A junction in the road.”
“We’re on a road?” Feral looked downwards. He had thought they were on open moorland, and the view both around and beneath seemed to bear out this supposition.
Archer chuckled. “An old one, Red. Very old. Look,” he pointed to a solitary stone, the blunted tip sticking above the ground, then another, and another, following the direction they were heading. “And see how the ground dips in a little the way we’re going, like a shallow trough? There’s a few thousand feet trod this path before us. None recently, though.”
“Oh,” Feral felt slightly foolish for not having noticed this before.
“Quite right,” Tallow told them. “This road circles the edge of the forest. There should be a junction right about here that leads in towards the magefort.”
“Uh, Tee...” Cassanya sounded hesitant. “What forest?” She looked around at the grassy plain. Ahead of them, the hills rose up towards the blunted peak of the Sentry, containing only waving grass and patches of heather.
Tallow glared at her. “It’s there,” she stated coolly.
“I thought you said the road circles the forest?” Balthor asked, receiving an even colder glare.
“Um...” Feral started, then stopped as he received the same look.
“Tee, there really is no forest here,” Cassanya said, rather bravely, Feral thought.
“I can see that!” the young woman exclaimed suddenly. “But the map says we’re on the edge of the forest, so we must be!”
“But...” the leonin began.
“This is the perimeter road, that is the Sentry, and that,” Tallow jabbed a finger in the direction of the mountain, “is east. Ergo we are on the west side of the Sentry, and we are passing Twilight Wood, if not already in its outskirts. There should be trees here!” Tallow insisted, despite all the evidence being against her. She kicked a clump of grass in frustration, apparently annoyed with it for not being a tree, then hopped on the spot as the action revealed an embedded stone behind the greenery.
“Maybe someone cut ‘em down?” Archer suggested.
Tallow shook her head, balancing on one foot while she rubbed the toes of the other. “You can’t just ‘cut down’ a tree that’s protecting a magefort,” she told him. “They don’t let you.”
Archer blinked. “The trees or the wizards?”
“Both, really,” Tallow shrugged.
“I see...” the sciurel raised an eyebrow. “I thought I’d seen every tree there is, but one that won’t let you cut it down is a new one,” he added in an undertone to Feral, and the half-race nodded in agreement.
“Does it matter?” Balthor asked. “We’ve got the road, the mountain, and the map. What’s a few trees?”
“Of course it matters!” Tallow exclaimed, rounding on the lupari. “The trees surround the magefort. That’s on the map. No trees means either the map is wrong, or there is no magefort here.”
“In which case the map must be wrong...?” Feral suggested.
“I... no, it’s not. Magi don’t just doodle up some trees on a map where there aren’t any!”
“But there aren’t any here,” the half-race gestured to the grassland as it slowly rose to meet the rocky flanks of the Sentry. “Not between here and the mountain, anyway.”
“Maybe we’re just in the wrong place?” Cassanya suggested. “Maybe the other side of the mountain, or...”
“No, we’re not, I’m sure of it,” the young woman insisted, quite against public opinion. “We’re due west of the Sentry. If the forest isn’t here, then... then...” Looking around, she spotted a small grassy hillock, and walked over to it, sitting down cross legged and closing her eyes.
Archer waved a hand vaguely after her, his expression confused as he looked at Cassanya for an explanation of this sudden unexpected behaviour. Rather than provide an answer, the leonin sighed, nodded, and went to sit down on the far side of the ancient roadway.
“What’s going on?” Feral asked, following her and sitting down when she indicated him to.
“Just wait,” the leonin shrugged broad shoulders. She dug in her pack for a moment, the passed him a small packet of bread and cheese, wrapped in cotton. “Might as well eat something, we’ll be down to jerky and apples by tomorrow anyway.”
Balthor and Archer joined them, casting curious glances at Tallow, who was still sitting quietly, eyes closed, her expression blank. She seemed utterly oblivious to their presence, despite having been talking with them moments before.
“At least it’s a nice day for a picnic,” Archer sighed.
They sat quietly for what seemed like at least an hour, a cool wind springing up to take away the pleasant warmth of the day and leaving it slightly too cold to comfortably stay still. Feral pulled his cloak about his shoulders, carefully avoiding Cassanya’s gaze.
“Do we have time to be sitting here?” he said softly, and Cassanya shrugged.
“I think you’d better leave that to Tee,” she told him. “She knows what she’s doing. If she’s this sure she’s right, then she probably is.”
“All right...” Feral didn’t feel overly confident, still lacking any suggestion of a forest in their surroundings, but he was prepared to trust Cassanya. He looked up as he heard someone walk up behind him.
“I’ve found Twilight Wood,” Tallow said quietly, looking down at the group, chewing her lip and looking nervous.
Feral blinked. “Where?” he asked.
“You’re sitting in it,” she said, and whacked him on the head with the flat of her hand.
The half-race stood up quickly, finding himself looking at the large mass that hadn’t been behind Tallow a moment before. “Wha…?” he looked around. They were completely surrounded by trees. The road underfoot seemed to have become more defined, though it was still half hidden by a carpet of leaf litter and low growing foliage.
“How in the…” Balthor started, looking about him as Tallow delivered the same treatment to him. The lupari's ears swivelled as they took in the rustle of leaves as the wind blew through the treetops above. Automatically, one hand was on the hilt of his sword, but Cassanya touched him lightly on the arm, shaking her head as Tallow lightly touched her, and then Archer.
“Trust her,” Cassanya whispered to the lupari, and he nodded slowly, his hand sliding from the handle of his weapon.
“Nice trick, wiz,” Archer nodded in approval, quick eyes studying the shadowed woodland surrounding them. “Got any more like it?”
“It wasn’t me,” Tallow shook her head. “There was a concealment charm on it. Anyone not knowing that they’ve already entered the forest won’t find it. Once you know, it's easy to dispell.”
Feral walked over to the nearest tree, a silver birch, and rested his hand against the bark. “It’s real…” he said, realising he sounded slightly stupid as he spoke.
“Of course,” the young woman nodded.
“But…” the half-race looked back the way they had come, the ancient track now half hidden by the shadows of the forest. “We must have walked past… dozens of them! Through that one!” he pointed at a sapling springing up from the middle of the roadway. “And all the undergrowth!”
Tallow nodded. “Part of the spell,” she told him. “You didn’t go through it, you just went round it without realising.”
Feral felt confused, looked to Cassanya who shrugged, and picked up her pack.
“Which way?” the leonin asked, and Tallow pointed.
“The junction should be just ahead. We go right.”
“Cassy…?” Balthor muttered, walking close to the leonin as they started walking again. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
She looked at him. “I trust Tee,” she said simply.
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t,” the lupari said. “But if someone went to this much trouble to keep people out of this place, don’t you think they might have gone further as well?”
Cassanya looked forwards through the trees ahead. “Don’t think it hasn’t occurred to me,” she admitted.
Balthor nodded. “Fair enough. Just checking. I’ll watch your back.” He fell behind a little, peering cautiously through the trees on either side, ears alert for any sound.
There was a statue by the junction that Tallow had predicted, so overgrown that it almost escaped notice. A cylindrical base ended about waist height, supporting a miniature figure of white marble, perhaps three feet tall. Its stone robes cascaded from its shoulders to hide its feet, merging seamlessly with the top of its platform. Its arms were outstretched, the hands angled as if it had originally been holding something between them. Now, the only thing there was a cobweb with a large spider sitting in the middle of it. Archer poked it with a stick and it scuttled up the statue’s arm.
“Signpost. We are going the right way,” Tallow smiled.
“As if we weren’t sure after that little appearing trick,” Archer muttered to Feral.
“What was the name of this place?” the half-race asked as they started down the new path, this one even more overgrown, the branches of the trees on either side easily meeting overhead.
“In its day, it was called Taer Kallori Endryr. I think it translates as ‘The place of enlightenment.’”
“I’d settle for ‘lightenment,’” Archer said as the shadows of the forest deepened around them.
“So why is it Twilight Wood, now?” Feral asked, and Tallow shrugged.
After perhaps twenty minutes of following the path, the reason for the new name became quite clear. The sky, though clear of cloud, had begun to take on the darker shade of dusk, the light that penetrated the leaves above dimming markedly despite it being only midday.
Around them the trees seemed to be taking on a distinct change, too. When they had started, they had been strong, healthy, and with many a green leaf despite the time of year. Now they looked less... friendly, was the only word Feral could think of that fit. They were twisted, their trunks gnarled, the shadows between them seeming darker than they should. He turned suddenly, sure he had heard motion in the darkness between the trunks either side, but saw nothing in the gathering gloom. He shook his head and kept going when Cassanya looked at him. Must just be his ears playing tricks.
Perhaps due to the decaying state of the forest around them, the companions lapsed into silence as they proceeded, each of them wrapped up in their own thoughts, too preoccupied with looking nervously around them to notice that each of the others was doing exactly the same, some nameless uneasiness taking a hold of them. It was strangely quiet among the trees, Feral thought. Far more so than any normal forest. No birds sang, nothing moved through the undergrowth, not even a leaf seemed prepared to rustle and disturb the deep, penetrating silence. Instinctively, they found themselves trying to move as quietly, lest anything that had made its home in this eerie forest should notice them.
Archer nudged Feral. “What’s got six legs, two ‘eads, and wings?” he asked.
The half-race shook his head.
“Two people eatin’ a chicken dinner.”
Feral tried to smile, but it wasn’t easy. The trees around him seemed oppressive, as if they were trying to smother him, and he was feeling increasingly jumpy, even the cracking of small twigs underfoot making him flinch.
“Tallow...” Cassanya began quietly, her eyes drawn to the shadows between the trees to the left, feeling that she had seen movement there out of the corner of her vision.
“It’s... fine,” the young woman said, not looking around from the front of the group. “Just a side effect of the experiments that were done here, I suppose.”
Archer regarded the back of her head intently, sliding his bow off his shoulder to carry it in his hand. It wasn’t right, he thought. Usually he loved the forest, like all his kind, but this one... this one didn’t feel right, as if the trees themselves begrudged their presence. He looked up at the sky overhead, now a deep blue, tending towards purple.
“’Ow is it sunset already?” he asked.
“It isn’t,” Tallow told him. She pointed through the leaves above to a glimmer of light roughtly where they had last seen the sun before entering the forest. The sciurel looked at it, then swiftly clambered up the nearest tree. His head above the canopy, he looked around.
The tops of the trees were a mottled carpet of dark browns and greens, shifting in a breeze that didn’t make it to the ground below. The peak of the Sentry was so dark as to be almost invisible against the sky. Looking upwards, he could see a watery disk of light, as if the sun were behind a thick cloud. But there was no cloud, just the clear, twilight blue sky. Weird, Archer decided, dropping back down to the forest floor and reporting his findings.
“It must be part of the spells on this place,” Tallow said.
“Why would anyone want to make it always dusk?” Feral wondered, and the young woman shrugged.
“It’s not impossible that they didn’t mean to. Maybe that’s one more reason why it was abandoned.”
“Maybe we should abandon it too,” Balthor rumbled, eyeing the dark sky as they resumed walking.
Feral shook his head. “No. If there’s a fragment of that staff here, I’m going to find it,” he declared, ignoring the fact that the growing darkness was beginning to give him the creeps.
“Always assumin’ that nothin’ finds us in the meantime,” Archer said.
“Thank you so much for that cheery thought,” Cassanya growled at him, and he fell silent.
It took only a few more minutes through the increasingly dark woods until they began to notice the ground rising to either side of them, leaving them walking along the bottom of an increasingly deep canyon, perhaps a quarter mile in breadth. The trees were sparser now, and smaller, but the shadow of the chasm left them with less light than in the thicker forest. The road underfoot seemed to have vanished, the ground so rough that it looked like a giant plough had ripped through the canyon floor, scattering boulders and piling the earth into mounds.
Feral wished it weren’t quite so shadowy. He was starting to develop a real dislike for dark places. Not to mention that the place sounded creepy. He could still hear the faint breath of the wind through the trees above them on either side of the canyon, a rustle of twigs and leaves, and on top of that...
Cassanya was about to ask Tallow if she was sure they were still heading the right way, when she felt something brush her fingers. Looking down, she discovered Feral walking close next to her, his hand raised to touch hers, his face intent.
“Do you hear that?” he asked in a whisper, his large, sensitive ears visibly alert.
“What?” the leonin asked softly.
“Something... I’m not sure, it’s quiet...” Feral’s eyebrows drew together in concentration. Soft, rising slightly in pitch, almost the right range of be singing but horribly so.
“Probably just your ears playing tricks,” Cassanya said gently, taking his hand in hers and squeezing his fingers reassuringly. “Bound to happen around this creepy place. Just keep calm and stay close.”
“No, really!” Feral stopped so suddenly that Cassanya kept going, losing her grip on his hand as the half-race appeared rooted to the spot, his head turning, ears scanning through the dimness.
Balthor had stopped too, Cassanya realised, though he wasn’t even looking their way. His gaze was on the shadows to their right, his sword was in his hand.
Then they could all hear the howling.