This week, a little short fiction set in the Fangwood, along the crusader road in the Northern part of Avistan.
Something was growing in Markus’s lungs.
His cough had merely been bad when we started out, but I’d been treating it. For awhile it improved, but by the time we got to Echo Wood it became clear something else was going on.
While the rest of the ex-crusaders made camp I had Markus lie by the fire while I read his aura. No better than it ought to be, but the darkness in his chest had it’s own story. The black swirl of a demonic parasite. And, unfortunately, beyond my meager talents to treat. Something he’d picked up during his time fighting demons in the Worldwound, no doubt. None of us got away from that place without scars.
I let the others know around the dinner fire.
The Lady took the news about Markus with her usual stoicism, but the rest varied from dolorous bewailing to wild accusations. We’re a ragged lot. There is Phin, who suffered some demon-born acid attack that has proven to be beyond the reach of any magic to heal, leaving him deeply scarred with a twisted stump for an arm. By comparison, Anton’s severed foot seems like light duty, but don’t tell him that after a day of walking his wooden replacement. One-eyed Neman has never said how he lost half his sight, but his constant muttering and paranoia may have the same origin. And The Lady: Lady Chatsworth, we call her (none of us know her real name), because she has yet to utter a single word in the months we’ve traveling together. Finally, myself, covered in the scars from the arrows and blades from my own people.
Ever the voice of reason, Phin asked what our options were. Simply put, we could continue down the Crusader Road, hoping to meet with a healer of real power that could exorcise the creature. My best guess was that Markus would survive no more than a few days on such a trip. The other option was little better. My people’s maps of the Wood indicated several points of intersection with the fey realm. If we put up camp for several days and tended to Markus carefully, he might survive until I could gain the aid of one of the fairy court there—assuming I could find them, survive the encounter, and manage to secure such assistance. No small gamble. The majority voted for the second option.
I set out with the first rays of the morning, having spent much of the night in meditation, trying to recall what little I ever knew of the Wood and its fey. Several hours in, after I had misplaced the trail, I began to suspect I would have been better off getting a good night’s rest. There is something ridiculous about an elf getting lost in the woods, but it happened.
The beast charged at me while I crossed a boulder-filled clearing that at least had the benefit of being a break from the tree cover. Instinctively, I lurched behind one of the stones for cover, catching sight of nothing but a peripheral blur. “Whooo?” it asked, in a deeper register than any owl should. “Oooo” it continued, and something shoved over the standing stone. I broke the other way, putting some distance between myself and the monster. I could see its shaggy form as I drew my blade – built like a bear, but with the claws and beak of a night bird. The strange amalgam wasted no time in coming after me. I slashed at the monster, cutting it, only to have it rush me once again. I fell into the rhythm of battle. The beast scored me with its claws no few times, but I’d learned how to roll with heavy blows in the Crusade. I slashed back repeatedly, but either its hide was so thick or its mind so fogged with rage that it hardly seemed to feel the wounds. Even after I’d landed a killing blow it continued to fight, spattering us both with its blood until it shuddered to a stop with a final “woo?”
I leaned back against a boulder to rest a moment before trying to heal as many of my wounds as I could. Before I could even begin, a high voice called out from overhead, “I thought you might be rusty, Kin-slayer, but you managed that beak-bear just fine.”
“That is not my name,” I replied before I could remind myself to be diplomatic. Pushing off the boulder, I squinted up into the sunlight. All I could see from below was a smallish male silhouette with what appeared to be a tremendous mane of hair.
“Oh?” the fey replied “Perhaps there is some other ex-crusader elf wandering the Wood with a bunch of crippled mortal veterans? I’m sure I’m very sorry to have mistaken you. I’ll just go find that other fellow then. Frightening reputation he’s got. I heard he killed his whole troop in some kind of pique. You know how particular those elves can be. Luck to you, stranger!”
Bowing to the infuriating faery, I bit back a groan as my battered body protested.
“Please.” I said, “You have the advantage of me, that is plain. Perhaps an introduction? My name is Eiras. And yours?
The little man disappeared by way of answer, calling out from a boulder behind me and to my left, “Ah, so I did find the right elf. Salutations, Eiras Kin-slayer. I am Garnem the Stone-dancer, and this is my glen. You seem to have made a bit of a mess of it, haven’t you?”
Dealing with the fey is traditionally a strength of my kind. Unfortunately, I never much had the knack of it. This time a good man’s life hung in the balance, so I mustered what charm I could.
“My apologies for the mess, master Garnem, but as you can see this monster was trespassing amongst your fine cromlechs. I thought I’d do you a service and deal with the beast by way of an introduction, as we seem to be neighbors.”
Garnem blinked to another stone, this time replying very near my ear. “Courtly now. The favor is appreciated, Eiras Kin-slayer. So long as you take that carcass with you when you go. But it was not just neighborly concern that brought you out today, was it? Go ahead, elf, you came to beg a boon. Ask, and hear my terms.”
It was dark by the time I walked back to the camp. Neman may only have one eye left, but his fear keeps his senses sharp. Before I even realized the man was near, he had his sword drawn and pointed at my chest. Covered in brambles and blood, dragging a monster’s corpse, I can’t honestly say I blamed him for the caution. He rambled for a bit about traitors, accusing me of some unknown crime. Harmless talk, but when I tried to step around him he stabbed my arm. Shocked, I did nothing but watch as he drew back for another lunge. I could have stopped him—he was far less a threat than the forest monster had been earlier—but some part of me wanted it. After all I’d done, I deserved to die on the point of an ally’s ‘ blade.
As I awaited my fate, the Lady stepped behind Neman and brained him with a log. She’d been gathering firewood and heard the whole exchange, it seems. Not that she said anything –just nodded to me over the fallen Neman, then returned to the others.
I found Markus by the fire, his breathing ragged and his face drawn. Garnem had given me a root tied to a loop of string, and as I put the amulet around Markus’s neck I thought how it looked like the kind of rough treasure a child makes on a quiet afternoon. Many of the fey folk’s talismans do, but as it settled onto his chest his breathing eased. The tuber slowly swelled as it drew the vitality out of Markus’s parasite.
Today we planted the root, grown now to the size of a gourd. Markus placed the earth over it with a sigh, able to draw breath freely once more. Neman has a rather large bruise on his head, and a new found respect for Lady Chatsworth, but otherwise remains unchanged. We talked of moving further down the road soon, closer to the homes we aren’t sure still want us, and aren’t sure we belong to anymore. Maybe we are just a little more ready for that.
But before any of that can happen, I must go in a week’s time to the faerie Witchmarket to meet with Garnem’s mistress. The fey kept his part of the bargain; now I have to keep mine.