Karl (louderback) wrote in louderprose,
Karl
louderback
louderprose

Short Story: Fantasy: 6k: Hunters

Hunters

Part 1: Interlude

     Hawk and Arlo swam, splashing, and circling one another in a pool so clear it had no color but that of the sky. At the North end of the pool water fell from above. To the left it provided a pounding stream and at the right a mist barely more than a misty fog.

     Arlo rose from the pool and stood to the left letting the water pound the aches and tiredness from his wiry body. He was five-and-a-half feet tall and perhaps one hundred ten pounds. His hair was long, straight, and black. Brown eyes looked past a nose with a high prominent ridge over small, neat mouth with cherry-red lips. His face was narrow with a small chin. He had longish ears. He would have had an elfin appearance had he not been so dark. As he scrubbed himself he looked at his friend who had chosen the right-hand side of the falls.

     Hawk and Arlo were of a size but Hawk weighed nearly fifty pounds more. He sometimes complained of being overweight but he was built broadly and carried no obvious fat. His auburn hair was short. He shaved it close to his neck and ears to keep it from catching in the trees and brush when he hunted. His nose rested above a wide Cupid's bow mouth. His eyes were dark brown. He had the square chin that bespoke the firm character of a man of the land. The mist collected on Hawk's shoulders and rolled in rivulets down his body making slight chills even as the sun warmed him. His torso was a sculptor's find. Broad shoulders lay back above a spine as straight as a birch and solid as an oak. His chest was strong above his stomach, a twin ridge of washboard muscle.

     While Arlo admired his friend's physique, he was glad to forgo the work it took to maintain it.

     Together the boys moved to the grassy bank. Arlo took a knee and placed one hand on the ground. Rivulets of water ran from his feet, from his hair, across his body, until it ran off his hand into the grass leaving him dry. "Now me," said Hawk impatiently.

     "I should leave you to dry on your own." Arlo knelt, placed his left hand on the ground and his right on his friends belly. Water traveled across Hawk's skin to Arlo's hand then across his body to the ground until both were dry. As the boys combed their hair with their fingers, Arlo said, "That's too convenient. How did I manage before I could do it?"

     "You were lazy before you could do it. I'm sure you found a lazy way to do it then." Arlo straightened his arm, raised his palm to show the flat of it to Hawk and thrust toward him. Hawk looked shocked, bounced backward a couple of feet and stumbled into the water.

     Hawk climbed out. He spluttered, "When did you learn that?"

     "When I learned the other, actually. The Mage found that I had dripped a spot of water from my hair on one of his books and threatened me if I ever did it again. Then he set me to moving furniture much too heavy as a punishment. He had to teach me that push so that I could move it. I can pull, too."

     "Does the Mage ever teach you anything just because you're his apprentice?"

     "No, he considers an apprentice to be just another house servant, but one allowed to touch the books. I'm not even allowed to read them - not that I could."

     "You can't read?"

     "Of course I can read!" Arlo was slightly miffed, "It's just that they're all written in some language that hasn't been written or spoken in thousands of years." While they spoke the boys dressed. Their attire was distinctly different.

     Hawk first drew on a collarless green shirt of a stiff, almost fibrous material. The sleeves and cuffs were close fitting, designed not to catch on underbrush or other obstructions. His pants laced up the sides with thin leather string. They were of glove-soft leather from a deer he had himself slain and tanned. Hawk's boots were of similar material. They rose to mid-calf where the leather was very pliable and soft. At the ankle and on the sole the leather was reinforced and rigid to protect his feet. He laced these boots from ankle to top with leather straps an inch wide and tied them at the back in a hard knot. Over all this he added a narrow tabard of a dark dusty green. It had no insignia, not unusual in a young man as yet unmarried and not yet ready to pledge to a house or a village. He wrapped a belt nearly two inches wide around his body twice. To one side he affixed his short knife. Its blade's length was no more than the width of his palm. To the other he tied his long knife, the blade of which barely missed being a short sword.

     Arlo's clothing was strikingly different. He began with his shoes. They were little more than hardened soles with straps affixed. These straps wrapped around his ankles and up his legs to just below the knee. There he tied them at the front with an ornamental knot using string of dyed and polished leather that laced through the straps. The rest of his clothing consisted of a single strip of bright red cloth. It was about two feet wide and more than twenty feet long. It was made of a gauzy material quite silky to the touch. It draped about his shoulders, wrapped about his waist, and tucked here and there to make a loose toga-like garment. It provided comfort and great mobility and had an elegant appearance. Above his heart, Arlo pinned a sigil, the sign of the House of Corvus, that being the Mage's house, of course.

     "I'd best get back to my chores. If I don't the Mage will find some terrible, subtle way to torment me for not spending every hour of every day attending his comfort." Hawk laughed at the familiar complaint. "Myself, I'm headed East for a day or two. There is a hart there I've seen trace of. It is a big buck and I want to bring him back. We need the meat and I want the hide."

     "Go then, hunter, and return swiftly with your prey."

     "Fare well apprentice, learn swiftly and well." It was their tradition to part so mocking in staid tones the solemnity of their elders' habitual words of parting.

Part 2: Tedium

     Arlo's time passed both swiftly and slowly. The routine of his work was tedious and seemed to last much longer than it did. The few duties assigned to him that he enjoyed seemed much too brief. A significant amount of his time was consumed carrying water from the creek near the manor. He carried drinking water for the mage and for himself. The servants of the house carried their own. A small amount of water was needed for experiments. He also carried bucket after bucket for the hot bath the mage insisted upon every single night. Once done with carrying water, he had to boil it before it could be used - the mage insisted on it - then pour it out into glass carboys to cool. This done, he spent time gathering kindling and dry leaves for the mages small laboratory fires. Arrick, the mage's steward and the other house servants tended the fireplaces, but the mage always had some cauldron boiling or some great glass retort steaming or dripping out some esoteric substance while seated above tiny tabletop fires.

     The most enjoyable duties for Arlo were also, in many ways, the most arduous. The mage assigned his apprentice one room then another in the manor to clean and organize. Each room was a library and each was covered in the dust and grime of half a century or more. Still, Arlo loved his work in these rooms. Per his instructions, he removed all the books from the shelves which he then dusted and polished to perfection. He dusted the books then, even to opening them and dusting interior pages where age or poor binding had allowed dust to gather. As he cleaned the books he found that it was sometimes necessary to recopy pages or entire books. Rebinding was also a common task. When all the books were restored to a pristine condition he would mark the shelves with categories. The books he placed appropriately. The boy took pride in his work and felt genuine ownership of the task. The mage had told him that this work was to be done because the books were to become his. In the future, he would read these books. Nobody could remember everything in every book, so it was needful that Arlo be able to find a book when he wanted it. The mage had his own system and could send Arlo after any book he had categorized in his youth. Any in rooms Arlo had refurbished would be the boy's responsibility to find - and find swiftly if he knew what was good for him. Arlo was taking his refurbishing to extremes with each room, stripping and polishing the floors. Sometimes he pulled up large portions of the floor and replaced the boards so that it would be level or so that it would not creak. The furniture in the rooms was always of the massive sort found throughout the manor, but even here Arlo made a point of seeing that tables were level, that chairs did not rock, that doors hung level and closed snugly. He thought of himself as the owner of these rooms and wanted them to be perfect. The mage had lived in the manor for one hundred fifty years that people knew about; likely he was the one who built this manor over the site of the old one. The mage who had lived there and might just be this mage was reputed to have lived in that house for nearly three hundred years. When the time came, Arlo might live in this manor or one like it for just as long. Though his chores kept Arlo busy, his mind returned now and again to Hawk. He had expected his friend to return to the manor at the end of the second day with a large deer and an even larger exaggeration of his hunting prowess. The third day passed with little concern. With Hawk, "a day or two" almost always meant precisely that, but any hunter might pursue his quarry some extra distance and need some extra time to get home.

     After the fourth day, Arlo became mildly concerned. He visited the village of Dunwalt. Every mage seemed to generate a village around him. Visitors would call on any mage, seeking his services. Unless the mage was willing to host them, and the mage of Corvus Manor was not, an inn grew up. Farms appeared to supply the inn. Generally a grocer became the intermediary between the farmers and the inn, supplying wagons and carts to bring in produce or haul home the goods that produce bought. Wagons and horses brought about stables and a smith, and so on and on until all the businesses of a village were present. The village, of course, gave its allegiance to the mage and received his protection in return. So when Arlo entered the village he was deferred to and received graciously until it was learned he was on his own business and not that of the mage. Though the change in attitude was appreciable, it was slight; Arlo would be the mage one day. He became more nearly "one of us" from the village than "one of them" from the manor.

     His first stop was at the village store to see if Hawk had brought in meat in the last day or so. Ordinarily the manor got first choice of anything Hawk brought in, he was given a stipend to insure it was so, but when the village was in need, Hawk sometimes cared for his friends first. The mage had no objection. Finding that Hawk had not visited, Arlo visited Aunt Magen, the matriarch of Hawk's family. She had not heard from him for more than a week. She somewhat snidely suggested he seek him out across the street, and dismissed Arlo with the same imperious manner he saw daily in the Mage.

     "Across the street" was the home of Rura. In the tongue of her Southlander parents, Rura meant both "moonlight" and "love". Though she was two years his junior, Hawk had fallen in love with her, appropriately, underneath the moonlight of a harvest celebration. Horrifying the conservative, obstinate, and exaggeratedly orthodox population of the village, Hawk had openly declared his love for her. Though the mores of Dunwalt would hardly permit them each other's presence, they managed occasionally to look upon one another and to exchange a polite sentence. Nobody in the village doubted that they would be wed. None of the young men of the village even considered crossing Hawk to change the possibility.

     At the home of Rura, the house of Fatine, he spoke to Grandfather Alda. He assured him that Hawk had never set foot in his house and would not until the appropriate time came. He winked. That made Arlo wonder just what he was being told, but he concluded that Hawk was not there or that if he was nobody was about to admit it.

     While in the village, a rare enough event for Arlo, he could hardly forgo a visit to the inn. He took the opportunity to partake of some cooking other than his own and listen to the village gossip while sipping a mug of ale. The gossip was of little genuine interest to him. He cared not at all for the state neither of the potato crops nor which good wife was seen in the wrong place at the wrong time. One piece of news did leave him a bit disturbed. A couple traveling from Wains, a city some twenty days to the East and another ten North had a tale to tell of a narrow escape from bandits. They had been beset but thinking quickly, they had cut the reigns of their pack animal and galloped away. The bandits seemingly were content with the animal they could take without a chase and did not pursue.

Part 3: Resolve

     After a meal and a second mug of ale, Arlo returned to the manor. He decided to worry "constructively". The mage was often lectured him on the subject saying he spent much too much time on matters over which he had no control. Better to deal with that which could be controlled and plan for things that might reasonably happen.

     Arlo sought out one of the rooms he had not yet cleaned, a room of maps. He sorted through the mage's distinctly odd filing system until he thought he understood it then searched out the maps he wanted.

     There were three. The first was likely useless. The date on it put it more than five hundred years old. It lacked much detail anyway. A detailed map was available, but all the notations on it were in a language he couldn't understand. The third map, the most modern one, less than eighty years old, was close in correlation to the more detailed map and its notations were readable. Working between the two maps, he began drawing a new one. He marked the line of the road that he knew from traveling it personally. It was little altered from either of the maps. The three small creeks shown on the most detailed map were not on the other, but he drew them in on the assumption that even if they were dry, the creek beds would still be discernable. The river, the one that fed the manor's pool where Arlo and Hawk had so recently swum, was marked and it's course to the East clearly visible. Arlo had to make a decision. To travel north of the river if Hawk had traveled south meant they were almost certain to miss one another. There were few river crossings indicated on either map and Arlo knew from the village and from traveler's talk that the availability of these was different as the seasons changed. Knowing nothing of hunting and the habits of beasts, at least non-magical ones, he was at a loss. Searching back and forth between maps, he finally found, on the oldest map, the least detailed, some small drawings of what might be deer and thin lines that he thought perhaps meant game trails. If the beasts had held to this habitat for half a millennium then they would be south of the river, between it and the road. South it would be.

     On the morning of the sixth day of Hawk's absence, something that seemed to bother nobody else, Arlo prepared to seek his friend. When he had asked the mage the day before if perhaps he could use his vision to seek Hawk and see if he was in trouble, the mage dismissed him quite casually, "Your playmate will return in good time. Get on with your chores."

     "Playmate" indeed. Arlo had been more than slightly angry over the word but, he hoped, had not shown it. The casual dismissal of his concern did, however solidify Arlo's resolve. He would hunt for the hunter.

     Arlo worked rapidly through his chores, the hauling of water and the gathering of kindling. Those things would be noticed immediately if not done. Once they were completed, he retired to his room and changed clothes.

     He put on a gray shirt of much the same fabric as that worn by Hawk, a coarse linen-like and fibrous cloth that would not be easily torn if caught by a branch or a thorn. He laced up a pair of leather pants made for him by his friend and noticed that though they were only a year old, they barely fit him. They were almost uncomfortably tight. He found a pair of boots with hardened soles and laced them tightly. They were waterproof, or nearly so, and would protect his feet against sharp rocks. To this he added a leather pack made in a flattened square some two feet by two and about half a foot thick. He slung its long strap over his shoulder, tied off to the corners and had a handy sack to carry a bit of food and a decent blanket. Then he went to the kitchen in which he daily-prepared meals for himself and the mage. He took a small amount of fresh food, a larger amount of dried beef and fruit, and found a few items he thought might be useful. He had no hunting knife so there was a wicked carving knife and another smaller one he decided to take from the kitchen. So equipped, he left, as surreptitiously as he was able and set off to the east in search of Hawk.

Part 4: Hunting the Hunter

     Arlo was thin and wiry, but also strong from his daily labors. He was not a skilled woodsman or huntsman but, as any man of his village and station, he knew the basics. Alternately running and walking, he traveled east remaining south of the river and close to it in search of hunter's paths or game trails. For the rest of the day he found few of either. None of them led east. As the sun set, he looked for a likely spot to spend the night. He saw a glimmer of light reflecting off water as he walked and he followed it to a small spring that fed a trickle of water that doubtless fed the river. Beside the spring he found a spot where grass had been matted. This looked like the sort of spot Hawk would choose and this almost-not-a-camp his sort of place to lie in for the night. Hawk had expounded at length to Arlo about his preferences in hunting. Some hunters lit a great fire and slept beside it not just for warmth but also to keep animals at bay. Hawk preferred a less intrusive, subtler camp. He rarely built a fire. He did not cook while hunting preferring to live on what he could find in the forest and on dried meat he carried with him. Lacking a fire, he just bedded down near a supply of water and wrapped himself tightly in his blanket to keep any small creatures from joining him for warmth. As to larger beasts he had his own method of keeping them at bay. Before sleeping he would walk the perimeter of his tiny camp and make water as he walked. He would circle his entire camp if he could. The scent of his urine told animals that a large carnivore was near. Arlo laughed at the reminiscence but did the same.

     He awoke to the rose light of morning. He drank his fill at the small spring then packed to go. He had no more fresh food. He had packed little, having no way to preserve it, but dried meat filled his belly.

     Traveling with at least a little confidence that he was on Hawk's trail he soon came across a game trail that led eastward. He found and followed several such throughout the day.

     Toward evening he ran out of trails to follow. Lacking recourse he just continued east. Shortly after sunset he found another suitable camp. There he repeated the previous night's actions and again slept dreamlessly awaking to a rose sky.

     Running east he at last found the game trail he had been following the previous day, or one like it. His sense of urgency was growing. He was in his third day of travel. He had seen no certain sign of hawk and was beginning to wonder if his friend was back at the Manor having a hearty laugh thinking of him. After all, it was now nine days since Hawk's departure from the manor. If he was not at home his circumstances were dire.

Part 5: The Bandit's Camp

     The sun was westering and Arlo considered turning back. After all, he had traveled as far to the East as Hawk was likely to have come. As he slowed, walking quietly to rest and consider the matter sounds came to him from the forest ahead. Men's voices laughed deeply and raucously swore. Arlo slowed, moved off the game trail and did his best to move silently forward. Though unskilled in stalking he approached without being noticed. He moved slowly down the bank of a small dry stream and climbed extremely slowly up the opposite side.

     As his eyes rose above the level of the bank he peered through some low bushes. He saw a situation that in an instant told the full story of Hawk's troubles. Before him, Arlo saw a bandit camp. There were five of men. The obvious leader wore ten rings on his fingers, a dozen chains of gold about his neck and odd bits of elegant clothing. He watched Hawk across the too big, too bright, campfire. To one side three shabbily dressed men, obviously thugs threw dice. It was from them that the laughter and the cursing emanated. Behind them was an imposing man wearing a breastplate. That he wore it even in repose marked him as a soldier, as did his shield and long greatsword. He had restless eyes and a hard look about him.

     Across the fire from the bandit leader, hawk sat with his back to a small tree. His hands were behind him, doubtless bound behind the tree. His feet were bound loosely before him with a single light cord.

     Arlo moved infinitely slowly to a position where he was certain he was out of the bandits' line of sight. Once positioned there, he waited until Hawk was looking in his direction and bobbed up once just above the shrub before him. Hawk, wisely, showed no reaction other than to look away. Arlo was nevertheless certain he had been seen. He and Hawk had peered into one another's eyes for a brief moment.

     Arlo receded to the streambed and moved around the camp with utter slowness and silence until he was as nearly behind Hawk as he could manage. Remaining concealed, he could, from his vantage see that hawk's hands were bound. The bandits had used a single light cord. Hawk could seemingly free himself. Arlo thought swiftly and decided there must be something else binding Hawk. Was it magic? Arlo thought not. None of the men had any indication of the talent about them. Those with it could sense others of their kind. What hold then? He thought for what seemed forever. At last he decided he would have no choice but to free his friend and rely on his actions to develop the situation.

     Arlo moved forward very slowly, a plan beginning to form. Then he halted. He saw at the feet of the bandit leader Hawk's bow and quiver. Was this what kept Hawk in place? Was the bandit a bowman? Damn! Indecision beset him. Should he go with his original plan to use his magic to push the bandit leader into the dry streambed behind him and rely on the confusion to let the two of them run? Should he instead get Hawk's weapons into his hands?

     The bandit stirred as though to rise and Arlo's instincts overwhelmed his planning. He stepped into view and struck what he thought was an imperious pose. With an exertion of his will he fed the bandits' fire. It grew hotter until it burned with the blue-white heat of a forge fire. Its flames rose to the height of a tall man. Posing again he crooked a finger at the bandit and made motions as if hauling on a rope. The bandit, shocked, stumbled forward taking step after step resisting to his utmost. At last he fell forward into the conflagration before him. As he screamed, Arlo raced to Hawk and slashed his slender fetters. Hawk rose and dove nearly in a single motion across the clearing. He grabbed his bow and quiver.

     The three bandits that had been throwing dice stood benumbed as their leader thrashed and crawled on the ground. Screaming, he was unable to smother the flames that burned him. Behind them the soldier-like bandit slung his shield on his arm and drew the long greatsword from its sheath at his back. He advanced slowly toward the two boys ignoring the other bandits entirely Hawk nocked an arrow and aimed at him. The man stopped.

     By now the leader had collapsed and was a silent smoking corpse. The erstwhile dice players looked at the two boys before them. These bandits were hard men. They were brawlers accustomed to taking what they wanted. Two boys, even a bowman and one with a hint of sorcery about him did not intimidate. The man nearest Hawk, a bald bullish and fat-bellied bruiser drew his weapons. He shambled into a run with his two long knives outthrust. Hawk loosed. The thug dropped in mid-step and moved no more. There was an audible snap as the arrow broke off when his body met the ground.

     Arlo, in the same moment, struck a dramatic pose and made a clawing motion at the two remaining dice throwers. Making tugging motions as though reeling in a kite he intoned in what he hoped was a sinister voice "I can pull the soul from your bodies!" Feeling Arlo's sorcerous pull, the men began immediately to plead. Arlo released them. He gestured dismissively and they fled.

     Only the soldier remained. He looked hard at them, threw his shield across his back and returned his sword to its sheath. He turned to the horses picketed on the far side of the camp. Mounting one and leading another he departed.

     "Hurry!" said Hawk, "There is a woman prisoner."

     Arlo now understood. Hawk's compliance had been the price of the woman's life. They searched quickly. Sadly they found her dead. Hidden behind the spot where the horses were picketed her body lay concealed by underbrush. She lay stiff and cold. The damage to her body was ugly. The expression on her face indicated she had not died easily.

     "They made me hunt for them in return for her safety." He pointed to some trees where Arlo saw three deer hung by their heels, gutted and skinned, ready to butcher.

     "They lied."

     "Arlo, they were bandits. I thought they lied. But could I take the chance?"

     "No."

     "Let's bury her before it gets dark. She deserves a burial, but I do not want to sleep in this place."

     Arlo said, "Let's get rid of the dead bandits. They should not lie near her."

     "Yes."

     The fat knife wielder took all their strength to move. They dragged him to the edge of camp and rolled him into the dry streambed. When they took hold of the burned bandit leader, both were surprised and dismayed at his quiet sighing squeal of pain. They could see no bit of him not reduced to char. Both found it hard to believe that he lived. Hawk cast about and quickly found his knives. He carefully thrust his long knife between the bandit's ribs, into his heart. He made no noise. They dropped him into the streambed, rolling him atop his evil confederate.

     "Animals will cleanse this place of them," said Hawk. "She won't have to be near them."

     "Who was she?"

     "I don't know. They never called her anything but "the woman" or much less flattering things."

     Arlo exhaled a slow and thoughtful breath.

     "Arlo, you can draw. Can you draw her likeness that we can show it to travelers in hope her family may know where she rests?"

     "Yes. The thought does you honor, Hawk."

     "Do you need to draw her now?"

     "No. I can do it once we are home. I will never forget her face."

     With no tools for the digging, the boys used their hands to scoop out a shallow grave. They placed her there in a dignified position and covered her. They took the time to cover her grave with a cairn of rocks to protect her remains from scavengers.

     Taking the three horses that remained, they each mounted and loaded the deer Hawk had taken onto the other.

     Arlo asked, "Do you know the shortest route home?"

     "Yes, let's go this way." They rode away from the bandit camp and did not once turn for another look.

Part 6: Homecoming

     They rode for perhaps two hours at a walking pace. They continued well past nightfall. They wanted to travel some distance from the site of the day's vile happenings.

     "How did you find me Arlo?"

     "Luck, mostly. I traveled East along the river following game trails that went East. When I saw no game trails I just continued east. You said you were traveling in that direction and I thought that the game might be close to the river. It was just luck that I heard the bandits and didn't stumble unawares into their camp."

     "East?"

     "Yes."

     "Along the river?"

     "Yes."

     "The river is a good forty miles North of here. We are near the main road where it forks to the South to the Southlands highway and North to Wains. The bandits were preying on travelers near the fork."

     "Uh…"

     "You were LOST!"

     The boys looked at one another. Hawk's face bore a hobgoblin grin. Arlo felt himself blushing. Together they broke out into howling laughter that lasted until they were both nearly in tears.

     Practically exhausted from laughing, they made camp. Hawk built a fire because he feared the deer carcasses would attract predators. They both walked the perimeter alerting the animals of the forest that large carnivores were present. They then picketed the horses as near the fire as possible and slept close to them. At least, they slept as much as they could. Arlo dozed, waking often. Whenever he was awake he saw that Hawk was too. Hawk hardly slept at all.

     In the morning the boys mounted and headed toward the road. They reached it early and turned west. It took them the full day and well into the evening to reach Dunwalt. They did not halt there, though the boys discussed stopping at the inn. Rather, they turned their horse's noses toward the manor and pounded on the door shortly after midnight.

     Arrick the mage's steward was quite angry at being awakened at such an hour until he saw the horses and deer the boys brought. The manor got its pick of such things and Arrick already planned on taking two of the horses and the best of the deer. More horses would make the manor richer and the work easier. From the look of the deer, they were quite large and would supply good eating for some time.

     The stable boy was summoned and the horses led away. Arrick and the boys each took a dear carcass across their shoulders and took them to the larder to be butchered in the morning. It was then, finally, time for sleep.

     Arlo led Hawk to his own room. There was but a single narrow bed, but Arlo found enough blankets and soft quilts to build Hawk a well-padded mattress on the floor. Arlo offered his friend the bed, but Hawk, accustomed to sleeping on the ground was quite content with his pallet of quilts. Arlo, for his part, welcomed his own bed like a lover returned after a long absence. Both boys slept soundly and dreamlessly.

     They were awakened by the smell of food. Someone had entered and placed on Arlo's table a large covered platter. Hawk was surprised at this because his hunter's habits should have awakened him when anyone at all approached. He had been very tired.

     The platter, once uncovered, held a whole roast chicken. New potatoes floated in chicken gravy. Patis, the manor's chef had also included a largish loaf of soft crusty bread and her wonderful feather-light biscuits. There was also a generous supply of precious butter and cool fresh milk. The boys ate avidly, enjoying each bite. Arrick was evidently pleased with Hawk's bounty of deer. When they were done they looked at one another and frowned. The time had come to account for themselves to the mage.

     They delayed the confrontation as long as they possible. Both cleansed themselves at the basin in Arlo's room, washing off the stink of the road as best they could. Hawk brushed and cleaned his clothing making little improvement. Arlo changed from his "hunter's" garb to his usual red apprentice's garment. In the end, they could delay no longer. They walked as slowly as they were able through the several corridors to the mages room.

     As apprentice, it was Arlo's privilege to enter without knocking. Today, due to Hawk's presence, they paused before the massive portal, knocked quietly, and waited.

     The mage's bass voice called through the door, "It's about time you woke. The afternoon is near gone." It wasn't. By Arlo's estimation it was, at most, slightly after midday. They entered, and paused at a distance, not precisely fearful but plainly unsure of themselves.

     "Approach," said the mage "your troubles are not that great."

     Looking slightly embarrassed they stepped forward to a conversational distance. The mage looked them over, looking each of them in the eye for a long time. "Tell the tale," he said.

     Hawk began, Arlo interjected as needs must, and between them they gave a full, if rambling account of the events of the last eleven days. When they were done, the mage leaned back in his big chair looking like an angry monarch on his throne. Again and at length he looked them, one at a time, in the eyes.

     "Hawk, you are a huntsman and have skill in the woods. It was stupid of you to allow the bandits to capture you. How did it happen?"

     "Mage, I don't know. I was standing, bow drawn, aimed at a deer when I just went black. The knot on my head says I was struck from behind. I don't know how anyone was able to sneak up on me. I was out for a long time. As much as a day, I think."

     "There is a lesson there. Even when intent on your quarry, remain aware of your surroundings. You could have as easily been killed as taken prisoner."

     "Yes."

     "Still. You showed spirit. You handled yourself as well as you could. You showed honor and a spirit I respect. Take this…" here he held out a silver sigil of the house of Corvus precisely like the one Arlo wore, "if you will."

     Hawk was slightly taken aback. The acceptance of the sigil would in many respects determine his future. Alliance with the mage's house would guarantee his safety in many circumstances. In the village it would lend him prestige. It would insure he would never again go hungry. It would also assure that his marriage to Rura; already almost an absolute, it would become an unquestioned certainty. He bowed, stretched out his hand and took the sigil. "I am honored." So saying he pinned it over his heart as he had seen Arlo do. "You will keep your stipend. You may also reside in the manner if you choose."

     "Yes. I mean, please, I would like to do that."

     "I will speak to the steward. He will find a room for you now and a bigger space when you marry."

     Hawk found himself reddening. He tried also to control the smile that seemed destined to spread across his face. "Thank you."

     The mage now turned to Arlo. "Stupid boy!" Arlo retreated half a step at the angry tone and the loudness of it. "You risked all your training, your years of learning, and my trust in you as apprentice to dash into the woods alone with nothing resembling a coherent plan. You might have been killed! You might be lost still!" Arlo actually trembled at the mage's anger. "If this had not come out well, I would thrash you! As it is, you have inconvenienced me endlessly. You are days behind in your chores. The servants of the house have had to do your work. Properly, you should have persuaded me of the need for your actions and allowed me to help. I could quite easily have scried Hawk's location and sent half an armed village to rescue him. As it was you endangered his life and your own."

     Arlo began a stuttering apology.

     "Silence," the mage interrupted, "no apology is appropriate; it shows weakness in a mage, or in his apprentice. Your loyalty, ingenuity, and hardiness speak well of your adventure, but it was ill advised at best and stupid at the worst. Return to your chores. I will think of lessons to improve your judgment."

     The boys retreated. Hawk thumbed his sigil toward Arlo and smiled. Out of the corner of his eye, Arlo caught just a glimpse of something he never thought to see. On the mages face, there was a glimmering, just a hint, mind you, of a smile.

  • Post a new comment

    Error

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded 

  • 0 comments