Lady, Warrior, Healer, Thief

By Leslie Ann Miller


Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story. This chapter makes reference to a rape in the past. No details are provided, but it is an important plot point.



CHAPTER 3: TO WESTMINE

Although Wraith kept her eyes closed tightly against the sunlight, she was well aware when the humans reached the border of what they called "the Rift". The sound of the river became lost in the distance, and Keen began swearing under her breath about the condition of the road. The ground under Merlynn's feet was almost solid stone, and their pace slowed considerably as they climbed over the wind and water-carved rock. Wraith had followed the river out of the mountains, but it meandering course went far to the south. She understood from the humans' conversation that the road took a more direct route to the mountains.

They stopped for a rest when the sun was directly overhead. Wraith was extremely grateful when Merlynn put her down in the shade of a giant boulder. Her back was in agony, and she rolled onto her stomach in the shade. The stone underneath was refreshingly cool and comfortable, and the wall of the boulder provided a sense of security from the surrounding openness.

She tried not to flinch when Merlynn checked the bandages on her wounds, and she refused the piece of dried meat the healer offered her to eat. She would not need food for another two days. Indeed, it quite surprised her that the humans needed to eat so often. If blackelves had to eat so much they would have starved themselves into extinction long ago. Home had very limited food supplies. Indeed, it was in hopes of reaching an agreement to trade metals for food that the blackelves had agreed to meet the humans before; that, and the possibility of establishing a mutual treaty to protect from the growing number of demons being spawned in the far northern mountains.

"I hope Westmine has a Ladyís grove," Merlynn said, interrupting her thoughts. "Iíll need to resupply my pack with healing supplies. I could make them myself, of course, but it might take me some time to find the herbs I need."

Wraith wondered what `herbsí were. Blackelf priests could heal most ills with magic and little else. Sleeping droughts and medicines were extremely difficult to make safely. Now she wondered how human healerís salves and potions were made. Perhaps they were not so dangerous as those used by her own people.

Merlynn lifted Wraith again when they were finished eating, and they continued on their way. It was shortly afterwards that Wraith first noticed the sound of hoofbeats behind them. As the hoofbeats continued to grow louder, she began to wonder nervously if the humans would ever hear them. She had no desire for them to get caught by whomever was chasing Jewels. It was doubtful that Merlynn could protect her in such a situation, and it would be extremely difficult for her to escape in the bright of day.

She was considering trying to get Merlynn's attention when Keen suddenly stopped, asking for silence.

"Hoofbeats," she said after a moment. "Let's get off the trail. There...behind that outcrop. Whoever it is will be coming over the ridge in a minute."

They scrambled away quickly, and Wraith almost wished she could see what was happening. Jewels' breathing was loud and harsh in her ear as they lay hiding side by side, and Keen kept her callused hand on the back of Wraith's neck.

They were passed by a single horseman riding fast. Wraith could smell the sweat of the horse as it galloped by and sensed the blind panic of the rider. Keen swore softly as the hooves churned by. "Kill the horse riding like that," she whispered. "It'll break a leg on this ground."

They waited until the sound of hooves disappeared before moving back to the road.

"I wonder why he's running," Merlynn said as they continued walking. "You didn't recognize him, did you Jewels?"

"No," the girl answered, but Wraith felt the lie in her voice. She had recognized him.

"Well," Keen said. "He acts like he's being chased... Heís probably trying to make it to the West. Keep sharp ears for whoever might be following."

"I didn't think there was much traffic between East and West anymore," Merlynn said.

"There isn't," Keen replied. "But there are lots of folk seeking good wages to work and fight in the mines at Westmine. Then thereís always gold seekers and mercenaries looking for adventure in the mountains. And bandits. The wilds are full of them. I knew a fellow once who was hired by a wizard to find some ancient underground temple or something up in the far north near High Hester. His party went in, found some artifact or other, and fought their way out against all sorts of unnamed, unnatural horrors. Demons, he called them. He said he had a saddle bag full of gold and gems. They were so exhausted and relieved at escaping alive that they didn't bother to post a guard the night after. Twenty bandits came and took everything, including the artifact. They killed his companions and left him for dead. It took him three months to find his way to the nearest village, and he'd lost everything he owned."

"Th-that's terrible," Jewels said.

"That's life," Keen said. "Mar was a tough one, though. He landed on his feet. Has his own sort of luck, I suppose."

"Luck can be a powerful ally," Merlynn said before they fell to silence once again.

**********

The shadows were lengthening when Wraith heard the hoofbeats and dog howls behind them. The sound made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end, and she decided she did not want to wait until Keen noticed them this time. She kneed Merlynn's backpack as hard as she could and struggled against the bonds holding her wrists.

"Ouch," Merlynn exclaimed and grabbed Wraith more firmly to keep her from sliding off her shoulder. She stopped and lowered Wraith carefully to the ground. "What's the matter?"

Wraith tried to meet the healer's eyes, but the light was still too painful. She jerked her chin in the direction they had come.

"What is it?" Keen asked angrily from up the trail.

"She just started struggling," Merlynn said. "She seems concerned about something behind us..."

They fell silent, listening. The braying of the dog was extremely obvious to Wraith's ear, but the humans still couldn't seem to hear it.

"I don't hear anything," Jewels said.

"Shhh," Keen said, and Wraith thought that the warrior had dropped to her knees. "Horses coming, I can hear them through the rock. Let's get out of here."

Without bothering to be gentle, Merlynn heaved Wraith over her shoulder, and they took off running. Every stride jarred Wraith's back painfully, and they ran for quite a distance before Keen found a spot to her liking.

By this time, even Jewels could hear the hound.

"They won't see us here if they're hunting someone else," Keen said, "but if they turn from the path, I want both of you to cross that fissure. Lose yourself in the rocks. I'll hold them here. Their horses aren't going to like that steam or the uneven ground. They'll have to dismount to fight properly, and that will give me the advantage."

Merlynn and Jewels didn't argue, and Wraith wondered what would happen to her if they took off running. The light wasn't nearly so bright now. Perhaps she could use her talent and escape. But her back hurt terribly, and her whole body was stiff and sore from being carried in such an uncomfortable position. She felt slightly feverish as well. She did not know if she had the strength to use the Talent and flee in the daylight, even if the sun wasn't directly overhead.

Thankfully, she did not need to find out.

"Three riders in front," Merlynn whispered, and Wraith wondered if she did so for her sake or Jewelís. "And our friend the bloodhound. One rider behind."

"Speak of the Banished One!" Keen laughed loudly as the last rider trotted past. She jumped to her feet whistling. Wraith heard the hoofbeats falter as the rider reigned in the horse.

"Keeniserian?" a deep voice called in surprise from the trail.

Keen laughed. "Who else, Markisander! What brings you to the Rift in early spring?"

"Bounty on one of the Six," the man answered seriously. "Heís a gentle from the Redax household, and we think he's trying to reach the West. Have you seen a lone rider today?"

"Several hours ago. He couldn't keep pace long, though, without losing his horse."

"He may leave the path then," the man said. "Damn! I'd rather chase him to the West than try to find him in the Rift."

"Who are you working with?" Keen asked.

"Two brothers from Gideon and an assassin from the Domeport guild. The brothers know the fellow...old grudge, I think. Volunteered to take the job for little pay. They are not fighting types. I was hired as a tracker and a Sword. I'd hate to lose him here. But then again, it might be better than losing him to the bandits in the mountains."

"Think they'd get him before the Kingís Guards?" Keen asked.

"Word has it that His Majesty is paying good gold and a King's pardon to any bandit who brings in the head of any of the Six fleeing to the West. Guards at the pass won't see anything but shags for the next year."

Keen shook her head. "Well, you've a bloodhound. That should make it easier here in the Rift."

"Some bloodhound," the man said skeptically. "We found it tied by the side of the road a day's ride back. These fools know nothing about dogs. We aren't even certain how to get it to follow a scent, much less the right scent. I doubt it will be much help."

Keen grinned wickedly. "Get to it, then, Mar, and good luck!"

"Ha!" the man scoffed. "I heard what happened to you...What's the matter with you, Keeniserian? It doesnít seem right for a captain to order you to your death alone like that! Why don't you flee to the West?"

Keen snorted. "You know me better than that, Mar."

"Aye, I do, my friend. And you'll do what you must, but I'll miss you in the shield wall," the man said grimly.

Wraith felt Keen smile. "We all die sometime Markisander. At least I won't fade away like some."

The man laughed. "I've heard that one too often, Keeniserian. Ah well. I wish you luck, my friend. Sword be true!"

"Luck and glory, sword be true," Keen repeated, and Wraith heard the hoofbeats gallop away.

"Who was that?" Merlynn asked when the man was gone.

"Markisander," Keen said. "The man I was telling you about earlier. We fought together in the Blackmace skirmishes on the Redax border. He's a good left in a shield wall."

"At least the b-bloodhound is on someone else's track," Jewels said finally.

"Yes," Merlynn said. "I just hope they don't run him to death. It was bad enough leaving him tied like that, at the mercy of whatever or whoever came along."

"Mar will look after him," Keen said. "He's a good man. He won't stand by and watch anyone run an innocent creature to death."

"But he will gladly help to hunt one of the Six to death," Jewels said quietly.

Keen snorted sharply. "Yes. That's the life of a mercenary Sword, my dear girl. We are paid to kill and be killed. Harsh, but true. Not all of us are born to pampered lives of wealth and boredom."

"Keen!" Merlynn exclaimed. "If Jewelís life were so good, she wouldnít be here sharing ours."

After a moment the warrior cleared her throat. "Forgive me, Jewels. It's just that we Swords believe that when it is time to die, we will die, by whatever means. You, me, Mar, all of us. We go to Death's Dungeon to serve out our punishments or rewards. Our respective gods will claim us. But dogs don't have that consolation. That's why Mar will protect the dog."

"Still, it's wrong to kill people unjustly," Merlynn said. "And this hunting of the Six..."

"Perhaps, perhaps not," Keen said. "Only the gods know what is truly `just' and what is not. Still, fancy that, meeting Mar in the Rift...!" Her voice moved away. "Hey, Jewels, Merlynn, come up here a take a look!"

"What is it?" Merlynn asked, lifting Wraith back to her shoulder again.

"You can see the top of Mt. Dragonfire from up here."

"Mt. D-Dragonfire?" Jewels asked.

"Aye," Keen said. "Iíve seen it once before, when the Pikeman skirmishes spilled into the Rift. The top is covered with clouds today, but that day, you could see the smoke coming from the top."

"Do you think itís true about the l-legend?" Jewels asked.

"What, that the Banished One is buried beneath?"

"Yes... imprisoned in eternal s-sleep by the G-Goddess... ?"

"We are taught that it is so in our temple histories," Merlynn said. "It is also said that when the Banished One finally wakes from sleep, the mountain will erupt in flame as a signal that his evil is soon to be unleashed upon Midlothia again."

Wraith felt Merlynn shiver as she said the words, and the humans stood in silence for several moments before Jewels finally spoke again.

"I hope it n-never happens," she said softly.

Wraith frowned. The Home, too, had a god called the Banished One. At the beginning of blackelf history, the other gods had cast him out of their realm and imprisoned him in the realm of mortals as a punishment for killing his sister, the Goddess of Continuity, and for seeking more power and influence than was his due. His prison was deep inside the heart of the Earth, for, like humans, he craved space and openness. It was said in Home that the High Priests and Priestesses knew where the prison of the Banished One was, but Wraith thought the whole story was nothing but a myth. She'd sometimes heard her mother use the Banished One as another justification for killing humans. The humans, the Queen claimed, were digging their mines to try to free the evil god. But Wraith recognized it for what it was: propaganda, more fuel to feed the fires of hatred.

Keen chuckled, interrupting her thoughts. "I wouldnít worry about it, Jewels. If there is a god beneath the mountain, he has been there for a thousand years. Why would he escape now? There, see that peak to the right of Dragonfire, and slightly behind? That is Mt. Greysmoke. Westmine is nestled in the valley at it base. Our destination. We should be there before the next moon."

***************

Much to Merlynnís relief, the next several days passed quickly and without incident. It was mid afternoon when they finally crested the ridge overlooking Westmine. The blackelf didnít resist when she helped Keen wrap her completely in a blanket and furs, nor when Keen shag-tied her to the point that she could hardly breath, much less move. If anyone asked, they would say they were carrying a bundle of furs and hides to use as gifts if they actually succeeded in contacting the blackelves.

Merlynn wondered why Keen seemed so afraid that the blackelf would try to escape in Westmine. No doubt, the last thing their captive wanted was to risk being discovered by Westminers. Miners hated blackelves with a violent passion, and they would kill her without a second thought.

Merlynn had heard that Westmine was a dirty, ugly, bustling walled-town, set in a valley devoid of trees. But she was unprepared for the reality of the place. Huge piles of loose stone and rock surrounded the town, mockeries of the mountains towering to either side. The buildings were ramshackle, poorly built structures, and despite a small river providing the residents with water, a cloud of dust hovered over the valley making the air unpleasant to breathe. Most of the occupants appeared to be living out of tents.

At the end of the valley, mine entrances honeycombed the various cliff faces and valley floor. Narrow roads were busy with ox carts hauling stone and rock to the piles outside of town. The size of the operation was staggering.

"I didn't expect it to be so huge," she commented as they walked towards the town. "I had a vision of a quaint little village with a couple of caves leading into the mountains. This... this feels unhealthy and unnatural."

"Since the West broke off, it's the only operating mine in the East," Keen said. "They need an army of men to get any mining done with the blackelves attacking all the time. From what my Captain said, it's a constant battle underground. They have the largest mercenary army in Midlothia right here."

The first building on the road was a small guard post on the outer defensive wall where they were stopped by two sentries dressed in the black uniforms of the King's Guard. There was a large force of King's Guards garrisoned at Westmine to keep order among unruly mercenaries and to provide armed escort for gold shipments. They provided protection against bold bandits and thieves who might try to attack the source of wealth itself.

Keen fumbled in her backpack for a moment and then handed the guard sergeant a crisply folded piece of parchment sealed with wax.

"What's this?" the man asked, looking at it.

"It's a message from the King to the Governor."

The man examined it more carefully, and handed it to his partner.

"It looks like the Royal seal all right," the partner said.

"What does this say?" the first man asked, pointing to the writing on the front.

Jewels stepped forward. "It is addressed to F-Fogart Stonehelm, King's Governor of Westmine. And it was written by his m-majesty himself. I suggest that you take us t-to the Governor at once."

Jewels radiated a certain commanding presence when she said this, and, to Merlynnís delight, the guard nodded obediently.

"Yes, m'am," he said smartly. "I suppose Fogart will know if it's a fake or not, and if it's not, it's probably important. I'll take you to The House myself."

The House appeared to be the best built structure in the town beside the large inn and the barracks of the kingís guardsmen. It was wood framed and had three stories. There were two guards out front lounging on the front steps. They snapped to attention when it became apparent that the three women were heading in their direction.

"Is Fogart in?" the first guard asked.

"Aye," one of the others answered.

The first guard escorted them in and up a flight of dusty stairs.

At the top of the stairs the guard led them down a short hallway to another door. He knocked briskly on the door.

The door opened, and a very young man in a dirty tunic peered out. "What is it?"

"Three women to see Governor Fogart. They say they carry a message from the King."

The man frowned. "Hold on, I'll see if he's busy. They had another collapse in tunnel thirteen, and Mole is talking to him."

The door closed again, and there was a mumble of voices. Merlynn heard one quite distinctly, "For Gods' sakes lad, don't keep women waiting. Show them in!" The door opened again, and the young man motioned for them to enter.

They walked through a small antechamber into a larger room cluttered with tables and parchment maps weighted down by chunks of rough stone. Two men were leaning over one of the tables. One, a short, wiry man with a large nose and spectacles was pointing emphatically to a spot on one of the maps. "I tell you Fog, it isn't safe!"

Fogart was not a tall man either, and he had short gray hair and a thin, short- trimmed white beard. His face was wrinkled and weather beaten, and his eyes were thoughtful. Both men were dressed in dingy gray tunics and dusty black boots. He looked up at his visitors. "King's orders, Mole. Open it back up."

Mole scowled and stomped out raising a cloud of dust from the floor. "Between the blackelves and that damn wizard," he said angrily from the doorway, "We're all going to get killed in there, Fog, and you know it."

Governor Fogart sat down heavily in a chair after Mole had gone. He looked at them. "Well?" he asked.

The guard handed him the message. Fogart checked the seal before breaking it open. As he read the letter his expression grew more troubled. When he finished he looked at them seriously. "This is a fool's errand, you know that?" he asked.

Keen nodded. "And yet we plan to try."

"You'll die before you come close to the lower regions. You can't possibly succeed. Trust me, it's impossible."

"I have been given this quest, and I must try nevertheless," Keen insisted. "Will you give us your help, or must we struggle on our own?"

The man shook his head slowly. "You're throwing your lives away!"

"It sounds to me that you are also throwing lives away at the orders of the King," Merlynn said. "Why do you persist when Mole believes it is too dangerous?"

His face hardened. "Orders are orders."

"Exactly."

He sighed, heavily. "Aye, well, it's no skin off my back, ladies. But you might as well throw yourselves off Dragonfire as try to make it on your own in the tunnels. There's shags and other horrors as well as blackelves, and all of them hate humans with a passion. Some of them think we taste good, too, and hunt us out for that reason."

Jewels paled slightly at this, but Keen didn't blink. "They'll get a good taste of my steel before they get a taste of me."

He laughed. "Tough words come easy in the light. There are places down there where it's impossible to swing a sword. We use crossbows ourselves, and shags use poison darts. One nick and you're poisoned, and it's a slow agonizing death. No cure for it, either, at least, not that we've found. Blackelves use throwing knives and traps that bring the roof down on you. The best weapon against them is light, but even that doesn't always work. We have special torches to help us, courtesy of the King's Wizard, Slanger, but I can't afford to let you have any of them. You'll be on your own with regular torches, and you won't survive for long."

Keen ignored him. "Are you going to help us, or not?"

He smiled grimly, and handed her back the King's letter. "If I can't talk reason into your stubborn heads I'll give you everything you need, waste though it'll be." He stood up and motioned them over to the map he and Mole had been looking at. "This is tunnel thirteen. It stretches some twenty leagues underground, right to the foot of Mt. Dragonfire. We've been digging it for years and have found good silver and gold so far. Slanger promises us the motherlode under Mt. Dragonfire, and I tend to believe him because the blackelves have started fighting us tooth and nail ever since it became apparent where we were heading. There's something there, that's for sure."

Merlynn frowned. "Thatís supposed to be where the gods imprisoned the Banished One."

Fogart dismissed this with a wave. "Oh sure, that's the legend I suppose. Probably because Dragonfire still smokes and rumbles every now and then. But I've lived here thirty years, and all these mountains talk every now and then. Dragonfire is just the most vocal. The mountains are full of legends like that. Why, it's said that the Lady herself walks in Cloverdale when the moon is full, but I've yet to meet a sober man who'd claim to have seen her. No offense, healer. Legends are just that, and most don't hold a grain of truth. Slanger, on the other hand, has found good veins for us that even Mole would have missed, so I trust his judgement. The motherlode will be well worth all those years of hard work."

"W-w-why didn't you start digging c-closer to Mt. Dragonfire?" Jewels asked curiously, examining the map carefully.

"Well," the man said, stroking his beard. "We didn't start thirteen to head to Dragonfire. We captured a long section of blackelf tunnel leading that direction. Slanger helped seal it off from sections we donít control, blocking them with stone, spells, and magic light. That gives the blackelves trouble, it does. Slanger detected the motherlode two years ago, and likely itís quicker to finish from thirteen than to start a new mine at Dragonfire. Probably safer, too, all things considered."

He pointed at one of the lower levels on a side tunnel. "This may be a good starting point for you. We abandoned this route because of blackelf resistance and shag attacks. It's riddled with crevasses and natural cave formations leading to gods know where. Obviously, some of them lead to blackelf tunnels, and it's far enough away from our main work that they may not be watching it too closely. We abandoned it, oh, probably eight years ago. It's sealed now, of course, but Mole can get some boys to open it up again without too much trouble."

"Thank you, Master Fogart," Merlynn said.

"For what, helping you to your deaths?" Fogart snorted. "Save your thanks, ladies. Iíll have Mole round up your supplies and take you in first thing in the morning. Youíll be staying at the Black Boar?"

"If thatís the inn, yes," Keen said.

"Heíll meet you there at dawn."






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