A/N: This was originally written entirely in the format of scenes, so chapters are ... shaky in their placement. Also, this is the first draft due to my intent to publish later ones. So for now (until it's all pretty and polished) please bear with the typos that I apologize for.
I pounded at the top of the chisel with the stone. It felt warm and smooth against my palm. Each blow jarred up through my hand, through my arm, and into my shoulder. I gritted my teeth against it and pounded again at the chisel. It had to be here! . . . Somewhere! Chippets of rock splintered off and tumbled to the ground. My calves and feet were dusty. A breeze from the cave mouth blew a tangled brown lock in front of my face.
I paused briefly to flick the hair back behind my ear. I couldn't wait for it to grow long enough to be tied back – I was regretting my attempt to cut it short. I set the chisel in the rock crack again and struck at it. Please let this be the right section, this time, I begged silently. I hit the chisel. Last time I'd done this, I hadn't come close, and it took a good deal of clever lying to get out of that fix. I rammed the rock on as hard as I could.
Clang! I was so surprised I actually jumped and dropped the rock and the chisel. The rock hit my foot. I bit back a curse and shook it off, hoping around until the sting faded. Then I crouched low by the wall, digging and worming my fingers into the gap I'd created. My fingernails caught an edge and I yanked towards me.
A huge slab and grey, black streaked stone flew out of the wall. It bounced off my stomach and clattered to the ground, where it shattered into five pieces. "Oof!" I clutched my stomach and fell to my knees. It took me several minutes to regain my breath.
I leaned forward and placed my hands on the wall next to the open hole. It was just taller than my hands, and about twice as wide. There was hardly enough space for the inch-thick slab that had covered it. Oh . . . I'm going to have to explain that, I thought worriedly. I stared at the iron-coloured metal. Silvery lines in an odd design traced across it, lighting up from the outside to flow the centre, were an oval gemstone of purple was embedded.
I traced my fingers over the stone and the ornate border of gold around it. My fingers thrummed with energy. Light twinkled from the depths of the stone. A sort of humming, like from wind, started in my inner ear. I took my hand away.
Taking a deep breath I focused on the rest of the slab. I didn't know what the obviously magical stone was about, but I vaguely recognized the slab from the magic books I'd read. It was an enchanted vault, that much I knew. If I hit the right words or tune or combination of both, then the various pieces would unlock and slide back. The lines the moving, glowing dots followed had to be the edges of the interlocked pieces.
I racketed my mind for the words and tune I had heard, some odd nights ago. "Egga navve nocha?" I tried. I winced at how out of tune my voice sounded. There wasn't even the slightest reaction from the slab. "Egna navva noche?" Nothing happened, again. I sighed in frustration; this had probably been made as impossible as possible for me.
Something crunched behind me and I heard a chuckle. "You'll be there until nightfall, if you keep singing like that."
I shot to my feet and whirled around. "Magnum!" I shifted so I blocked the discovered vault. "You weren't supposed to be back until eveningset."
Magnum gave me a dry smile. "I finished what I must early." His tangled black hair seemed to be sticking together with sweat, and there was either mud or dried blood smeared faintly on his face. "I see you have been busy, Thyra."
"Actually, it happened all on its ow –"
I folded my arms and straightened my shoulders. We stared at each other, hard. I refused to back down.
Suddenly Magnum smiled and relaxed. "I can see I've taught you well." He strode forward. "And in truth I should have known you'd find this eventually."
"You grew careless, Magnum. I heard and saw you open this twice."
He stood beside me and looked at the vault. "Then the contents within no longer need be secret." He held out his left hand, palm up, and sang, "Egana navvea noche." His voice was rich of musical, the voice of a sorcerer or wizard. In comparison, my voice sounded like a squawking bird.
The lighted dots all banded together, creating glowing lines that made the metal slab fragment. Each oddly shaped slice crept backwards into the stone with the sound of metal on metal. I leaned forward and looked inside. There was an old, dusty, leather bound book written in some foreign language. A silver chalice studded with jewels stood behind it, a crystalline blue pendant lying next to it.
I furrowed my eyebrows. "This is a bit disappointing," I said.
Magnum laughed. "That's because you haven't seen this." He reached into the vault, his hand moving further back than I would have thought possible and withdrew something long and gleaming. He offered it to me.
My eyes widened. "Whoa." I took it from him, metal cold against my skin. "This is one wicked sword." Double-edged and made of iron, the blade rounded gracefully to a point. The hilt and guard was a simple crosspiece, runes etched into the metal and a blood red ruby in the centre. The handle was wrapped in leather. I curled my hand around it. An absolutely perfect fit.
"Now this I can understand wanting to hide from me." I took a couple steps back and experimentally stepped into a couple forms with it. It was completely balanced and exactly the right length for me to use. Reluctantly I lowered it and offered the sword hilt first to Magnum. He didn't take it.
"You keep it."
I stared. "Really?" He nodded. "Really truly?" I was starting to grin. "Oh, wow. Thanks you, Magnum!"
He smiled at me. "You've earned it." Still grinning I moved away, sliding through more forms. "And Thyra?"
"Mm?" I looked over my shoulder at him. His face was deadly seriously again.
"From this point on, don't ever go searching through my things."
"Yes, Magnum," I said meekly. Past experience had taught me that disobeying him was not pleasant. The retaliation was often humiliating, and I didn't have magic of my own to counter it.
Magnum's calm demeanor was back. Continuing through forms I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He unloaded himself of satchel, cloak, and broadsword, placing everything back exactly. His sword repolished itself automatically, by means of an old spell on the stand. He hid the contents of the satchel from my direction.
My bare foot landed on something slippery. I hit the floor with a thud and a groan. The sword I'd been using fell on top of me. I realized I was lying on a patch of ice.
"Don't let your attention waver," Magnum reminded me, not even looking over. "That's how your opponent wins."
"Heh, right." I ran a hand through my hair and got to my feet. The ice evaporated. I picked up the sword, determined to do better. As I flowed into position, I couldn't help but wonder, what opponent am I winning against? I've never even fought Magnum, and he's the only one I know . . . My balanced wavered and I forced myself to pay attention. Time for useless questions later.
I rubbed the cloth along the blade, pushing so hard my hand stung in a desperate attempt to remove the ancient grime. It wasn't going so well. I could feel the cold stone floor through my thin mattress. Wind whistled behind me outside against the cliff face. Weak sunlight was warm on my back.
Magnum was sitting at a table, inking something into one of his books in a language I couldn't read. I took several deep breaths and tried to steel my nerves. I kept finding little reasons not to speak. The cloth slipped off the blade. I cut my finger. I scowled and put the sword down.
"Magnum?" I asked, turning around to face him. "I've been thinking and . . ."
I noticed he didn't even glance up. I took a deep breath. "I want to know when you'll keep your promise."
He froze and looked at me. "I'm sorry?"
"Your promise," I repeated. "You said you'd let me go and see the world one day. I want to know when."
"I've told you. We'll leave when you're ready," he frowned at me.
"And when is that?"
"I'm not sure. Soon."
"You've been saying that for three years!" I said indignantly. I stood up and faced him. "In a month I'm going to be nineteen," I folded my arms, "you keep saying we'll leave when I'm ready, but how will you know if I never try anything? Can't you just keep your promise and take me somewhere?"
"You don't know what you're suggesting. There are dangers I haven't told you about, you couldn't imagine –"
"That's why I'm going with you! If something happens that I can't handle, you can. I'll be fine."
"No, Thyra," he said firmly. "You are not leaving here, not yet. Wait until I believe you are ready."
"End of discussion."
Magnum looked away from me and continued to write. My hands curled into fists, but I ducked my head and sat down slowly. I looked at my sword. A valuable item locked away for who knows how long. Locked away just like me.
Reluctantly I drew the blade on to my lap and began to polish it again.
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Magnum was still asleep. My free hands folded the skirt I wore repeatively. The wind that flowed through the mountain peaks lifted it up, ruffling the short pants I always wore. Hard edges dug into my arm where I leaned against the cave opening. The moonlight made the mountainsides and valley walls glow white.
"Come on," I muttered, "get here already!" I whistled a simple little tune for the fifth time that night. The notes echoed off the mountain peaks and faded into oblivion. Silent minutes passed.
Then, the tune sung back by a sweet voice, ornamental trills and notes added in. The voice didn't echo, and followed up with high pitched laughter. The voice danced on the wind. The air in the empty space between the cliff walls swirled, spinning round and round under taking on a ghostly figure with wispy long hair.
"You said you'd come during the lunar eclipse," I said. "You're late. It ended hours ago."
The wind spirit laughed. "I never pay attention to time – I mean, first I was a sea creature, now I'm a wind creature, time is different for me than for you mortals."
"Uh-huh." I still didn't know what they were talking about, even after half a dozen conversations. "The point is, Melody, is that if Magnum finds out . . . I don't think he'd appreciate me talking to a wind spirit."
They flicked there hand carelessly, washing my face in a breeze. "Oh well," They sang a couple random notes.
"Can you just tell me more about the world?" I asked. "It's been months, I was starting to get sick seeing only stone again."
"What happened to the plant I brought?"
"I accidentally knocked it over the edge."
"Clumsy you." They pulled out from the whirlwind their body was a small, narrow object that fluttered and something that was hard and round. I took them eagerly. "They're a feather and a shell."
"So this is what they look like."
They laughed. "You really need to get out of this cave."
"I can't fly or climb – without Magnum's magic I'm stuck here." I ran my hands over the objects. "Thanks for these. So much better than just hearing about stuff. Tell me what's happening in the world."
"Oh, not much. There's peace, like, everywhere. Everyone's all la-dee-da," they sang these last words. "Happy people, pretty landscapes, nothing's happened in years. Well . . . there is some talk in the Crystal Tower, but who pays attention to those old fuddy-duddies? They always worry about something and are older than me by, like, forever . . ."
"I was kind of hoping you'd have something exciting to tell." I shrugged. "If it's all peaceful, maybe I can talk Magnum into taking me out."
"Maybe. He almost seems as big a fuddy-duddy as the others." They sang a wild tune. "I think I'm gonna head out. I'll be back in, like, six new moons – probably."
They evaporated, their voice singing notes that scattered in the wind.
I pushed away from the rock wall and backed into the cave. Treading softly I walked into the back corner that I slept in and kneeled. Brushing the extra hay aside I pulled out my satchel and opened the flap. Inside was what I still had from Melody's gifts. There was an odd coloured rock with the imprint of some tiny creature, a pressed flower between two sheets of glass, a fragment smelling pine cone, two large chips of bark, and a leather dream catcher with a scarf tied on it.
I put the feather and shell inside and closed the bag. If it wasn't for Melody, I wouldn't know what most stuff looked like. Placing the bag down carefully I covered in the extra hay until it'd be hard to see. With another glance at Magnum I pulled off the skirt and yanked the thin blanket up over me. Lying down, I hoped he really was asleep.
Strolling down the alley he slipped his hands casually into the pockets lining the interior of his cloak. His fingers closed around the hilt of his knife, the warm metal relaxing him. He glanced over his shoulders, up and down the alley, and then slipped through the shadowy arched doorway.
The room smelt like spoiled ale, and he could almost feel the rankness in the air from the unsavory characters. His pale blue eyes shifted back and forth, and it took a great deal of willpower for him to not wince. He slipped between the tables and patrons to the bar at the back and slide onto a chair.
"Afternoon, Melissa," he greeted the barmaid. She smiled at him and leaned against the counter.
"Afternoon yourself," she said. "Can I get ya anything?"
"No, I'm just here to meet up with the gang." He looked around again. "Though I don't see them."
"I was wonderin' why they waltzed in here durin' filth hour." She picked up a rag and started polishing the bar. "They're in the back room. But don't be gettin' ideas 'bout usin' my bar for more of your meetings. The hall should be a good enough place for you."
"Normally, yes," he stood up. "This is a special case."
"It'd better be."
"Thanks again for doing this, Melissa." He let himself through the bar and walked into the closed room behind.
Sitting around a table, relaxed into chairs, were five other men he considered a descent sort, although he still had those questionable moments. The grinned over at him, the two largest taking draughts from their mugs.
"'Bout time you showed up, friend," one said through a mouthful of ale. He dropped down into the remaining chair, sitting with a casual grace.
"I was busy," he replied. "Someone has to deal with all the technicalities." The others gave him a blank look.
"What technicalities?" asked a skinny man.
He sighed and looked up at the ceiling, exasperated. "How else do you think we get the reward?"
A man jab a mug at him. "Now I see why you're always changing teams, Finn, you're too full of yourself."
"And you, Caspian, are as observant as ever," Finn smiled. "Now, how about we get down to business? Where to look; pick up any leads?"
"Rumors," a man said. "Not much. There's been no sightings of him for years, and none went further than this town. He's a wizard, so either he's in some other realm and as a good as dead, or holed up somewhere."
"He ain't a wizard, he's a sorcerer," one put in.
"What's the difference?" another said.
"A sorcerer don't think as much. He's more dangerous."
"Okay," Finn interrupted. "I think we can agree, no matter what, that the Black is the most dangerous person alive." There were mutterings of agreement. "The question is, where did he go? Who's got the map?"
In response Caspian pulled out a sheet of thick, yellowed parchment and unfurled it on the table. All the men leaned over to gaze at it. The edges showed the borders of seven other kingdoms, while the middle was dominated by a demographic of an eighth.
"This is the Crystal Tower and royal palace," Finn said, tapping the centre, "and we're in this town here." He tapped an X to the southwest, on the edge of one mountain range. The range curved up the west and north of the kingdom, a half ring in the middle of the country. Another mountain range mirrored it in the south and east. "He never got through the two passes, we know that, and it's next to impossible to cross the mountains. Reason stands to say he's in them."
A man snorted. "So we explore the ranges, hoping to find clues?"
"Do you, by chance, have a better idea?"
The man shifted uncomfortably. "No, but that'll take forever."
He smiled at them. "True, it will. Then again . . . we're the best bounty hunters in the land – and think of that gold we'll get!" While I, on the other hand, he thought, will think of the Traitor facing justice. As long as the world is ridded of his evil, I could care less if I get paid. The other men in the room were smiling and nodding, confiding to each other how they would spend their share.
"Say, Finn," Caspian spoke up, "should a couple of us watch the passes, and in the interior countryside, case he tries to make a break for it?"
"Good idea," he said, even though he didn't trust them if they weren't near him. "You, watch this pass. You and you, take alternate route around the Crystal Tower and watch the other pass." He intentionally didn't pick Caspian.
"And now, my friends," he grinned, snatching up the map, "prepare yourselves for travel, for in the morning we leave – to hunt the Black!"
"To hunt the Black!" the men cheered, standing up, chairs scraping. As the filed past him out of the room, he slipped his hand reassuring to hold the dagger handle. He knew why he had been hired along with these men; he was the only honest bounty hunter.
His only question was, were true bounty hunters ever honest?
"Ow! Ouch!" I jerked my feet back as the odd prickling sensation roused me from sleep. I opened my eyes as I sat up and rubbed them, scowling and glaring at nothing in particular. "Couldn't you just yell at me?" I asked. "You used to!"
I could hear a half smile in Magnum's voice as he replied. "And then you learnt how to ignore my voice in sleep."
I got to my feet and stretched, my back cracking. "It's a gift," I teased. Magnum was standing near the edge, hands clasped behind his back, looking out over the void. Wind played with the black curls that escaped the bindings.
Sadly, I knew that position. He was brooding. He did that sometimes, although he never told me what he was thinking about, answering my questions evasively. I took it upon myself to get him back into the present.
I grabbed a crust of semi-dried bread and stuffed it in my mouth, joining him on the edge. "Can I go climbing?" I asked him. It took him a moment to stop looking at nothing and turned his guarded eyes to me.
"No." He turned back inside. For a brief second, it felt almost like he'd punch me. I'd never gotten such a flat out denial. Anger blossomed in my stomach.
I set my jaw and looked at him coldly. "Then I guess I'll just go myself." He head jerked up, but I didn't see any more because I was already lowering myself over the edge, feet on the ledge that connected to the one outside the cave.
Hardly daring to breathe I gripped the rock and moved down lower. Magnum's face appeared above me, more distraught than I would've thought.
"Thyra, stop this. You're going to get yourself killed!"
"I'm not scared," I told him confidently, even though my heart was pounding. A pebble fell from where I placed my foot. I shifted on the rock face and crept down. Empty space danced in the edge of my vision.
I was down past the ledge now, fingers and feet finding old handholds. Magnum's feet were coming closer, raining dust down on me. I coughed. Down further. I wondered if I'd be able to reach the bottom.
Clinging to the stone I reached with my foot to another hold, trying to get my feet to breach the distance. I slipped.
Everything tilted and my muscles clenched. There was a sharp tug on my arm. I felt myself being lifted up; and then I was on the ledge with Magnum.
"Are you alright?" he asked me. I pulled away, lifting my chin defiantly.
"I'm perfectly fine," I snapped, turning away to swing up easily onto the floor of the cave. Magnum sighed tiredly and walked up, rubbing the side of his head in stress. I folded my arms and kept my back to him.
He stood next to me. "You have got to be one of the most impatient and reckless people I know," he said quietly.
I bit back my first reply. I wouldn't know that, since I've never met anyone else!
"I suppose I was a bit cold," he continued. "I was merely reflecting upon something. Thyra." I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. "Don't ever do something like that again. Am I understood?"
I lowered my head. "Yes, Magnum."
He clapped me lightly on the shoulder with a fleeting half smile. "That's better." He went over to his table with books and inks and sat down on the stool. He began to leaf through one of his tomes on magic, making notes on a fresh sheet of parchment.
I shifted where I stood. "May I ask . . . what were you thinking about?"
For a brief moment, Magnum bowed his head, looking sad. Then he raised his head and said, "Nothing important. Just an old life I no longer had."
Immediately I bounded over and sat down across from him, turning my pleading, curious face up to him. I loved hearing about what he called his 'old lives'. He glanced at me once, twice, three times before chuckling and shaking his head.
"Oh, fine." He closed the book and leaned his arms on the table. "Now let's see . . . ah, yes. I was in Prycrest, in a town near the border of Gardinal and Anamaeia. There was some unrest going on about whether or not the Tales were happening and I happened to be in the area."
"How was there unrest?" I interrupted. "I thought Strands were unknown until they weren't Strands anymore."
"That's why there was unrest," Magnum explained. "Some people thought the Strands were done and tried to convince others. They were wrong in the end, of course. I was just thinking what might have happen if I acted differently."
"Well, how did you act?"
"I tried to make them forget about potential finished Strands. Then they discovered I was a sorcerer, which didn't help. Afterwards there was . . . an incident, and I was one of the few who could help. I was wondering what might've happened if I'd left earlier, or not intervened. What happened – I guess you could say it changed the way I saw things."
I knew Magnum was keeping something from me. "What kind of incident? Tell me!"
He smiled dryly and shook his head. "Oh no, I'm not telling you about that. It's not the most pleasant tale."
"I can handle it." Magnum looked at my expression before giving a grim nod.
"Very well." He lowered his voice. "It involved Shadowspawn."
My mouth opened slightly as I tried to register that. "You fought Shadowspawn?" I stared at Magnum in awe. "That's – that's incredible! Awful, too. What was it like? How did you fight them?"
"Dangerously. Shadowspawn are –"
"Impervious to metal and certain brands of magic, I know!"
"Thyra," he said gravely. "I am not telling you this so you can get excited. Shadowspawn have one goal – to snuff out the good brought by the Tales. The common people were massacred, many died. They were driven off using elemental and light magic; and it was the hardest fight of my life."
"Oh," I said, the amazement dying down inside of me. The expression on Magnum's face told me that he wanted to say something along the lines of 'you've never known bloodshed, you couldn't know better'. I quickly spoke into the quiet, "Well, at least there aren't any more Shadowspawn in the age!"
Something dark and worrisome glinted in Magnum's eyes, counteracting the light tone in which he said, "Yes, and for that I'm sure everyone is happy."
I eyed him uncertainly, a strange chill marching up and down my spine. Magnum must've sense my mood because he laughed and ruffled my hair. I laughed and ducked my head back.
His mood sobered after a second or two, the smile on his face not quite reaching his eyes. "That's enough now," he said, once again opening the tome. "Get to work."
"Yes Magnum." I slipped off the stool and picked up one of the thinner books written in plain, old English. Sitting on the cold ground, I flipped to the chapter on enchanted objects, hoping to find something new in the pages. I still wasn't sure why I had to learn about magic.
It was some time before I realized the chill hadn't left me.
I looked up at the half moon in the sky, stars speckling the dark sky to the point where the black emptiness glowed. The wind whistled in the ravine, bringing with it the scent of wet rock, and something else that was new. Something gross and stinky. I played with the things from my bag.
There was the creak of footsteps and I felt eyes on my back. Hastily I shoved everything back in my bag and hid between my body and the rock wall as Magnum sat down beside me. He looked like an old man in the silver light.
"You do realize I know about that," he said casually, staring out over the ravine.
I scowled into the middle distance. "This is completely unfair. I can't keep secrets from you, yet I know you have secrets from me."
"That's not my intention," he told me. "I plan on telling you all of them, someday. And then I'm sure you'll have plenty of secrets I don't know about, while knowing all of mine."
I raised an eyebrow. "And when in that suppose to happen?"
"When you're ready to leave."
"So, basically never."
I looked at him. "Over eighteen years isn't patient enough for you? I'm sick of all this stone!"
His expression hardened. "I thought I told you we were not discussing that."
I bowed my head. "Sorry Magnum."
He sighed tiredly. "You're impatient. It has been a long time." I wanted to scream at him. It was only my whole life. Fear of what Magnum might do kept me quiet. If I pushed him more when he was like this . . . I shuddered at the thought.
"Well, it might change soon."
I sat up straighter and stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"We . . . might be leaving soon," he said carefully.
I struggled to sit still. "Oh, yes! Please! Does this mean you think I might almost be ready?"
"No," he said solemnly. "I don't think you're ready, but I think it's time."
Magnum got to his feet wearily as my face fell and patted my shoulder awkwardly. "Get some sleep." I nodded, resting my chin on my hand and staring glumly out at the endless drop. Magnum retreated back inside.
Whatever it's time for, I thought bitterly, I bet I won't be there to witness it.
The next morning I spent all the time I could practicing my forms with my sword, balanced precariously on a wobbly stool. Magnum pretended to be working, but he was only half paying attention to it, I could tell he was watching me. What he was watching me for, that I couldn't quite figure out.
Suddenly he closed a tome loudly, standing up so the stool made a great deal of noise. My concentration shattered and the stool flew out from under me. I hit the ground hard, feeling the start of bruises on my body. My breath came out in a rush.
Surpassing a groan I flicked back hair and looked at Magnum, annoyed. "Must you always be doing that?"
He gave me a dry smile. "If you can't handle sudden noises as these, I doubt you'd handle well in a fight where it's all noise."
I got up and planted my hands on my hips. "But if it's all noise, then it would all get filtered out because it's not a shock."
Magnum inclined his head. "Fair point."
Now, I'm really bad at dealing with awkward silences, mainly because whenever they happen something is usually expected of me. Course I never know what. The silence dragged out. I fidgeted. Magnum continued looking half-expectedly into middle distance.
I couldn't stand it anymore. "So . . . what?"
"I'm going to be leaving, Thyra."
"I'll be gone for a few days."
"Okay . . ."
I didn't see why he was making such a big deal about this. Normally he just announced to me and left. Sometimes he didn't even tell me. Only if he was gone for more than a week did I get worried. I didn't want to die alone in a cave from starvation.
"When I get back . . . when I get back, I believe I will take you out, providing everything works out as I hope."
For a moment the world seemed frozen as it sunk in. Then the biggest bubble of excitement swelled in me. "Oh, yes, yes, yes!" I threw myself forward and wrapped my arms around it. It was a bit uncharacteristic – he took a half-step back in surprise – but I needed to do something. Finally!
"There is, of course, the possibility things will not work out and I won't be able to take you," I heard from above me.
I hastily stepped back and straightened myself out. "I know," I said, my voice sounding miserable again. "Always risks and all that – if I can't go, I understand."
Magnum gave me an exasperated look. "Somehow, I don't think you really do."
He was right, of course. I really didn't. I knew there was danger. There was in everything. I wasn't an idiot. If was if Magnum was keeping something huge and important about the world from me, and expected me to know what it was any ways.
I made sure not to show what I felt in my expression. He watched me for a moment more, than nodded once and turned away. I stood there in silence, sword at my feet, as he packed his satchel of unknown things, strapped his broadsword around his waist, and stepped to the cave opening.
He paused there, lifting a hand to mean good-bye and saying, "A few days, five at the most." Then he was gone, turning down the small ledge outside to vanish by magic once out of my sight. Over the years, I'd gotten fairly good at guessing when he exited and entered. An affinity, Magnum always called it.
I was on my own, all alone again.
I didn't mind. I picked up my sword, rightened the stool, and climbed back on to it. My time was my own. Now for the same repetitive routine, until five days passed.
He was tired. Tired of walking through mountains for days and days, having to be as nimble as a mountain goat. Tired of the same company, which had grown tedious in the one tracked singled mindedness they all seemed to share. Tired of following one clue, a mere hunch.
They all thought he was in the right, that he knew exactly what he where he was going. He was tired of them having complete faith, and talking about the horrible things they'd do when their quarry was found. True, he had to admit to himself, if he got his hands on the Black, very little would stop him from extracting a just punishment.
He hated traitors, and oath breakers, and all other like that. Strange, maybe, for a bounty hunter surrounded by people who did that constantly. But that was him, honest to a fault.
Coarse laughter shattered his thoughts, pulling him back to then and now. He wondered idly what the joke had been, and if it had really been funny, or just the usual stupidity. Most likely the latter, he reasoned.
Glancing up at the sheer, rocky crags, he absentmindedly fingered the hilt of his hidden dagger. He didn't like carrying open weapons – people were less inclined to trust him if he did – but he wasn't foolish enough to go unarmed in present company.
Suddenly he stopped, sure something had changed in the atmosphere. The others in his group continued on. He looked up at the sky, searching for anything out of place in the mountains.
Ahead of him, someone slowed down, looking around suspiciously.
"Oh that is disgusting," the man growled, "who's the wise guy responsible?"
The others slowed down and stopped, eyeing each other, believing someone else had to have caused the awful stench that was gradually growing stronger.
"Hold on," he said, staring up and holding a hand for silence.
The others turned their attention to him. "What is it, Finn?"
"That smell isn't us." He sniffed the air. Slight movement caught his eye. He focused on it for a moment. Then Finn was sure. Someone, or something, was up in the mountains, there at an almost impossible height.
Finn pointed confidently. "There's something, there. In the mountains. Be a bit hard to get too, under any circumstances."
The other four men, grinned at each other. "Sorcery, that is."
"Climbing up, are we Finn?" another asked.
"I plan to," he said. "Best chance we got, who's coming up? Hate to take the glory all for myself."
It always amazed him, how easy it was to know what people wanted most. Others seemed to struggle, but for him . . . well, Finn found some sort of acceptance almost anywhere.
With him in the lead, the group of bounty hunters began to clamour over uneven terrain, making for the base of the rock side on which the movement had occurred. As the moved closer, Finn's continuous glance showed him it might just be an actual cave.
So far up, yet barely there. The distance was extreme, the wall sheer. He knew they had climbed high, and that was only a small fraction of the total distance. How could one get up there, save by magic? It would be impossible on one's own – all have saved each other from falling numerous times already.
Finn paused to catch his breath, laying his cheek against the rock, looking up at the blue sky. There was a sudden sound; stilling the others instantly. One man muttered about a rock fall. Finn knew better. Whatever the sound had been, indistinguishable as it was, it most definitely came from a human voice.