Ten years passed.
“Newt bile? But sir, are you sure? It seems so… witchy.”
“Yes, yes, trust me, Aidan. I’ve been brewing potions far longer than you’ve been alive. I know it may sound a bit archaic, but I’m sure it will work to our purpose. No need to re-invent the cauldron, as they say.” Aidan, incidentally, had never seen his master once use a cauldron in the year since he’d become his apprentice. “You will set out first thing in the morning.” Edwin sat back and took a long sip from his goblet of black cherry wine, as if that settled the matter—which, essentially, it did.
The next day, just as the sun was peeking over the treetops, Aidan emerged from the apothecarist’s hut where he and Edwin lived and worked, providing healing services to sick and wounded travelers. He loaded up the mule—they couldn’t afford a horse—with all the supplies he imagined he might need along the two-day journey to Nirinor, the closest township, where he would hopefully be able to find the ingredients his master needed. He had a list, rolled tightly and tucked into his belt, and on it, in addition to the newt bile (“from a red newt, mind you, not one of those black rascals scurrying about in our pond”), Edwin had requested silver fern, forest spider silk, rockfish scales, and crimson pixie dust. It wasn’t exactly anything new for Aidan to be sent out to collect ingredients, but he’d never had to go any further than the woods just around the hut to get them before. Apparently, from what Edwin had told him that morning over a simple breakfast, he had an old acquaintance in Nirinor who specialized in trading rare alchemical ingredients. He had sent a raven with a message telling when to expect Aidan, and everything was settled.
The saddle bags were loaded with food, water, and weapons Aidan desperately hoped he would not need: his springy yew bow (even though he was rubbish at archery) along with a quiver of arrows; an axe, which was mostly for chopping firewood but could serve another purpose if need be; a battered old shortsword; and a few vials of poultices and pepper-up potions.
Tucked into his traveling cloak was an old spellbook, which he had borrowed from Edwin’s modest library. He had studied that book almost every night since beginning his apprenticeship, because learning to be an apothecarist and physician was all fine and good, but what Aidan wanted more than anything was to be a wizard—to pull magic from the air, mutter an incantation, and poof, an apple tree grows in an instant, baring its delicious fruit; poof, his clothes fit properly; poof, everyone who ever bullied him for being a motherless half dwarf—green sludge.
Just as Aidan was about to set off down the little path which would eventually take him to a road leading, eventually, to Nirinor, Edwin stopped him. “Wait,” he said. “I have something for you.” He extended to him the pommel of a dagger tucked snugly in a leather sheath. Aidan took it and drew out the blade. It looked perfectly ordinary—just a plain, yet practical, iron dagger. Aidan tilted it and held it so that it so that the morning sunlight glinted off the rust-colored metal, checking to see if he’d missed something noteworthy about it. There was nothing. Curious.
“It’s enchanted,” Edwin explained. “Just grip it and say “fierrin,” and it’ll blaze white-hot.
“Not here,” Edwin hushed him. “You don’t want to waste the magic. And don’t go losin’ it either! It’s not the type of thing you come across every day.”
“So why are you giving it to me then?” Aidan asked, perplexed. Edwin smiled weakly.
“Well… it’s dead useful for startin’ camp fires.”
As he trotted off down the path, Aidan looked back and waved to his master. Perhaps it was just the angle of the morning light, but Edwin seemed somehow more stooped and a bit grayer than usual. He must be getting old, Aidan thought, rounding a corner and plunging into the forest. How old was his master, anyway? Seventy? Eighty? He could not recall. Had he ever known?
The trail that he followed twisted through ancient oaks and pines, down a gently sloping hill that ended in a wide valley. The main highway led straight down the middle of the valley, parallel to a river that flowed there and crossing it just before Nurinor. It took Aidan nearly all morning to reach the road, but when he got there, he was careful to stay well behind the tree line. Traveling the roads was never safe this far from any holds, especially since the royal assassination—High King Griswold, who ruled Dusciart to the north, had been killed in his castle just over a year ago. Someone had poisoned his soup, and the Dusciart nobles—never praised for their rationality—had immediately suspected Oirthear spies and declared war. Now all the guards and patrolmen who normally kept the roads safe had been summoned to fight for the Oirthear army. People were calling it the bloodiest war that had ever been.
Everyone in Oirthear, however, knew that the true assassins had been a lawless, kingless band of miscreants called The Harbingers. Harbingers of what, exactly, Aidan could not say—he had never heard. It was probably something generic like “Death” or something overly dramatic like “The End Times.” As far as he was concerned, as he carefully guided Edwin’s mule over exposed roots and rocks and holes, and through narrow gaps in the trees, they were The Harbingers of Inconvenient Travel.
He snaked his way through the undergrowth. His reasoning was that as long as he could still hear the river on his right, he could be sure he was going the correct way. He still ventured close enough every now and then, though, to peek at the road through the leaves, just in case. After about a mile of traversing this way, when the sun had climbed high in the sky, Aidan saw his first sign of life stirring in the forest. There was a rustling in the bushes ahead. He cautiously freed his bow and notched an arrow, and a rabbit sprang out. It perched itself on a nearby stump, its nose twitching wildly as it tested the air.
Aidan had been only mildly hungry, but the prospect of fresh meat was not one to be easily overlooked, especially when traveling through the wilderness, where a hot meal was never a certainty. He pulled his arrow back until he could hear the strain in his bow and held his breath. Please don’t miss. Please don’t miss. Please don’t miss. He closed one eye, took aim, and released.
The arrow buried itself in the trunk just under the rabbit’s foot with an audible thunk. The rabbit sensed its danger immediately and was gone.
“Dammit!” Aidan quickly notched another arrow. He was somehow much hungrier now that his meal had just slipped away. He searched the ground frantically. It couldn’t have gotten far. Out of the corner of eye, he saw a tuft of brown fur dart under a root. He launched another arrow—wide to the right—and it stuck in an oak tree. “Shit!”
Now he was off his mule, chasing the rustling leaves as fast as his stumpy legs would carry him through the underbrush and readying a third arrow. He shot just as the rabbit was cresting over a fallen log, and this time he missed by so narrow a margin, he could have sworn he severed a small tuft of hair from its cotton tail. His arrow sailed through the woods, and he did not even bother to see where it struck.
He cursed himself again and kicked up a couple of daisies growing in a patch of sunlight. Silently, he resolved to take up his archery practice again after he had finished Edwin’s errand.
His appetite already whetted, he decided he may as well have lunch anyway and was just making his way back to the bread, cheese, and ale wrapped safely in the saddle-bags when a thunderous roar froze him in his tracks. A bear was charging through the forest toward him. The wooden shaft of an arrow was poking out of its shoulder.
Aidan had no time to think. With panicked fingers he knocked another arrow and let it fly. By some miracle it actually hit the beast in the front leg, but it may as well have been an acorn for all the good it did. He dropped his bow and ran as hard as he could in the opposite direction. A crushing blow hit him in the back like the fist of a god, and he was airborne, careening into a tree and sinking into a crumpled heap at its roots. His ears were ringing, but his mind was racing, futilely urging his obstinate limbs to action. He decided on a spell. With a whispered incantation and a grab at the bear’s mind, he tried to put it to sleep. But before the last syllable escaped him, the bear pounced, pinning him to the ground.
I’m dying. I’m dying. Aidan’s ribs were dust. He’d heard them crack--one, two, three. Inside his chest was a fire where there used to be lungs, and it was spreading slowly to the rest of his body. He barely even registered the blood dripping on him from the wounds he had inflicted, or the hot, putrid breath in his face as the bear bore down. Its long yellow teeth glistened, ready to tear into his flesh.
He summoned every last reserve of willpower he had and buried his hands in the beast’s coarse fur. His magic surged between them and carried the bear away just as a wave carries a piece of driftwood. He scrambled to his feet and almost fell right back to the ground. The pain was excruciating. It blinded him, consumed his mind. Any further spellcasting was impossible. He groped for the dagger at his hip, and the bear was on top of him once again.
A wild slash; a spray of fur and hot, sticky blood; a howl of agony; a return slash; and Aidan was opened up in five lines running from shoulder to hip. He fell to the earth, the last of his strength failing him. The beast loomed over him. And through some power which Aidan himself could not explain, the tip of the dagger in his hand found its throat, and he whispered, “fierrin.”
The heat was brief and immense, like a bolt of lightning. It shot through the top of the bear’s skull. Aidan’s nostrils were assaulted first by the odor of burnt hair, then charred flesh. The bear’s eyes had turned to jelly in their sockets, and a stream of boiling blood trickled from the corner of its gaping mouth. He rolled aside just as it was collapsing and sucked in great mouthfuls of air, ignoring the searing protests of his shattered ribs.
But he would not remain so for long if he did not stem the profuse bleeding that he now noticed below his neckline. He gritted his teeth and began the agonizing crawl back to the mule, which had remained obediently in the same spot throughout the whole nasty affair.
Applying the poultices presented even further anguish, but they served well enough to stop the bleeding and kick-start his skin’s natural healing process. They did nothing for his broken ribs, however, so Aidan decided that the wisest course of action would be to travel back to the cottage and recover there—he knew they had some potion to mend bone fractures somewhere. He oriented the mule in the direction from whence they had just come, slumped oven the saddle in a slightly huddled position, which he found gave him the least amount of suffering, and urged the mule forward with a voice command. Astoundingly, miraculously, the stubborn beast stepped forward and began its progress in the desired direction.
Aidan smiled in spite of the stabbing pain that seized him every time the mule set its foot down. He would be eternally grateful to Edwin for that dagger. Dead useful for making campfires… and melting brains.
Don’t pass out.
Don’t pass out.
He heard them before he saw them. There were voices—lots of them—drifting through the woods on the night breeze. And they sounded angry. It had taken Aidan nearly twice as long to make the return journey as it had to reach the site of his horrific encounter, and now he lay motionless, slumped over his mule in the shadows of the forest, afraid to approach the hut any further. The rush that had fueled his fight with the bear had also helped to dull his pain for a time, but it had long since faded, and he was now in greater agony than he had ever experienced before. It was by sheer force of will that he had remained conscious thus far, and he did not know how long it could last.
The voices at the hut were shouting now. Aidan strained his ears to hear what they were saying.
“You’ll not escape this time! Go! Restrain him!”
“Come quietly, old man.”
“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be!”
“Tell us where it is!”
And then, Edwin’s gruff voice: “Come at me then, if you think you’ve got the skill!”
There were the sounds of a struggle, a few flashes of light, a scream, and then the voices again.
“Good, now keep him secure!”
“Tie him to the horse!”
“Come on, lads!”
“No,” Aidan croaked. “No!” He couldn’t just sit by and let them—whoever they were—take him. He had to try to stop them. He urged the mule forward.
They were leaving, and they had horses. Aidan watched helplessly as Edwin was driven further and further away. Finally, the pain overtook him, and he fainted.
When Aidan awoke, he was lying on a bed. And he was inside the cottage. Daylight streamed in through an open window. He sat bolt upright and winced slightly. He had forgotten about his ribs. But how could he have forgotten? He had been in agony just the day before. He gingerly rubbed his side and across his sternum. It still hurt, but not near as badly as he thought he should. Had it been only yesterday that everything had happened?
There was a knock on the door. A woman poked her head in without waiting for an invitation. “Oh, good. I thought I heard you stirring. I was beginning to worry.” She was still young, no older than thirty, with short black hair and olive skin. She bustled over clutching a near-empty bottle of what Aidan recognized as the bone-mending potion. They only had one in stock, as far as he knew. “This will be the last dose,” she said cheerily. “You’re supposed to take one every two hours, you know. It’s not been easy getting it down your throat while you were unconscious, let me tell you.” She began to pour the remaining contents of the bottle into a large spoon.
“Who are you?” Aidan demanded. “Where is Edwin?” She finished pouring before answering.
“My name is Rynerre. Edwin sent a raven saying to expect a young, sandy-haired half dwarf by the name of Aidan. When you never arrived, I decided to investigate for myself to see what the holdup was. Lucky I did. I found you in a right state. Face-down in the grass, body all broken, chest torn to ribbons. What happened to you?”
So this was the woman Edwin had wanted him to meet. “I was attacked by a bear,” although I suppose I did sort of strike the first blow.
“My God, you poor thing! Here. Take the potion.”
“No. Listen. They’ve got Edwin! They—I don’t know who they are—it was dark, and I couldn’t see, but they—when I came back, they were fighting. They all took him on at once. And they said they were tying him to a horse—they’re taking him away somewhere. We have to help him! How long have I been asleep? We have to go, now!”
“Calm down, calm down.” Rynerre held out a hand to stop Aidan from getting out of the bed. He sank back into the pillows. His chest was throbbing. “I understand you’re frightened for Edwin. But trust me, he’s been in worse situations than this before. He can take care of himself.”
“How long have I been asleep?” Aidan asked again.
“Since last night, I suppose. I found you out there at dawn when I arrived.” She extended the spoon. “Come on, Aidan,” she urged. “We’ve got to get you healed.”
Aidan eyed the spoon that was offered to him warily. “How do I know I can trust you?” he asked. Rynerre smiled.
“If I wanted to hurt you, I had the perfect opportunity to do it. You were on the ground, unconscious. For a moment I was sure you were dead. I brought you inside and restored your health. If you can’t trust me after that, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to trust anyone.”
Aidan hesitated, then he carefully accepted the spoon and tilted its contents down his throat. As he did he noticed that the tips of Rynerre’s fingers were mottled with angry pink blisters. They looked fresh, like she had just been burned recently. “What happened to your hand?” he asked before tipping the potion down his throat. It tasted like sour wine that had fermented in a hole in the ground, but it was pleasantly warm in his throat and chest, and it dissipated his pain even further as his mind grew fuzzy.
“Oh, I just burnt myself in the kitchen. I’m hopelessly clumsy,” she said sheepishly, hiding her raw hands behind her back. “I managed to bake some rolls though for when you woke up. Come have one, and we’ll go find Edwin.”
Aidan followed Rynerre into the kitchen, where she leaned against the wall beside the window and tossed him a roll from the counter-top. It was cold and rather hard, but it still tasted delicious to Aidan, who had not eaten since the previous day’s breakfast. His traveling cloak, sword, arrows, spellbook, and the dagger were all lying neatly on the kitchen table. “Why don’t you let me take the dagger?” Rynerre asked. “I haven’t got a weapon, and from what you’ve told me, it doesn’t sound like we’ll be able to free Edwin without a fight.”
“You take the sword. You’re taller than I am. It makes more sense. I’ll keep the dagger.” Aidan picked up the dagger and stood aside to allow Rynerre to take the sword. She pursed her lips. Any hint of a smile had vanished.
“Aidan,” she began. Her next words sounded as though she was choosing them very carefully. “There’s something you should know about Edwin. He’s not the man you think he is. He’s very… dangerous.”
“Dangerous?” Aidan repeated. It seemed absurd. His master could be a little gruff at times, but Aidan could not picture him hurting anyone. But then again, how long had he owned that dagger which could melt the eyes out of a bear with just a single word?
“He’s a Harbinger. They call him The Poisoner. He’s been working for them for years now, brewing wicked poisons to help them eliminate their targets, taking cuts of the reward money. The whole Apothecary physician rubbish is just a front.”
Aidan shook his head. “I don’t believe that. I’ve been his apprentice since last year. He never leaves this place. How could he possibly be a Harbinger? And how would you know, anyway?”
“I know,” there was an edge to Rynerre’s voice now, “because I’ve known Edwin for far longer than a year, boy.
“And I’m one too.”
Aidan was speechless. The young woman in front of him, with her bright eyes and warm smile, certainly didn’t look like an assassin. More like a new mother. Was she telling the truth? Or had she been lying to him about everything since he woke up? He didn’t know what to believe. Part of him wanted to run, but something held him fast to the floor. When he didn’t say anything, Rynerre continued, “Or at least I was… until Edwin became too radical. It used to be we would only kill the wicked—rapists and murderers and such—and always in the service of the weak and the downtrodden. That’s why we called ourselves The Harbingers of Peace. But Edwin said we’d been thinking too small, that we could drive the course of history, fuel revolutions. We weren’t limiting ourselves to picking off the scum of the earth who should never have been born in the first place anymore. I don’t think he really stopped to consider the consequences. You see, revolutions are messy things. It’s not just the wicked kings who suffer. Our actions would cause innocents to die by the thousands. Women, children, good people. So I left,” she cast here gaze to the trees visible beyond the window. She smiled. “I started a new life. I thought that I was free from Edwin and the Harbingers until I got his raven. I don’t know how he found me. He must have tracked me down and set himself up where he would be close-by. Whatever he wants from me, Aidan, you can be sure that it will end in the suffering of thousands of people. I have to end this. Give me that dagger and let me go put a stop to him.”
Aidan felt like the world was crashing down around him. Could it be that he had really misjudged his master so severely? His head was swimming, and Edwin’s dagger felt heavy and hot in his hand. I should give it to her… Wait, no. Somehow, handing it over seemed like a mistake. But she obviously wants it. Perhaps she’ll be better with it than I am… But why did she want it so badly? What was wrong with him? Ever since taking that potion, he’d felt very strange. The potion. His eyes snapped back to Rynerre. She is up to something. He then remembered something else—something that did not quite fit with her story.
“You said before that you came to investigate when I didn’t show up in Nirinor on time. But Edwin said in his letter that the journey would take at least two days, and I only left yesterday.”
A look of uncertainty crossed her face. “I just…” she looked at something out the window and trailed off.
“And how did you even know where we’ve been living, if the letter was such a surprise to you and Edwin just came here to follow you without your knowing?”
She stole one last glance out the window, then side-stepped out of the kitchen and backed nervously towards the front door. Aidan advanced on her. “What are you really doing here?” he asked.
Her back was against the wall. She looked into Aidan’s eyes. And smirked.
“You know, Aidan, you really are too suspicious for your own good.”
The door burst open.
Aidan stumbled backward in alarm but recovered himself in time to see a small, hooded man step lightly across the threshold. Pale-eyed, whispy-haired, and clear-skinned, he had the cold, drowned look of someone who had just crawled out of a frozen lake, and when he spoke, even his voice cut the air, like a blade of ice. “Well done, Rynerre. Did you get it from him?” Aidan recognized that voice. It was one of the men from the night before.
The stranger squinted at him but looked fairly amused. “Have we met?”
“He’s resisting more than I expected,” Rynerre said.
“We’ll have to resort to more persuasive appeals, then. Bring him!” the pale stranger shouted outside the door. Two hulking men entered the small space next, and between them they gripped Edwin. He was unconscious. His head was slumped against his chest, and a faint trickle of blood ran from his temple to soak into his robes.
“Edwin!” Aidan shouted. He didn’t move.
“Yes,” the pale man said. He produced a much finer and sharper-looking dagger than the one he was after from the sheath at his hip. Aidan’s blood turned to ice. He considered attempting a spell—perhaps it would take them by surprise—but whatever Rynerre had given him in the potion had clouded his mind, and he could not concentrate. “Now let us see whose life you value more. Your own,” he pointed the dagger threateningly at Aidan’s throat, “or your master’s,” he touched the point to Edwin’s neck, where a new stream of blood blossomed. Aidan sucked in air sharply and made to move in when a twitch from the other’s hand stayed him.
“My, my. So loyal, and after only a year. How touching. Very well then, I’ll make you a deal, and I assure you, my intentions are pure. This is for the greater good. I’m going to count down from ten. You hand over the dagger before I reach ‘one,’ and we will leave you with your precious Poisoner—The Covenant Breaker—and you will never see us again. Otherwise… he dies.
It’s not worth it. It’s only a dagger.
They’d use it to make trouble. People would suffer.
It’s his only chance.
They’ll probably kill us both anyway.
Why haven’t they already?
He could be bluffing.
What if he’s not?
I have to.
Edwin’s eye slid open. His head raised itself just a hair. Subtly, almost imperceptibly, he gave Aidan a wink. Or perhaps Aidan had just imagined it. The pale man’s face, still fixed on Aidan, contorted with rage.
“You will never learn, Findol,” Edwin spoke behind him. The pale man jerked around, and Edwin muttered words in a strange language that summoned a whirlwind and shook the foundations of the cottage. The two men at either side of him were thrown against opposite walls and crumpled to the floor, where they did not stir. Rynerre rushed at Edwin, and Findol rushed at Aidan.
“Give it to me, boy! Give me the dagger!” He lunged, and Aidan swiped wildly with the dagger, not seeing what he was doing. There was a strangled scream and a sound like sizzling water.
“Do it, Aidan! Say the word!”
“NO!” Findol’s hand lashed out, and something flashed through the air.
The light was blinding. Amidst a horrific chorus of agonized shrieks, Findol, Rynerre, and Edwin had all become encased in fire. The blaze filled the cottage and ignited the rafters. Aidan was burning. He could feel the blisters racing to the surface all over his skin, and already, his clothes were turning to cinders. He had only one thought. Edwin.
He found him huddled near the door. The flames no longer hugged his body, but he was charred all over. With enormous effort, Aidan dragged him from the inferno, and collapsed on the cool grass. He put his hand to his aching side, and it came away bloody. The hilt of Findol’s dagger poked out from his blackened clothes.
Coughing and barely moving, Edwin placed a hand over the wound, and it started to glow. The pain stopped, and the dagger was being pulled out by some unseen force.
“What are you—”
“My life force… cough. The Bindin’ Ritual… Thank God you didn’t give it to them. They could’ve only accepted it… if it was offered as a gift… Cough. S’long as a Harbinger owned it, The Covenant… would be unbroken. Cough. Cough.
“Quiet,” Aidan urged. “You should save your strength.” Edwin shook his head.
“I’d thought Rynerre had been repentant. But all this time… Cough. I was a fool. I’m sorry. Cough.” The blade was out now, but Edwin kept his hand where it was.
“Figured it would kill us all the first time you used it in the forest anyway… Cough. But that just felt like a stove-top burn… Just let them know what I was planning… Cough. Hmpf. Guess we were too far away for that.” He inclined his head toward the raging flames behind them.
“The horrors they’ve done… that I’ve done… Cough. Never again….” Aidan’s wound was healing, while Edwin’s life was failing. On the ground beside him, the dagger was changing. The blade was a deep, dark red, the color of blood, and it had begun to crack. “I have only moments…. Did you get the newt bile?”
“Wha—?” It took Aidan a moment to realize what he was referring to. “I… no…? What does it matter now?” Edwin shivered with the dry whisper of a laugh.
“Shame… it would have made… an excellent… burn salve.”
© April, 2014 Benjamin Darnell
Benjamin Darnell is a graduate student and a lover of words. This is his first published story.