Fan fiction:The Key/Chapter 16: Dunesmar
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The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the Diii.net Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series has been going since February 2004, and still see the occasional update with more chapters or parts of chapters. You can find more information on The Key article.
Chapter 16: Dunesmar
Shael twisted in the saddle to look back along the trail. “What’s wrong, Makaya?” The wolf’s tail hung straight out from her body as she dropped her nose to sniff at the dirt. She raised her head and gave Shael a squint-eyed look and a low whine. Something about Makaya's behavior put a pang of dread in her stomach.
“She has scented demons,” Loric said. “A pair of them passed this way not long ago.”
Shael remembered the pair of demons that she and Kelsia had nearly stumbled upon just outside their village so many weeks ago. “Could it be a patrol?” She left the rest of her thought unspoken, that a patrol would almost certainly mean that a much larger force of demons lurked nearby.
“It may be,” Loric nodded, “but we are less than a dozen leagues from Dunesmar now. A small pack of demons could avoid detection, but more would probably not risk venturing too close. Whatever the case, we must be on our guard.” He cast a long look at Makaya. His lips moved slightly but Shael could hear no sound. The wolf watched him closely, her ears up and tail still held out stiffly. Shael had seen this silent communication many times, and had come to recognize many of Makaya’s postures. This one meant that she knew there was danger, and the way she returned Loric’s gaze showed she considered herself nearly his equal. She treated Shael more as a favored pup.
As if sensing her thought, Makaya turned her gaze to Shael. She shivered uncomfortably at the alpha female’s look and quickly averted her gaze. The wolf yipped twice and loped off through the trees in a flicker of silver fur. Shael turned to see Loric peering at her with what looked like amusement. “Is something funny?” Shael asked, a flush creeping into her face.
Loric’s smile faded, though his eyes still twinkled with laughter. “Makaya will follow the trail, but she will take care to stay hidden. If there are more of them nearby, we should know soon enough.”
They resumed their measured pace through the forest, the sun's muted light gradually giving way to night. As twilight fell, Shael and Loric made camp in a tiny clearing, both of them working in silence. They had set out from her village over a week ago, and though they were nearing their destination and the promise of help for her beleaguered people, she could not shake a dark foreboding. More than once since leaving, she had questioned her decision. How could she be sure that the demons would not descend upon the villagers as soon as they were away?
When she had asked Loric about it, his reply was less helpful and more cryptic than usual, “I do not know the future, Shael. The best anyone can hope for is to act with wisdom and with noble intent. You must be prepared to live with the consequences of our decisions, good or ill.”
Her thoughts were interrupted by a distant howl. Loric froze in the action of setting kindling for a fire and listened. Shael saw in his eyes the same creeping dread that clenched her own heart at the mournful sound. She knew that the howl had come from Makaya.
Loric’s body rippled and began to change, his face elongating into a snout, his body growing shorter and leaner. His clothes appeared to meld into his skin, while a thick coat of black-speckled gray fur grew to cover him. He fell forward onto his hands, which were already growing into a pair of huge paws. The wolf paced a few times, sniffing at the ground and the air, then raised his snout to the sky and howled. The sound was nearly as heartbreaking to Shael as the one that had come moments earlier, but there was something more to it as well.
Another distant howl sounded, this one laced with the same idea that was present in the howl Loric had given. It was calming and reassuring.
Another wolf bounded out of the trees and stopped at Loric's side. He had a white face and belly and dark gray flanks. Shael remembered his name: Nahele. Unlike Makaya, he normally stayed out of sight, so much that Shael had nearly forgotten about him. The Loric-wolf looked at Shael and gave a kind of growl that ended with a whine.
“I’ll stay here,” she promised.
That seemed to satisfy Loric, who lunged away and disappeared into the deepening dark, Nahele at his heels. The rhythmic thump of their paws on the ground lasted a few moments longer, and then that, too, faded, leaving Shael alone. She made to finish setting the fire, but then thought better of it. If there was something lurking out there, it might be better to not draw attention to herself.
Shael checked her horse over, feeling in the dark at his hooves for rocks and his coat for burs. Lastly, she checked that his tether was tied securely, but that the knot could be slipped quickly if she needed to leave in a hurry. She moved about the camp some more, uncertain whether to continue to unpack or leave things as they were. She finally decided upon the latter and sat down in the grass to wait.
Time passed at an agonizing pace. Shael chewed a piece of salted meat, more to give herself something to do than out of real hunger. She had intended to remain awake until Loric's return, but found herself startling out of sleep. She stood, stretching cramped muscles in her legs and back and rubbing the cold out of her arms. Looking east, she saw that the moon, previously hidden by the trees, had climbed high into the sky and shone down into the clearing. Hours must have passed since Loric had left to find Makaya. Something was wrong.
Shael picked up her bow, braced it against her foot and strung it smoothly. She felt better once she had an arrow notched and felt the familiar tingle of power coursing through it. She stood in place, listening, waiting. After a time, her arms began to tire and her legs burned, but she gritted her teeth and remained where she was. She would not risk falling asleep and being taken unawares. Teeth chattering in the cold, she very nearly missed the rustling of leaves, of something large moving through the forest. Shael drew back the string of her bow, and felt the tingle increase to an almost painful buzz. Streaks of light flickered and danced across the arrowhead.
"There will be no need for that," a voice called out from the dark—a man, human, but a stranger.
Shael spun on her heel to face the direction it had come from, drawing the string back easily to rest near her cheek. "Come out where I can see you," she said, her voice sounding much calmer than she felt.
"First put down your bow." The man said to her, the voice coming now from a slightly different direction. Shael shifted her stance to follow. She could not place the accent. "We already have you surrounded. We're not here to hurt you, but you are in danger. I don't mean to frighten you, but there are demons about. Wolves, too. You'll be safe if you come with us."
"Wolves, you say?" she asked, thinking of Loric and Makaya.
The man must have heard the apprehension in her voice, but assumed that the cause was fear for herself. "My men encountered a silvery white wolf just after dusk, and two more skulking about soon after. They probably wouldn't hesitate to attack a girl sleeping out here all alone."
Shael mentally scoffed at that remark. Wolves would not attack humans unless cornered or provoked into a fight. And she was certain that the wolves the man had seen were Makaya, Nahele and Loric. She would have liked to ask him more, but was wary of calling too much attention to them. "I'm not afraid of wolves. Now show yourself or leave."
He surprised her this time, by doing as she asked. He stepped out from the concealment of low-hanging branches and walked towards her slowly, his arms held out to show he carried no weapons. Too late, she saw movement from the corner of one eye, and realized at once that she had been flanked. A quick glance over one shoulder confirmed it. Two men leveled crossbows at her as they silently stepped into the clearing. "Tell your men to stop," she said, speaking loudly enough for all of them to hear, "or I will let my arrow fly."
"There is no need for this," the man grumbled again, moving steadily closer. Shael could see more of his features now. His face was pale, like Seith, but the resemblance ended there. He stood at least a head taller, and his prominent nose, though not ugly, drew her eyes to it as an oddity. His head was uncovered and his hair spilled down around his shoulders in dark waves. "I could turn away and leave you alone out here, but the hellspawn would likely find you before morning. I would rather not have your death on my conscience."
Shael hesitated, not quite willing to give herself up to a stranger, but aware of her lack of choice in the matter. The answer came before she could open her mouth to speak.
"In that case, you needn't worry. We are quite capable of defending ourselves."
"Loric," Shael breathed, her heart lifting. The druid had appeared seemingly from nowhere. He stood right behind her, guarding her back.
The man stopped just a few paces from Shael. He looked at her, then behind her to Loric, his frustration evident by the set of his jaw. "Very well." He cupped one hand to his mouth and barked a few phrases that made little sense to Shael. To her relief, the soldiers began to back away from them slowly.
"I'm not sure what to make of you two," the man said, shaking his head slowly. "These are dangerous times to be traveling alone. I'm surprised you're still alive, which means that you are either very smart or very lucky. From the path you are taking, I would assume that you are headed for Dunesmar. I would advise against going any further. Hellspawn have the city under siege. We have come to offer aid in fighting off the demons, but it will be some time before an offensive can be launched. If you do intend to reach the city, your best hope would lie in returning to my camp with me."
Shael began to give him a memorable retort, but Loric's quiet voice intervened. "We will go with you, but we must first attend to an injured companion. You may stay, if you wish, but I must ask that you make your soldiers withdraw and get well out of sight."
The man licked his lips as he considered, looking first at Loric, then letting his gaze linger for a time on Shael. "I will stay," he decided. He raised his voice, "Withdraw your forces, lieutenant."
Another man stepped into the clearing, a pair of soldiers close on his heels. "Captain?"
"Take your men back to camp. I wish to stay here and speak to these travelers. If I have not appeared after two hours, return here to look for us."
"Alain, it's not safe," the lieutenant protested.
"I know the risk. And you have your orders."
The lieutenant shrugged and called out. "C'mon lads. You heard the captain."
The forest rustled and snapped as they moved off. Shael tried to guess how many there were, but it was impossible. A dozen, two dozen?
When the sound of their passing had faded, Loric gave a whistle through his teeth. Before the shrill sound had quite faded from Shael's ears, there came a quiet rustling at the edge of the clearing. A dark shape limped out of the trees and slowly approached.
"Makaya!" Shael shouted, running to meet her. She stopped short when the wolf uttered a menacing snarl and raised her hackles.
"Remain where you are, Captain Alain," Loric said. "She does not trust you, and with good reason, I'm afraid."
Shael could now see the reason for Makaya's limp. A squat arrow protruded from her left flank, and blood caked her rear leg. "She's hurt, Loric."
"I know. You may go closer, Shael, but you should put down your bow and take care not to touch her wounds. She is in great pain and might snap at you."
Shael approached Makaya slowly and dropped to her knees. She stroked the wolf's neck and back carefully, feeling her body tremble. Makaya stopped growling and began to lick at Shael's neck and face.
"This wolf is the companion you spoke of?" Alain asked in disbelief.
Loric didn't answer, but began to rummage through his pack. He brought out several small leather bags, some cloth and a bronze kettle. The latter he handed to Alain, along with a water skin from the back of Shael's horse. "I would appreciate your help, Captain Alain, since it was your men who injured Makaya. You will find my flint near the makings of a fire there. I need you to bring the water to a boil. Call me over when it is ready."
Alain nodded his bewildered acceptance of this and went to work on the fire. Loric hurried over to Makaya and Shael and knelt, talking soothingly in a curious mix of human speech and wolf sounds. “You’ve been a brave girl, Makaya,” he told her. She whimpered and settled herself painfully to the ground.
Loric inspected the wolf’s wound by the wan moonlight. “I found her not far from where the soldiers are camped. Captain Alain spoke the truth about the hellspawn. Makaya followed the demons' trail and found the rest of them. There are thousands of them camped outside the walls of Dunesmar. On her way back here, Makaya happened to catch the sounds of the soldiers’ camp and went closer to have a look. A sentry spotted her and shot before she realized what was happening. She could not travel fast, wounded as she is, and Captain Alain and his men were hunting for us. We evaded them easily, but their search must have brought them here to you.”
He paused in his speech and waved Shael closer. "The quarrel is imbedded deeply in her hip. She is bleeding badly. We need to remove it and cauterize the wound, but it will make Makaya mad with pain. I am going to hold her down. You must pull the quarrel out and seal the wound, Shael."
"I don't think I can," Shael protested, stepping back. "What if I do something wrong?"
"We haven't much time, Shael." Shael looked at him in surprise when he choked on her name. He continued in a calmer voice. "It is not barbed like an arrow, so it will pull straight out. Please. Help me to save her."
Shael swallowed past the lump in her throat. "Alright, what do you need me to do?"
Following Loric's instructions, she fetched a hatchet from their supplies and placed the head into the newly-made fire to heat. When Alain announced that the water had begun to boil, Loric put leaves from one of the pouches into the kettle and sprinkled powder in from another. "Keep it on the fire for just a bit longer, then remove it. I will call for you when I am ready. Come, Shael. It is time."
Shael's stomach felt queasy as she pulled the hatchet out of the fire and followed him back to Makaya's trembling body. She stared at the axe distrustfully, until Shael set it down. "You must move quickly," Loric admonished. Pull the quarrel straight out. It is not barbed, but it may not come out easily. You must press the hatchet firmly into the wound. It will take a few seconds for the burn to take, and you should see the bleeding slow right away. Are you ready?"
Shael nodded and swallowed another lump. Loric glanced at Alain as though he had just had a thought. "Do not be afraid of what you are about to see, Captain Alain." With that, he got down to all fours over Makaya and began to change. His body grew huge and heavy, a thick brown pelt growing over his ursine form. He covered Makaya's body with his own, one hairy paw poised against her side, just behind her forelimb.
Shael drew a breath and held it. She grasped the quarrel just forward of the fletching and began to pull upward. Makaya yelped and thrashed, her legs kicking out blindly, but Loric held her fast. The quarrel suddenly popped free, sending Shael back a stumble, and blood began to well up out of the wound at a frightening rate. Shael grabbed for the hatchet and set the blade into the wound. Makaya's thrashing and crying was worse this time and the choking scent of burnt hair wafted into her face. Shael gritted her teeth against the desire to pull away and waited until she was sure that the burning had taken. When she pulled the hatchet away, blood still seeped a bit from the wound, but it seemed to have closed over. Loric waited until Makaya's frantic motions came to a stop before he ambled backward and shifted once more to his human form. Makaya continued to whimper, but lay still.
"Bring the kettle, please, Captain Alain," Loric intoned.
Loric soaked the cloth and applied it gingerly to Makaya's wound. In a few moments, the wolf's trembling stopped.
"I've heard of your kind," Alain said wonderingly. "The druids of Scosglen. It has been at least a century since anyone can remember seeing one though."
Loric gave him a nod for answer. “Makaya needs to rest for a time. Come, we have much to discuss.” He gestured towards the fire.
Shael caught Loric’s arm and pulled him close once Alain’s back was turned. “How can you trust him?”
“I don’t, not yet. But I think it should be obvious that our situation has changed. Dunesmar cannot help us now. I would ask that you think carefully before you speak, and if in doubt, be silent. ”
Shael smiled wryly at that. "I'll try."
They joined Alain, who was busy warming his hands over the fire. Shael sat off to one side where she could watch him surreptitiously. The light from the flames revealed more of his appearance. He looked young despite a fresh grown, unkempt beard, and his eyes had a perpetually sorrowful cast to them that lightened somewhat when he smiled. His hair, worn long like Loric’s, was a luxuriously deep black and curly. Shael self-consciously brushed back a lock of her own short, rather plain brown hair, feeling mildly envious.
Loric spoke first. “I already know your name, though we have not had a true introduction. My name is Loric, and that is Shael. Makaya is my spirit wolf. We came here to ask for aid from the garrison at Dunesmar for Shael’s village. It seems that our plans will have to change.”
“You won’t find any help from Dunesmar,” Alain assured him. “The demons arrived here a few weeks ago, surrounded the city and cut off all travel and correspondence. It’s happening in other places too, all across the western edge of the continent. No one knows where the demons come from, or what their purpose is, but King Laurent has resolved to stamp them out from Sanctuary.” His voice swelled with pride as he said it.
Shael glanced over to see Loric watching Alain intently. “You are from the west, are you not? I thought I recognized the manner of your speech."
“You would be correct. My homeland is Westmarch.”
"You said the king's name was Laurent?" Loric asked.
“You’re a long way from home,” Shael piped in at almost the same time. In truth, she knew next to nothing about the world outside of her small corner of Kehjistan, but it was a reasonable guess.
“Yes, Laurent is king of Westmarch. And it has been some two months since I set out from my homeland. We traveled by ship most of the way. Fortunately, the return trip will be much swifter.”
Shael spoke up again. "Why would your king send his army across the ocean to battle demons in a foreign land?"
"As I said, he intends to wipe their kind out in Sanctuary. The westlands have seen more than a few incursions thus far by these hellspawn, but here is where they appear to be massing their numbers. Laurent has deployed his army throughout southwestern Kehjistan and has quickly gained the cooperation of nearly a dozen local lords. We expect Dunesmar to welcome us as well."
Loric gave Shael a glance, as if to see if she had picked up on the same thought he was having. Shael gave a quick nod. Alain had hesitated, as if there were more to tell.
"Now I would like to ask you both a few questions," Alain said, "starting with where you come from."
Shael let Loric respond, remembering his admonition. "As you guessed, I am a druid, and most of my kind hail from the forest of Scosglen, though my home is further south. You might say that Shael found me. She and her companion were on a journey to Dalmers Ferry and needed my help. We became separated, but I found her again later. We returned to her village only to find that the hellspawn had looted and burned it to the ground. Many of the townsfolk escaped and took up refuge in a cave nearby, but the demons lay in wait, attacking any who try to leave to fetch food and water. We have come west hoping to find aid and perhaps sanctuary for them."
Shael noted how carefully Loric had concealed the true purpose of her journey with Kelsia. He had been sincere when he said he didn't trust Alain yet.
"Your people are fortunate to be alive. But strange that they would send a girl on such an errand."
"I will be a woman in less than two years," Shael said, crossing her arms. Alain exchanged a look with Loric, who had the impropriety to give him a wink. "I'm going to check on Makaya," she muttered, moving off before her indignation began to show. Makaya was sleeping, but Shael knelt next to her and stroked her side and back. The voices of the two men still carried to her.
"I might be able to help you," Alain said slowly. "We can't yet move against the hellspawn that besiege the city. I could lead a company of soldiers back to Shael's village to find and rescue the townsfolk. We can give them protection until we have freed Dunesmar."
"And what payment would you ask in return?"
The question seemed to have caught Alain off guard. He took long in answering. "Shael's village falls under the protection of the lord of Dunesmar, does it not?"
Shael turned to answer. "A tax collector arrives each year at harvest. Graegor would meet with him and then send him on his way."
"It's settled then," Alain said, getting to his feet. "It's our duty to protect you, just as it is to protect the people in Dunesmar. I will speak to the colonel in the morning. I'm sure he'll approve."
Loric nodded. "I hope that he does. It is a week's travel by foot, so you will need ample supplies. Shael can show you the way. Why don't you come collect her tomorrow?"
"I will," Alain promised. "And, uh, tell Makaya that I'm sorry my men shot at her."
Shael watched the unfolding scene with increasing trepidation. It took all of her self-control to wait until Alain was out of sight before confronting Loric, who was busy with readying their bedding. "What did you mean, I can show him the way? You aren't going with us?"
"Makaya cannot travel with them, and she cannot be left alone in her condition. I will stay and care for her. I also intend to get a closer look at the hellspawn we are up against. I have seen the encampment of these Westmarch soldiers. They are a few thousand strong, but Makaya seemed to think that the demons were much greater in number. Whatever secrets he may be keeping, Alain is an honorable man. You will be safe with him."
It was sensible, but Shael didn’t like it. Loric had been the one constant she could rely upon during all of the tragedy and upheaval of the last few weeks. "I hate that you're always right," she sighed.
"Not always," Loric grinned. "Now that we have that settled, I have been meaning to ask you something. How long have you understood wolf speech?"
"What!?" Shael stared at him, expecting a laugh or a smile, but he returned her look coolly.
"Earlier today, Makaya looked over at you before she left and said, 'You are still a pup, favored or not. Do not forget your place.' And I saw you avert your eyes in deference. That is when I began to wonder. Later, when we heard her howling, I was so troubled that I changed form before I could tell you to remain at the camp. Then, when I spoke to you in wolf speech, you gave the correct reply."
Shael couldn't think of an answer to that. What had happened had not been anything like the act of talking. She couldn't connect meaning to anything that had transpired, or even remember any of it clearly, but somehow she had known. Now she understood the mirth that Loric had shown at Makaya's rebuke and her own mortified response. "I think that today was the first time it has happened."
"It is quite common," Loric reflected, "for a person to learn a new language simply by being around others who speak in it constantly. Or perhaps Makaya took such a liking to you that she helped you along. She certainly came to trust you much faster than she did me."
The questions whirling through Shael's mind were so many and so varied that she had trouble grasping hold and framing a single one. "Could I speak to other animals?"
Loric shrugged. "Not all animals can speak to you, Shael. Makaya and I have a very special bond, but that is only part of the story. She herself is special, as is Nahele, as was Ashkii." Ashkii was the wolf that had trailed Shael and Kelsia from Loric's home and died protecting them from the werewolf. Shael could not have comprehended at the time what a loss it had been for Loric. "They were all blessed with a living soul. Only such rare creatures are able to bridge the gap between human and beast and truly speak to us."
"Now," he said loudly, interrupting Shael's next question. "It is very late, and if Alain is true in his convictions, you have the start of a long journey tomorrow. I think it is time that you slept."
Shael sighed and lowered herself painfully onto her pallet. She lay back and listened to the chirps and chattering of small creatures moving about in the woods. It took only moments for sleep to claim her.
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