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Chapter One (continued)
Cravan’s face turned an even brighter shade of red. “What do you mean, ‘No’? It’s a bleeding prophecy! It’s like it has already happened. You can’t just say, ‘No, thank you. I’m a bit busy at the moment. Could you come back next week?’ You’re the chosen one, for gods’ sake!”
“Your gods, not mine.” She resumed sweeping the porch, purposefully pushing the clouds of dust towards the three adventurers. “Me, I’ve got a decent life here with a lovely family. I’ve caught the eye of Torn, blacksmith’s son, and he’s likely to propose any day now. Why would I want to give up all that to go tramping through the forest with you lot and get myself killed?”
“She makes a good point,” said Rieki.
“Quiet, you,” said Cravan. “You’re not helping.”
Mor stepped forward. “In the time of Tragain, when the Lands were at war and the mystical beasts first walked in our world, it was written that a woman who bore the Mark of Cilandil would free the western wood from a great evil.”
The girl pulled up her collar to cover the blemish on her neck. “What, that? It’s just a birthmark. It doesn’t mean anything.”
Mor pointed a long skinny finger at her. “The stars are aligned, and the Mark is revealed. It only remains that you accept your destiny for it to be realized.”
“Bloody hell, this one’s going to talk me to death,” said the milkmaid. She pushed her head in the open doorway and called out, “Hey, Poppa. There’s another bunch of religious nuts at the door.”
In moments, a large, burly man in his forties emerged from inside the home. Brandishing a huge meat cleaver, he stood between the trio and his daughter. “Clear off you lot. We don’t worship snakes or spiders around here. Nobody wants any part of your silly cult.”
Cravan, still flustered, was looking for a fight. He twisted the shaft of his axe in his hands, feeling the weight of it. Rieki drew her bow and notched an arrow, ready to let fly if things went bad.
But Mor was still determined to solve the situation peacefully. “Good sir, I assure you that we have no such intentions. We merely bring word that your daughter is needed for a quest…”
“There’s not going to be any quests,” the man bellowed. “Nor adventures nor missions, neither. Now get of my land before I carve you up and feed you to my pigs.”
Cravan marched forward in front of Mor and stood only a few paces from the enraged father. “I’d like to see you try!” Suddenly he was falling down to the ground. As Cravan had readied himself for the attack from the front, he had missed the elf sneaking up behind him. Before he could even start to complain, a wave of purple mist passed above them and struck the farmer and his daughter. They both collapsed on the farmhouse’s porch, fast asleep.
“Dammit, Mor,” said Cravan. “I had it under control.”
Rieki was already on her feet offering her hand to help him up. “If by under control you mean about to have your ass handed to you by a man twice your size, then yeah, I’d say you had that one.”
“Killing these people will not help us,” said Mor. “I suggest we gather up the young lady and be off before they wake.”
Cravan slapped Rieki’s hand away. “Go and get the horses. I don’t want to have to carry her all the way to the wastelands.” She waited until he was half-standing before she put a boot to his rear. Cravan lost his balance and fell face first into the mud. Grunting and panting, he managed to stand back up using his axe as a crutch. Rieki had already vanished so he turned to Mor to vent his anger. “And you. Your aim’s getting worse all the time. You almost hit me with your sleeping spell by accident.”
“Yes,” murmured Mor. “By accident.”
When Rieki had returned with the horses in tow, Mor and Cravan lifted the sleeping girl onto a horse, and Rieki tied her to the saddle so she wouldn’t fall off. For good measure Cravan gagged her mouth with a wad cloth torn from the hem of her dress. It was going to difficult enough smuggling the girl out of the valley without her calling out for help. When they were confident that she was secure they left the farm and headed west, sticking to animal trails and unused back roads to avoid attention.
It was almost nightfall when they came to a small clearing in the woods where they could camp. The girl had woken an hour or so before and had immediately tried to get free of her bonds. Mor couldn’t magic her again without knocking out the horse as well, so they left her to struggle in vain. Rieki knew a thing or two about tying people up; the girl was not going anywhere soon.
Cravan made a passable stew from the supplies they had brought. He did all the cooking, not because he had a great love or even skill for the culinary arts, but because he didn’t trust either the thief or the mage not to put something in his food. Mor and Rieki had pulled the girl down off the horse and were guarding her. When Cravan approached her with a bowl and a crust of day-old bread, Mor pulled the gag from her mouth.
“When my father and brother find us, your skulls will decorate our fence posts. Let me go now and there’s a chance you might get away with your skin intact.”
Mor took the bowl from Cravan and set it on the ground beside him, tossing the bread on top to soak in the juices. He turned to the girl and said, “I apologize for the manner in which we came to be here, but if you’ll give me a moment to explain…”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “You’re all crazy. Just cut me loose and I’ll find my own way home.”
“I first would like to point out that calling the people who are holding you hostage ‘crazy’ may not be the best strategy. But that aside, once I have had my say, I will cut you loose and you can do anything you choose.”
“What kind of trickery is this?” she asked.
“No tricks, my dear,” he answered. “Only truths. As I was saying before your father interrupted, there is a prophecy that the one who bears the Mark of Cilandil will slay a great beast at such and such a time and such and such a place…that much you know. What I didn’t get to say is that there is a great sickness sweeping the Lands and its only cure requires the blood of a dragon.”
“I don’t see what any of this has to do with me,” she said. “I’m no dragon slayer.”
“Then many will waste away and die,” said Mor. “If you cannot complete this task, I’m sorry to say that your younger brother will be one of the first to perish.”
“What? Not Jerald!”
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” said Mor. “It would seem that you are left with an impossible choice. Either you do nothing and watch your brother, possibly your whole village, die from a plague, or you accept that there is a higher power that has a plan for you.” He pulled a knife from his belt and cut the ropes on her wrists and ankles. “I leave it to you to decide which is the worse fate.”
Mor stood up and walked towards Rieki and the cooking fire. She leaned close to him and whispered, “Was any of that true?”
“Well, dragon’s blood is a powerful curative in skilled hands.”
“And her brother?”
Mor hesitated. “Probably has grave rot from watching witches dance naked under the full moon. It’s a common enough affliction in boys his age. He should be fine in a few days if he stays in bed. Witches are occasionally spiteful but rarely cruel.”
She flashed him a wicked smile that went from pointed ear to pointed ear. “Is that wise to let her go like that?”
He turned his head to look back at the farm girl. She was quickly devouring the bowl of stew that he had left next to her. “She’s not going anywhere. She thinks she’s the saviour of her entire village. Still, keep an eye on her. If she tries to run, put an arrow in her leg.”
Mor scooped a helping of stew and handed it Rieki before taking one for himself. Cravan, already having finished his portion was reclining against a fallen log picking his teeth with a twig. “You’re a devious bastard,” he said. “Lucky for us you’re on our side.”