Bleakwood: Part 1
I dipped the bread into my stew and let it soak for a few moments before eating it. I sighed in contentment as I relished the taste. Leon had, as usual, created a masterpiece. I wondered why he bothered. His usual patrons were much more interested in attempting to drink his inn dry than sampling his masterful stew. I raised the bowl to my mouth and drained off the last of it. Wonderful. The inn’s taproom was dim and close. A few small windows and a low ceiling, along with two dozen large woodsmen made for tight quarters. I was thankful for my small table, it was only when I came to town that I was around this many people. Sometimes I went weeks without seeing another person. I preferred it that way.
Even without being able to see it, I knew when the main door opened. I could see by the way the woodsmen moved that somebody was making their way to the bar. I took a sip of my beer and watched as the newest arrival to the bar was directed to my table. Some of the woodsmen grumbled as they were jostled but made no move to stop the mystery person. Someone important then. That smelt like a job. I leaned back in my chair and tracked the ripple of movement until the stranger fetched up on the other side of my table.
Tall, wearing clan armour, and dark of hair and eye. He had two swords belted to his waist, along with a heavy knife. He moved with a fluid grace that only a born warrior possesses, his hands didn’t stray far from his blades. Trouble or work I wondered. Probably both. He nodded to me in greeting and I gestured to the stool tucked in under the table. He pulled it out and sat.
“Kenan Estan?” The man asked.
“Putcha Danvir. I have a job for you, if you’re interested.”
“What do you need me to do?” I asked carefully. You always had to be careful when dealing with clan types.
“Lord Putcha’s son, Sohan, is missing. He would like to pay you to find him.”
“Where was he last seen and how long ago?”
“In the Bleakwood, two weeks ago.”
“Tell Lord Putcha to observe the funeral rites and start making a new heir. His son is dead.” I advised, flatly.
“Lord Putcha doesn’t believe that to be the case, Sohan is very resourceful. He would like you to try to find him.”
I sighed. I really didn’t want to touch this job, but I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to get much of a choice in the matter.
“I’m not interested. Find someone else.”
“He would make it worth your while.”
“Still not interested. Find someone else.” I replied, firmly.
“Lord Putcha wants the best. That’s you.”
I leaned forward and rested my arms on the table. “Listen.” I told the warrior. “The Elves are riled up about something. That makes them more dangerous than usual, so I’m not going anywhere near the Bleakwood until they’ve calmed down again. Might be that’ll be half a year from now, or it might be four or five years. Tell your Lord that his son is dead. If you want to hire me to take someone across the border and into Oerigath, I’m your man. You want a rabid cat or bear put down, I’m your man. I’ve no interest in tempting the fates by going up against the Elves.”
“You wouldn’t be going alone. There’d be a group of us. Well-armed and well supplied.” The man countered.
I shook my head. “You have no idea how little difference that makes. Five, ten, a hundred, the Elves are more than capable of killing us all, with little to no warning. What in the Void was he doing in the Bleakwood anyway?”
“He was looking for Em-Nuhdet.”
I laughed loudly. “Em-Nuhdet? That place is a myth. The boy was a fool.”
The man shook his head. “No myth. I thought like you, but he left something behind him, a copy of a map.”
I rolled my eyes. “I could point you in the direction of a man who could, for a few coppers, sell you several different maps to Em-Nuhdet and swear to your face that each one was genuine, you wouldn’t even need to leave the inn.”
“This one was different. It was old, the lettering was barely legible. Lord Putcha thinks it a copy of an even older map.”
I’ll admit, I was now interested. Stories of the riches of Em-Nuhdet had circulated around this area for centuries, supposedly, maybe even longer. If the boy had happened upon a genuine map I could see why his father would have allowed him to go. Lord Putch was not wealthy, as things go, and Rech was a miserable town at the best of times and absolutely wretched at any other.
“How many went with the son?”
“Six, and a guide.” Danvir answered.
“Guide? Who was he? Maybe we’ve crossed paths.”
“A Cardinian, Barra Baran. He was Sohan’s tutor. Before that I’m told he was a wandering sage of some sort.”
I grunted. “A sage? He landed on his feet taking up with a Clan Lord.”
Danvir shrugged. There wasn’t much he could say to that.
“Let’s go talk to Lord Putcha.” I decided. “I want him to double what you were about to offer.”
“He thought you might.” The man smiled. “Payment when we return.”
“I should have asked for triple.” I grumbled. “I want to meet this group that’ll be following me around.”
“They’re outside waiting for us.”
I grabbed my small travel pack from beside my chair as I stood, and my unstrung bow which had been leaning against the wall with my quiver. A few quick motions and my quiver was secure at my waist, and my travel pack on my back. I gestured at Danvir and we started to push through the crowd towards the door. A shouted curse from near the bar got my attention. It seemed that I was leaving just on time. Fights were rare. Leon strongly discouraged them, with the help of a large club, but they did happen, and when they did, they tended to drag everyone nearby in. We pushed through the door as more shouts joined the first and left the imminent chaos behind.
We stepped out into the muddy street and Danvir pointed at a small group leaning against the wall of the inn. Three warriors in clan armour stood together. A young man, in leathers, lounged a little apart. Danvir looked them over and paused.
“Where’s the other one?” Danvir barked.
The fellow in leathers shrugged his shoulders and glanced at the door to the inn. One of the clan warriors, a giantess if ever I saw one, with bright red hair and pushed forward. She stopped in front of Danvir while eyeing me up and down.
“She said she was going to follow you in and get a look at the great tracker you were trying to recruit.”
Danvir rolled his eyes. “Go in and get her Red. We’re leaving for the manor as soon as you get back.”
The woman, Red, nodded, but before she could do any more, the door to the inn burst open and one of the woodsmen tumbled backwards through it. He was quickly followed by a slender woman, a knife in one hand and murder in her eyes.
The man tried to get up, but the woman swiftly kicked him between the legs. I winced in sympathy as the only sound the man made was a breathless high-pitched keening.
“Touch me again!” The woman shouted at the man. “I dare you!”
The man, tears in his eyes, slowly pushed himself to his feet, his breathing rough and ragged.
“You bitch!” he gasped. “As I live and breathe you’ll be sorry you did that.”
More and more of Leon’s patrons were exiting the inn, and a circle was forming around the two. I could see coins quickly changing hands while shouts of encouragement were shouted to the injured woodsman.
I looked at Danvir and he glanced back.
“That’s Maria. Hired her yesterday. A bit hot headed, but Red vouched for her. Might as well see if she’s any good.”
I grunted. “She might have bitten off too much there. Everyone walks wide around Milan when he’s in a bad mood.”
Milan charged forward, fists swinging. Maria grabbed one of Milan’s fists and spun, throwing the woodsman over her shoulder. Milan crashed to the ground but rolled back to his feet before advancing on Maria again.
Danvir made an interested sound as he watched.
Maria dodged Milan’s fists once again and kicked his advancing foot from beneath him, tripping him. As he fell again, Maria rammed her knee into the man’s descending jaw, before dancing out of the way. Milan hit the ground like a sack of grain and remained still. Maria spat at him then turned to walk away, not noticing that Milan was moving again. I’d seen the man fight before and wasn’t all that surprised, he was made of mulish thick headedness and gristle. He was back on his feet with a speed that belied his size and moving before Maria realised that something was wrong. He grabbed her by the back of the neck and hauled her back into his chest.
The woman struggled but Milan had a firm grip on her now. He spat out a tooth and smiled to the spectators as he started to choked Maria.
Red looked around and before anyone could stop her, she pushed forward through the crowd.
“That’s enough!” She shouted, holding her oversized mace in her hand. “Milan, let her go.”
Milan looked at Red and gave her a bloody smile.
“Make me.” He challenged her.
“Enough!” Danvir bellowed. “In Lord Putcha’s name, this will stop now.”
Milan looked towards Danvir and sighed, tossing Maria aside.
Maria rolled to her feet and made to go after Milan.
“Maria!” Danvir warned her. “That’s enough.”
“Gods damn it!” She swore as she rubbed her throat.
“Red, she’s your problem. Sort her out or she won’t be going with us.”
Danvir gestured to me and we started walking out of the town, towards where Lord Putcha had his manor.
“What did you think?” Lord Putcha’s man asked me.
“I think that that nonsense should have been stopped before it started.” I replied shortly.
“Probably, but I was curious about her. I think she’ll do nicely, once Red has had a word with her.”
“She’s too hot headed.” I warned Danvir. “She’s going to get someone killed. I’d rather it wasn’t me.”
“It’s not like we have a lot of choice. We don’t have much of a garrison, but Lord Putcha let me pick three of our warriors.”
“Who’s the kid with the attitude?”
“Rain Bedri. Supposedly one of the nomadic tribes, passing through or so he says.”
“Looks a little young to be out on his own.”
“Maybe a little. He’s good with that sabre of his though, checked him out myself.”
“I’m more interested in how good he is with that bow of his.”
“He said he’s good enough with it.”
“He’d better be. With the looks he was throwing around he’ll be as fun to have around as a dose of crotch rot.”
“Same as Maria. Not a lot of choice.”
I sighed in resignation. “Lord Putcha better make me a very wealthy man. This has all the makings of a bloody disaster.”
Lord Putcha Ravi was an imposing man. Grey bearded, tall and stocky, he had a nose like a hawk’s beak and his dark eyes looked like they tracked everything that moved. He stood beside his desk with his arms folded.
“You understand why I want you to go?” He asked me.
“You want the best.” I replied. “Trouble is though, I don’t know the Bleakwood as well as you seem to think I do. No one does. Even the woodsmen only work the edges. There are wild cats in there, boars, poisonous animals of all sorts, not to mention plants that will kill you just as fast.”
Lord Putcha waved away my concerns. “I know all that. The warriors we’re bringing can deal with the wildlife and such. I need you for the elves. I’m told you know their ways.”
I laughed. “Lord, no one knows their ways. I know enough to know that I don’t want to go anywhere near them.”
“But you know how they mark their borders, correct?”
“I know a little, as I said.”
“It’ll have to be enough.”
“Has anyone suggested that your son is dead? Lord, this is a fool’s errand.”
Lord Putcha looked me straight in the eye and I was forced to turn aside.
“He is not dead.” He said, emphatically. “Sohan was trained by the best men I could find. Weapons, tracking and strategy. In these things he excelled, as in almost anything he put his mind to. If anyone could survive in there, he could.”
“Then why has he not returned, Lord?”
The Clan Lord looked troubled. “That I cannot say, only that were he able, he would have.”
I sighed in resignation. I knew I should refuse, and walk out of the room, but the thoughts of Em-Nuhdet were too tempting. While the legends mostly spoke of its fabled riches, they also spoke of the city as a place of great learning. Em-Nuhdet was said to have been one of a string of cities, offshoots from a distant empire, where power was more important than wealth, where learning was said to have been the most important thing one could pursue. Wealth wasn’t an issue for me, living as I did for the most part in the wilds, but knowledge? I craved knowledge, as did any Mystic worth their name, and it was whispered that Em-Nuhdet had been a city of Mystics.
“I’ll go.” I found myself saying. “but I’ll be leading. I want it understood that if I give an order it had better be followed. I won’t have anyone putting my life at risk.”
“Fair point.” Lord Putcha allowed. “On the trail you’ll lead, but in the camp my word will be law.”
“Surely your presence is required here?” I asked, surprised. “With your son already missing, surely you don’t want to risk dying yourself and leaving your Clan without a head.”
Lord Putcha waved away my concerns. “I have every confidence in you, and I’m no stranger to risk.”
I glanced at Danvir who shrugged.
“Then there will be eight of us.” I concluded.
Lord Putcha nodded. “A small enough number to be sure, but perhaps a small group will win through where a larger group would fail.”
“Let’s hope.” I replied. “When do you want to leave?”
“Tomorrow morning. Danvir has organised a boat to take us up river. As luck would have it, the same boat carried my son and his party up river, so they know where to let us off.”
“Do you have a map of the area?” I asked.
Lord Putcha gestured to Danvir and his man unrolled a map on the desk, weighing down the ends with books. Clearly they’d anticipated me. Lord Putcha traced the Drethan up from the town and followed it through the Bleakwood for some distance, before stopping at a particular point.
“Equola’s teeth!” I swore. “That’s almost all the way to Crann!”
Lord Putcha nodded. “About three days or so to get there. The boat’s crew swear that they occasionally run cargo up there.”
“I’m guessing that they don’t know that Danvir here works for you.”
Lord Putcha smiled. “No, they do not.”
“Would it be too much to ask for a boat with a crew that are less likely to kill us in our sleep?”
“They were the only crew I could find who’d do it.” Danvir admitted. “and they cost a fortune.”
“I don’t suppose you asked what sort of cargo they occasionally take to Crann?”
“Do I look stupid to you?” Danvir growled.
“Can we trust that they’ll return for us?”
“Absolutely.” Lord Putcha replied. “They’ll be working directly for me by the time this is all over, and they’ll be glad of it.”
I had doubts about that, but as with everything, it paid to be careful when dealing with the Clans, so I kept them to myself. The Clan Lord seemed confident, so I was sure he had some sort of plan. Whether it’d work or not was another thing.
The huge forest around me smelt alive, vibrant and deadly. Everywhere I looked I could see fresh growth. I fancied I could just about hear all the insects and tiny forest dwellers skittering around. It was a little past midday, and I stood on the bank of the sluggish river, holding the boat’s bow rope as the rest of the group leapt ashore. Danvir threw the last of the packs to Red and then joined us on the bank. I coiled the rope and threw it back to the waiting boatman.
“Two weeks.” Lord Putcha called to the captain of the boat.
The captain sketched a mocking bow as the boat drifted back into the slow current. “We’ll be here your lordship, no fear.”
A curt word and his men began to row as though their lives depended on it and soon they were out of sight.