Deep Magic - June 2016
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If you want to read a gripping story that doesn’t rely on sex, swearing, and graphic violence—you’ve come to the right place!
DEEP MAGIC is a bi-monthly electronic magazine that publishes clean short fiction in the fantasy and science fiction genres (epic, paranormal, steampunk, etc). Our issues are also filled with author interviews, art features, book reviews and tips for writers.
This month, we feature an exclusive interview with Brandon Sanderson on his latest journey to the United Arab Emirates. We also include short stories from Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jeff Wheeler* ("The Beesinger's Daughter"), Amazon bestselling Carrie Anne Noble ("The Perfect Specimen"), and Cecilia Dart-Thornton who came out of hiding to let us publish her latest ("The Churchyard Yarrow"). We also feature stories this month by Steve Yeager ("Rain Dance") and Brendon Taylor ("The Apothecant"). You'll also get two articles, one written by NYT bestselling author Anthony Ryan and the other by David Pomerico, Harper Voyager US's Executive Editor. Still not convinced to give it a try? We'll also be publishing an extended sample of Wall Street Journal bestselling author Charlie N Holmberg's** latest novel ("Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet").
Release date: June 14, 2016
Print pages: 223
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Deep Magic - June 2016
by Brendon Taylor
Danai Walders had climbed every peak in the mountains surrounding the Brasin valley by the time she was twelve. Now seventeen, she continued to climb almost daily. Her strong fingers and nimble feet had earned her a reputation for being part mountain goat, while her stubborn mind and disregard for rules or parental commands earned her a reputation for being part ox. Both were well deserved. All of her nicknames, which were admittedly terrible, played on one or both of these traits, and all came from her father: she-goat, nanny ox, and the mule spider. Danai’s favorite nickname was the one he had begun calling her the summer before everything in her life changed: Pugnox. Her father, who had a love of words and language, explained that it was derived from an old tongue, and referenced someone who was stubborn and liked to fight.
Danai counted it as good fortune that no one but her father had ever called her Pugnox, and she had not heard the name since her mother died five years earlier. She would walk a path of burning embers to hear her father call her any of those ridiculous nicknames once more. Losing her mother to the blue moth plague was devastating. That tragedy alone would have been more than a young woman should have to bear, but it was also that summer when her father contracted the same illness. She went from having two loving, attentive parents to having one ill father in constant need of medication and bed rest. Yet, she also learned to be strong and to be content with little, and she was still able to find happiness in the world inside and out of her shanty of a home.
She had even found a job that provided enough income to cover their needs and that was actually the perfect job for her. She worked for the apothecant, Merdrid Knaevel, who knew more about herbs, poultices, and healing than the physicians from the big city. Thanks to Merdrid, Danai’s father received medication each month that kept the plague at bay and allowed him a brief respite from the pain.
It was her father’s poultice, the poultice that would treat him and seven other members of the valley who likewise suffered from the blue moth plague, that put Danai on the tallest peak over the Brasin valley on a late spring morning. Little purple flowers from the elusive pintiach tree were an essential ingredient. This time of year, only the most adept climber could retrieve them. Hence, Danai’s value to Merdrid was realized. The elderly, portly Merdrid huffed when walking up the short flight of stairs from the cellar. Climbing a mountain was unthinkable. Not only was Danai able to climb any mountain around, but her mind stayed focused on the specific flower, root, or berry Merdrid required, and she nearly always returned with the correct item and amount. If she did not find what Merdrid wanted, it was because it was not there to be found.
Notwithstanding the cool of the morning leaving tendrils of fog around the tall evergreen trees in the valley below, Danai felt rivulets of sweat roll down her back between her shoulder blades. Her muscles strained to pull her body up the vertical face of granite. She felt a sharp shift followed by a terrifying crumble as her left handhold gave way. Her body swayed as she sought purchase with her right foot, and the fingers on her right hand gripped their hold more tightly. A few whispered counts helped calm her nerves. She felt the gentle breeze and warmth of the sun, and forced thoughts of aching arms and shoulders out of mind. Focusing on each place to put a hand or foot, she continued her ascent. A short while later, she reached the ledge where a large cropping of pintiach bloomed beautifully.
Danai filled her belt pouch with purple flowers before she gathered a handful of heather berries and sat in the sun with her waterskin to relax. The pintiach flower was the last ingredient Merdrid needed for the poultice that would relieve her father’s pain, and even enable him to wake and speak for a few precious moments. His disease left him with little energy and almost no ability to communicate. The windows of clarity the poultice brought when first applied were the only golden treasures Danai had. She loved Merdrid for giving those to her.
The tartness of the berries lingered on her tongue, and the red from their juices stained her fingers. They were some of her favorites. She thought about gathering enough for a pie, but decided against wasting the time it would take to gather that many. Besides, she had no bag or sack to hold them. And her pockets would be a soggy red mess if she tried to climb down with berries inside. Ultimately, thoughts of hearing her father speak that evening pushed all other ideas out of her mind. As soon as her limbs regained their strength, Danai slipped over the edge of the rock wall and methodically descended.
The ancient brass bell that dangled from a wire hook above Merdrid’s door clanged as Danai entered the apothecary. Danai had mentioned to Merdrid several times in the years she had been her assistant that the bell looked worn and dirty. Merdrid always defended the bell with a smile, declaring the age and wear were called patina, and that it made the bell even more valuable than a new one. Danai liked the bell, but the smell of the shop was what made it her second home. It was like freshly turned soil, harvested vegetables, ripe fruit, and a flower garden in bloom. At least, in Danai’s mind that was how it smelled. If she was honest, she would also admit it smelled a bit like a burlap bag of moldy mushrooms and mud from a barnyard.
“I’m in the back, Sis.” Merdrid’s voice cracked.
“Coming.” Danai hustled down a root-crowded aisle.
Merdrid scraped the underbark from a section of kiltenmoss brush with a short, stout bone-handled knife. Her favorite. “You look a shabby mess! Sweaty face, hair mussed, and blouse untucked.” The older woman chuckled without moving her eyes from the section of bark. It was one of several odd things about Merdrid. She always seemed to see Danai without needing to bother herself with actually looking.
Danai glanced up and saw strands of her blond hair dangling in front of her eyes as she unconsciously tucked in the loose tail of her shirt. “You didn’t even see me, Merdrid. That was a lucky guess.”
“It is my business to know everything that happens in my shop. Of course I saw you.” Merdrid put the knife and bark down on the table and smiled with a nod as her eyes confirmed what she had said. “Just be glad that I was too courteous to mention your smell.” The older woman waved a short-fingered hand in front of her nose as if to ward away the smell and squinted.
Danai’s own nose dipped toward her right armpit, and she took a half step back. The older woman was right. “Perhaps I should take a quick bath before working in the shop.”
“Perhaps you should. But if you leave the pintiach flowers on the table, I can prepare them for the poultice while you bathe.” Merdrid pulled her heavy stone mortar from the shelf under the table and gathered the bark shavings into its bowl.
Danai chided herself for momentarily forgetting the importance of the day. “What makes you so sure I found the flowers?”
“Sis, I already told you. I know what happens in my shop.” Merdrid looked serious for a moment, with her stone-gray hair carefully pulled into a bun secured by two mixing rods. “Besides, you would not have been smiling so much had you not found them.”
Danai could not argue with that. She loosened her belt pouch and placed the flowers gently on a clean section of the table near the bark. “When will the poultice be ready?”
“By nightfall if we stop yapping and you clean yourself enough to get some work done.” Merdrid winked as her hands worked the pestle in the mortar. “Danai, let me give you two compliments before you go. You have earned them.”
Danai had started turning toward the front door, but stopped. Compliments were rare from Merdrid, and always sincere.
“First, I have never seen a young woman who stays as consistently cheerful as you, when life gives you few reasons to be so.” Merdrid’s look was serious.
“Well, I get to climb all over the valley and am blessed to work with . . .”
“Hush!” Merdrid stopped her. “I’m giving you a compliment. Let me give you the second one.” Merdrid paused long enough that Danai began to feel the urge to fill the silence, but she forced herself to stand still. Seemingly satisfied, Merdrid continued. “Second, I have never seen a young woman willing to sacrifice so much of herself for her family. What you do for your father is truly remarkable, Danai. These two things make you very rare, not unlike the pintiach flowers from your pouch.”
“Thank you.” Danai remembered the way her mother taught her to receive a compliment when she was a little girl. This seemed to please Merdrid.
“Am I correct to believe that you would do most anything to help your father?”
“Of course!” Danai nodded.
Merdrid paused for a moment, and Danai made herself stay still. “Sis, what if I told you I have been working out a way to heal your father completely from his illness, but it would take a bit of a sacrifice from you?” The look in Merdrid’s eye was a mix of sparkle and something else.
Danai’s stomach clenched with ice. She had long beaten down any hope that her father might recover, since Merdrid and everyone else in the valley assured her that was not possible. Yet, Danai knew that Merdrid would not mention a possible cure unless she had found one. Merdrid would never hurt her like that; she was certain. Still, she did not want to open herself to that level of pain, and let hope creep in where she had safely locked out emotion for so many years. “You are serious, aren’t you?” Danai’s voice was a whisper.
Merdrid’s mouth turned into a small smile. “You know I would not say such a thing unless I thought it was possible. Only possible, mind you.”
The front door bell clanged as a customer walked into the shop. Danai clenched her hands into fists at her sides, angry that they might be interrupted right then. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the most handsome face she had ever seen. A dark-haired, tall man, about twenty years old, in a crisp gray uniform with green-and-gold trim walked toward them with an older well-dressed man behind him. Her nose dipped once more toward her armpit, and she frowned.
Danai refused to think of herself as beautiful. When she was a child, she always felt beautiful, in part because her mother’s compliments were effusive. Mother always praised her for her golden hair and gorgeous eyes. Danai believed her at the time because Mother was a beautiful woman. She too had blond hair and blue eyes. She too had a dimple in her left cheek. The biggest difference beyond the gentle wear of years was that Danai’s younger face bore a smattering of freckles across her nose and cheeks. Mother had promised those would fade by the time Danai became a woman.
Mother had not been right about the freckles fading; however, Danai believed her beauty had faded—her hair seemed paler, her eyes less dazzling. Even her dimple now looked too deep to be pretty. Danai wondered how much of the way she had viewed herself as a girl was shaped by her mother, or if she had truly been prettier as a child. Certainly a person’s looks can change, but she felt that was one more unfortunate turn of events that followed the summer her mother died. She knew she was not ugly, but believed most people would describe her as plain or pleasant. Neither term was what a young woman strived to hear.
She decided right then that if she was going to meet this handsome soldier, it would not be as grubby or smelly as she then was. She might not turn all of the young men’s heads in the valley, but that did not mean she would stop trying to look her best.
Merdrid hustled in front of Danai and whispered as she went by, “Slip out the back and get cleaned up. We can talk more later.”
With another quick glance at the man in uniform, Danai sighed and did as she was bid, sincerely happy the shop had a back door.
Danai would not want to admit it, but she sprinted the two cobblestone blocks to her home tucked behind the town well. She almost forgot how weak the front door was and nearly broke it off its hinges as she bounded into the small main room.
“Father!” Danai dropped onto the stool next to her father and held his hand.
He startled from sleep, and looked at her through drooping eyelids.
Danai could see his concern. “I have great news! Do not worry. The poultice will be ready tonight, but that’s not even the best part.” She smiled and waited to make sure his eyes confirmed that he was alert and listening to her. Satisfied, she went on. “Merdrid hinted that she may have found a cure or at least a more effective treatment for the plague.” She reconsidered whether she should have told him about the possible cure, but decided she was right to give him a little hope. This way, he could be ready to talk about the possible cure when the poultice was ready that night. She also thought about telling him of the handsome soldier, but decided to keep that bit of news to herself.
Father’s eyes closed for a moment and he seemed to shake his head from side to side. Danai decided he must be overwhelmed, as she was, at the hope of a cure. She stood and pulled her hand from his. “I need to clean up and hurry back to the shop. Merdrid needs me.” She poured the remaining water from their bucket into the pot and stoked the wood-burning stove to at least take the chill off. “I will fetch fresh water to fill the tub and get you a drink while the pot heats.”
Several minutes later, the tub was a little more than a quarter full and the water in the pot was at least not cold. Danai helped her father sip down a glass of water, smiling and telling him about her climb that morning. It would have taken a full pot of boiling water to make the tub temperature comfortable, but Danai could not wait that long. After she added the water from the pot, the tub water went from icy to frigid. At least she would stop sweating. She pulled the curtain for privacy and made quick work of the task. She had taken colder baths before, but they had been accidental and involved mountain springs.
Before leaving, Danai changed her father’s bed pot and helped him take a few more sips of water. She brushed long strands of graying brown hair back from his eyes and felt the heat coming off his forehead. He had a low fever, which was not unusual, so Danai ground some bitter bark into his water and helped him drink. It was not a high fever. She had long experienced his conditions and knew which signs should cause her to worry. This fever would likely respond to the bitter bark within a few minutes. She felt guilty about leaving, but could not get the image of the handsome soldier out of her mind. Besides, she had a hunger to know more about Merdrid’s cure.
Danai kissed her father gently on the forehead and promised to be back by evening. She grabbed a hard roll to eat on the way and rushed out the front door like a rabbit with a coyote on her tail.
Danai swallowed the last of the roll as she ducked into the narrow dirt alley leading to the back of Merdrid’s shop. Her blond hair pulled back into a tight ponytail dripped down her back, soaking a circle on her blouse. She regretted not taking a little time to dry it after the bath. At least she smelled fresh, like the soap Merdrid gave her for her birthday last year. Jinderberries and honeyblossom. Merdrid was going to tease her mercilessly. Danai only used the sweet-smelling soap on special occasions, and with her birthday coming tomorrow, she would likely get a fresh cake of the special soap. Danai peered through the window in the back door, hoping to see the handsome soldier, while she caught her breath. Instead, she saw Merdrid crumpled on the floor by her worktable.
Merdrid sobbed. The sound halted Danai and broke her heart. The sweet, grandmotherly woman who had cared for Danai and her father for the past five years had been a rock. Danai placed a gentle hand on Merdrid’s back and knelt beside her. For a minute, Merdrid’s body shook with sobs, and Danai consoled her without words.
Finally, Merdrid looked up, eyes swollen and red, cheeks wet and shiny. “I have failed you, Sis.”
Confused, Danai scooted to where she could see Merdrid better. “You’ve never failed me, Merdrid. What happened?”
“The soldier and the emissary.” Her voice quavered as she struggled to put words together. “They came on a mission from King Evenricht. They took it.”
Danai patted Merdrid’s leg and leaned in. “What did they take?”
The older woman took a deep, stuttered breath. “My mortar.”
Danai cocked her head to the left. “Is that all?”
“You must have another mortar in the shop. If not, we can get another from the merchant.” Danai used her best comforting voice, one she might use if she was coaxing a wayward goat into a pen.
“You don’t understand, Danai.” Merdrid’s tears were now flowing from eyes that showed anger and loss. “Without that mortar, many of my potions, powders, and poultices will lose their effect.”
The last of her words lingered in Danai’s mind. She just sat there, going numb at the thought that her father’s poultice would not work. “But why is that mortar so important?”
“I was going to explain this to you before your birthday tomorrow, and I feel horrible that this is how you found out.” Merdrid’s eyes released their tinge of anger and showed nothing but compassion toward Danai. “My recipes are sound, and the cures and crafts I make would be of high quality without the mortar, but some of them require something more than herbs, roots, and berries provide.”
Merdrid continued. “The mortar is made of a special stone that came from a very rare and deep mine—the mine caved in a very long time ago. The stone that was found is called by several names: hearthstone, bloodstone, oathstone, and mantle rock. It has the power to bind people to their oaths and give power to those who vow to use it for their promised purpose. This power is called, vivos sanguine in an old tongue, or vosang, for short. It means ‘life blood.’ ”
Voice quivering, Merdrid went on. “The truth of the stone remains unknown to most, but not to the emissary and his protector. The king sent them to gather any remnants of that stone and hold it in a treasury to add to the king’s wealth. Unfortunately, where it is now going, it cannot help people who are in dire need. Like your father.”
There it was—the fear carving a hole in Danai’s heart, put into words. It was an old wound that was tearing open. Danai’s eyes blurred with her own tears.
“Oh, Sis. I am so sorry. You must think I am a fraud. I am embarrassed that I needed something beyond my own abilities to help my patrons.” Merdrid looked away and crossed her arms tightly. Silence loomed for many long seconds. Merdrid continued. “I didn’t want to let them take it, but they threatened to arrest any who stood in their way or prevented them from taking the bloodstone. I was so afraid that I did nothing to stop them.”
A wave of darkness and despair threatened to overwhelm Danai, but what kept it at bay was the image of her father lying on his bed, suffering from fever, and straining in vain to talk to her. She would stay strong for him, at least until all hope was gone. “I will get it back for you.” Danai’s words were dry and brittle like old parchment.
Merdrid coughed out a little laugh. “Danai, I wish you could, but they will already be heading south to the highlands of Gretford. I overheard the young man tell the older that the horses were ready. Even as fast as your feet are, they cannot keep up with the king’s horses.”
Danai thought a moment. “The highland road winds its way through the cedar woods on the east slope of the valley. That way will take them the rest of the day to reach the rim of the highlands to our south.” Danai wiped the wetness from her own cheeks, relieved that the plan in her mind had somehow stopped the tears.
Merdrid shook her head gently. “Even if you follow them on foot, it will take you until midmorning tomorrow to reach the rim. By then, they will be farther down the road. Besides, the soldier wasn’t alone. He had a knot of five others with him. No doubt they will be watching the road behind. Even if you did catch them, how would you wrestle the mortar away?”
Danai offered a weak smile. “The answer to the first problem solves the second. At least I hope so. If I climb the table steppe on the southern slope, and continue over the face of the rim, I could be there by an hour after nightfall. Well, if I leave right away, I could.” Merdrid shook her head, but Danai continued. “I have made the climb many times and know it well enough to finish the ascent in the dark. The solution this plan offers is that it places me in the roadway beyond the shelter of the tall pines. It seems unlikely the men would camp out in the open of the highlands when they have tall, sheltering pines to protect them from the vicious winds that abuse anyone who lingers on the long plateau. They will be watching the road behind them, but might pay less attention to someone coming from the road ahead.”
Merdrid labored to stand, pulling herself up with the help of a firm grip on the worktable. It wobbled a little, but held together. She shuffled slowly toward a high shelf holding a row of bottles of various sizes. She reached up on her tiptoes to grab a slender red bottle with a cork stopper. “I’m a fool to let you go. But I know how stubborn you can be. Besides, your interest in this matter is every bit as important as my own.” Merdrid grunted a little as she turned, and favored her left knee. “I might as well offer what help I can.” She held the bottle out to Danai.
Danai had asked about the bottles before and had received little information for her queries. “What is this?”
“That particular elixir will help you get into camp unseen and get out safely as well. It has a powerful memory block, so none of them should remember seeing you if they do catch a glimpse. I warn you that your own memory might also be shaded. Unfortunately, it won’t help you find the mortar, so that part of the job will be up to you.”
Danai gripped the cork stopper to pull it free.
Merdrid yelped. “Not now, girl! There is one dose in that bottle and you want to drink it no more than ten minutes before entering the camp, which will give the potion long enough to take effect. Mind you, those effects will only last for a couple hours, so you must be sure when you drink it you are ready.”
Danai could feel the blood flush her cheeks. “Sorry, Merdrid.” She was ready to sprint up the face of the southern steppe. Then, she remembered her father. What she was doing was dangerous, and if she failed, they both were in dire trouble. She wanted to tell him good-bye, but knew if she went home, she would only worry him. Still, he was expecting her to be home that evening with the poultice. Even if she succeeded in recovering the mortar, she would not return until morning. He would need help before then.
“Sis, I can see your thoughts linger with your father. That is one of your tender strengths.” Merdrid’s weak smile comforted Danai, who was just glad to see the older woman had stopped crying herself. Merdrid continued. “I will visit him with supper and sit with him while you are away.”
Danai thought her eyes were getting plenty of water today. “Thanks.” She choked out.
A few minutes later, Danai set a fast pace to the south, shouldering her pack, with a full waterskin at her hip.
* * *
Shortly after dusk, when the few street lamps in the sparsely populated Brasin valley had begun to flicker, Merdrid waddled up the cobblestone roadway to the shanty where Danai and her father lived. She carried a maplewood bucket with too many cracks to be watertight, which held a bowl of soup on bottom and a napkin full of rolls on top. After a perfunctory knock (Merdrid knew Danai’s father could not respond, much less get up to answer the door), she entered. The home was pitiful. Small, adorned with furniture that seemed to stay upright by force of will alone, and smelling of illness. She reached a stubby-fingered hand into one of her several belt pouches and flung a large pinch of powder into the air. The powder ignited into a sizzle of sparks that quickly dissipated. Although the powder seemed gone, the smell of lilacs lingered in its place. Merdrid nodded contentedly.
“Well, well, Haimer. You are looking rather ill tonight.” She said in a matter-of-fact tone.
Haimer lay in bed, eyes open and wary. His mouth tried to move and muscles in his neck strained, but words and sound failed him.
“Fret not, good man. I am here because Danai is on an errand for me. We had a run of unfortunate luck this afternoon that required her help to make it right.” Merdrid sat the bucket on a table near Danai’s father and pulled the items out one at a time. “I promised her I would bring you dinner and explain that she would be out late tonight.” Merdrid sat on a stool, but it groaned loudly enough that she put it aside and knelt on the floor near Haimer’s head. “I won’t be surprised if she is not back before you fall asleep for the night.”
Tears leaked from Haimer’s eyes and he squirmed in the bed.
“Steady. Don’t worry so. Danai will be home tomorrow morning when you wake up, I have no doubt. Trust me when I assure you that I have a very keen interest in that young woman. Almost as keen as yours.” Merdrid’s smile did little to comfort the man. She pulled a spoon from the bottom of the bucket and dipped it into the creamy soup. As she waited a moment for the soup to cool, she said, “Once Danai is back, we will complete the poultice, and then you can have a nice visit with her.” Steam still wafted up from the spoon as Merdrid lowered it to Haimer’s mouth. Her other hand gently steadied his shaking chin, and she smoothly slid the spoon in and tipped it up.
Haimer’s shaking slowed a little and his eyes relaxed.
“Did you expect my cooking to taste foul? Perhaps I should be offended.” Merdrid chuckled at the man. “One doesn’t get so portly as this without knowing how to make food that tastes good.” Merdrid turned sideways on one knee to exaggerate her girth.
The more spoonfuls she put in, the more content, then tired, his eyes seemed. Merdrid chewed on a roll. If she had to answer honestly, she would have admitted she always intended the rolls to be for her. A half hour after she arrived, Haimer was asleep and she had fulfilled her promise to Danai. At that point, she went above and beyond her promise and cleaned the bed pot for Haimer.
Merdrid popped another roll into her mouth, gobbling this one whole as she quickly put her things away, leaving the bowl in the bucket on the table and reaching into another belt pouch. Certain the man was asleep, Merdrid popped a pickled root into her mouth and pulled a wide, shallow silver bowl out of her pack. The surface of the metal gleamed and reflected like a freshly polished sword. She set the bowl on the floor, then pulled a dull brown bottle out of her robe pocket. The contents were bloodred as she poured them into the bowl. The liquid in the bowl turned clear when she added a bottle of water. Checking Haimer once more, she squatted on the floor and began to hum a catchy tune.
* * *
Danai cursed as the darkness made handholds more difficult to find. She had pushed herself near her limit in arriving beyond the southern steppe and more than halfway up the face of the mountain before true dark was upon her, but upon her it was. She was pleased that her waterskin was still bulging with water. She had used enough to avoid a light head or exhaustion, but still had plenty for the rest of the climb with some left for the return trip. Clouds had moved in near dusk, which would make the climb harder, but might aid her when she found the men’s camp.
The urgency of acting—her father’s dire need—had put her on her path to find the handsome soldier’s group with little thought or planning. She had one potion she did not really understand, the cover of night, some skill in moving quietly through wilderness, and a knowledge of the area. The things she lacked filled her mind and sprouted doubts like cattails on a meadow pond. She had no weapon aside from a short-bladed root knife. That was just as well because she did not know how to use a weapon or fight. She did not know the strength of the men she sought, other than the fact that there were at least six soldiers counting the handsome one. She did not know if they would even camp, nor was she certain they would be coming along the highland road anywhere near where she would emerge. She also did not know where the mortar would be kept and how she might secure it. What if it was in a locked wagon? Would she be able to find the key and pilfer it?
The doubts offered one benefit. They occupied her mind so she could climb quickly. Often she found that when her brain worked on a problem, her hands and feet seemed to find their own way up a slope. Even in the dark. No more than an hour after true dark, she neared the rim. Danai decided it was time to worry less and focus on the task before her. The wind had picked up, and gusts buffeted her body against the rock face, then threatened to pull her off. She slowed to be more certain in her movements and made sure she had three points of contact with the rock at all times.
Coyotes called from peaks along the ridge. She was not terribly close to them, but just hearing their cry was like a splash of icy water to the face. When she was twelve, a pack of coyotes had followed her as she was on a climb by herself. Her father would scold her every time she came home from a climb alone, telling her to make sure she had a companion, but she never cared to find one. They would slow her down and make her talk when she did not want to. The evening the coyotes followed her, she regretted being alone, but not enough to change her practice. They followed for nearly an hour, getting closer and closer until she reached the safety of the valley. Ever since then, the cry of a coyote sent a shiver along her spine.
Finally, Danai pulled herself over a jagged ridge and onto the plateau above, hearing a tear of fabric as she made it to safety. It was a pretty big rip on the stomach of her blouse. Her favorite blouse. She shook her head in disgust. She had worn the blouse because she wanted to look nice for the handsome soldier. It had been an impractical choice for a work shirt and an even less suitable choice for climbing attire. She only had three other blouses, and resolved to mend this one when she got home.
As she stood, a gust of wind pushed her toward the cliff, but she was ready and leaned into it. Scanning around, she found a small cropping of rocks and quickly sat on the downwind side to catch her breath and drink a little water. It was then that she felt the first stinging droplet of cold rain. She mentally added “only bringing a light jacket” to the list of problems that was growing. Danai took solace in the fact that she had made it to the top of the climb before rain fell. It would have been a much larger problem if she were still on the wall.
Moments later, with her light jacket offering a meager defense against the rain and cold, Danai found the highland road and turned left. She stayed to the side of the roadway, where her form would be more difficult to spot. In the dark and rain, she would be even more concealed.
After looking for what seemed like an eternity, she was relieved to reach the beginning of the woods. The next stretch of roadway would be the most likely place for a camp. Danai slowed, walking quietly despite the muting rainfall. The drops became bigger, though still cold, and soaked her clothing to the skin and drenched the ground below all but the thickest of evergreens.
The smell of wet earth was comforting, but the chill numbed the comfort and Danai’s fingers. She breathed on her hands, hoping her warm breath would restore feeling. A little farther down the road, Danai decided that if the rain continued and she got any colder, she would be unable to open the stopper on the bottle Merdrid had given her. She reasoned she had to be near the camp. Trembling fingers found the bottle and pulled it out. Relieved that it had not been damaged when she scrambled on the rocks, she walked slowly for a short while, looking around and listening. Hoping to find the camp. After thinking it through a little longer, she pulled the stopper and swallowed the contents. It tasted like vinegar and mint and would not find a place in any of Danai’s cooking recipes.
For the next few minutes, she looked at her hands, felt her face with them, and even bit on one of her numb fingers. Why hadn’t Merdrid explained what the potion would do? She could not perceive a difference in herself, but Merdrid had warned that it would take a while to work.
Time continued to pass, and Danai worried that she had gone too far down the road, mumbling to herself, “Why would I have thought they would camp right along the road? Far more likely, they would be well off into the seclusion of the woods.”
“Far more likely indeed.” A deep male voice behind her answered.
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