The following is an extract from Quest for Knowledge (Volume 1 of the FirstWorld Saga) and I’m posting it to embarrass Kris. Download the book for free here.
My bones are too old for this, Manfred thought as he struggled onto his horse. The four companions were travelling light because they would soon need to revert to their feet. They left Elannort at dawn with a young groom from the stables. Manfred decided to take the most direct route, depending on his magic to secure a path where Dawit had recently failed. They headed north along the Lost Road. They saw no one on the road all day, befitting a road that seemingly went nowhere. They made camp on the first night on the outskirts of the Impenetrable Forest. Manfred ensured that they camped well away from the forest boundary and they only used dead wood on their fire so as not to break living branches. Better not to antagonise the trees. They were in good spirits and shared a warm meal and a story from Kris. Next morning the groom left them, taking their horses back to Elannort, and they continued on foot.
As they approached the forest, it seemed to live up to its name. There was barely a gap between the greenery that a rabbit could get through, let alone a human. Manfred had been putting up with his companions’ scepticism ever since they had left Elannort. No one else believed it was possible to get through the forest. Time to show them that the old wizard still has some sparks in his wand. He looked for the appropriate signs; a barely discernible path leading up to the trees; some faint marks on some of the tree trunks that were old elven runes; and tracks or droppings to show that animals had been this way.
“Get in line, one behind the other. Do not draw your weapons while you are in the forest. Respect the trees. Tread carefully. Do as little damage as you can. I hope no one is claustrophobic.” Manfred stopped in front of the impenetrable barrier. Now I must get this right. It’s some time since I’ve spoken old elvish. He spoke quietly and carefully, beseeching the trees to let them pass safely and in peace. He called on the names of elven kings and queens of ages past to justify their case. For good luck, he even mentioned the names of the Seven Great Sages.
Slowly and grudgingly, the trees began to part. Branches moved aside until there was just enough room for them to pass in single file. It was like walking through a maze with the hedges almost touching. They kept up a slow and steady pace, never stopping; not even to take a drink from their water bottles. Time seemed to stop. They were just in an endless loop, putting one foot after the other while thousands of annoying insects buzzed around their heads and bit them incessantly. As soon as they had passed, the trees filled in behind them like a zipper closing, almost as if the forest were hurrying them to get out of its domain.
Finally, a gap opened up in front of them and they emerged from the forest into grassland and rolling foothills. Ahead of them, the Devil Mountains stretched into the sky, snow covered peaks glinting in late afternoon sunshine. It had taken the best part of day to traverse the forest. Manfred spoke quiet words of thanks to the trees before the four of them threw themselves on the ground and all took deep drinks from their water bottles.
“I have been in some tight battles, but I have never felt as afraid as I was in there. At any minute the trees could have closed in and smothered us,” Gamying said.
“I will never look on trees in the same way again. They have my respect,” Aglaral stated.
“It wasn’t so much the trees, but those damned gnats that have eaten me alive,” Kris complained.
“Let’s move away from the forest and make camp,” Manfred suggested. “The trees are not too bad. They still remember the old days when elves lived here. So long as they believe you are an elf friend you will be all right. They hate dwarves though. Dwarves have no respect for trees. Dawit was lucky they didn’t let in him and then smother him in the middle of the forest. I wouldn’t suggest you venture into the Dark Woods or the Forest of Doom though. Those trees have turned to evil, I’m afraid. It’s all to do with who or what chooses to live there. Trees are very susceptible to suggestion, you know.”
“Well, I for one have no intention of venturing into any more woods or forests, or even a small spinney for a long time to come,” Gamying said.
That night, they were glad of the extra warm clothing they had brought with them. Even with a roaring campfire, the wind, blowing from the north, had a bone chilling aspect. They awoke early, shivering, and after a quick bite from their rations, they began the long trek toward the Gap of Despair. It was easy country, open grassland with a gentle ascent. The grass was brittle with frost and crunched underfoot. The four walked in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. How is Simon getting on? I wish I had gone with him. Jhamed will look after him. But what can he do against a witch? What could I do against her?
By midday, the frost had disappeared and the spring sun was quite strong. Manfred began to struggle with the pace. I’m too old for all of this. After a brief stop for lunch beside a small mountain brook, where they refilled their water bottles, the three younger companions redistributed the packs so that Manfred didn’t have to carry anything. They pushed on, Manfred using his staff as a walking aid. By mid-afternoon, the grassland had given way to rocky foothills with sparse spiny plants and loose rocks that caused frequent trips and slips. The going became slow and Manfred began to wonder whether he had made the right choice. We could have been in Fang by now, on horseback all the way, settling down to a cold beer and a warm meal before sleeping in a soft bed. I must be crazy.
Gamying seemed to sense his thoughts. “Don’t worry old man; we will reap the benefits with the easier climb through the Gap of Despair. The path from Fang would be impassable with so much snow around.”
They spent an uncomfortable night, sheltering behind a few rocks as best they could. There was insufficient fuel for a fire and they had to survive on water and cold rations again. They huddled together for warmth. Manfred opened his mind to read the thoughts of the others. They are worried about Simon, about securing the Sword. Gamying worries what we might find in Tamarlan. Aglaral is concerned about his family. He has a cute baby boy. I cannot read Kris. It is as if he guards his mind. That is unusual for a human.
Next morning they set off again at first light. Gamying was now leading, as he was most familiar with the mountains. “We must make the foot of the Ice Stair before nightfall. There is a hut there and there should be food and fuel for a fire. Then we will only have to spend one more night in the mountains. Tomorrow we shall rest in the mountain halls of Dia son of Din son of Dane and taste dwarven hospitality.”
It was a tough climb. The snow got thicker the higher they climbed, while the air got thinner. They were on a clear path now, the winter route from the south to Devil’s Mouth, usually used only on the rare occasions when the more direct route to Fang was blocked by snow. This year, the Fang path had been closed since Late Autumn. The path to the east of Mount Despair always got less snow than the path on the west side. In addition, snow that built up on the Ice Stair would often avalanche down the western path and block it. The two paths met at the Ice Stair, which was essentially a huge staircase cut into the permafrost. It ran up the side of Mount Fang, arriving at the top of the Fang Glacier. From there it was an easy climb up to the entrance to Devil’s Mouth, over deep packed snow in both summer and winter. Below the Ice Stair, there would usually be fields of loose rocks with abundant wild flowers in spring and summer. It seemed that there would be few wild flowers this spring season.
Gamying encouraged a quick pace, anxious to reach the hut at the base of the Ice Stair before dark. Manfred had a feeling that they weren’t alone and remembered Dawit’s description of fell creatures and wolves. He shivered, and not just from the bone-chilling cold wind. As they climbed higher, the amount of snow increased until they were struggling to force a path through the frozen drifts. They stopped around midday, exhausted and hungry. They ate a miserable meal from their cold rations. Gamying spoke for them all. “We have travelled less than a third of the distance to the Ice Stair and already more than half of the day is past. I fear for our lives if we have to spend another night outside. And not just from the cold. Have you noticed that we are being watched?”
Manfred sighed. “I had hoped that we could make the journey in secret, without awakening their interest in us. I also hoped that it was the fears of an old man leading to paranoia, but if you have noticed it too…” His voice trailed off into a long silence.
“What is it? What are you talking about?” Kris asked. “I haven’t noticed anything except the bitter cold.”
“They are there,” Aglaral stated. “I have felt them all day. I think they discovered us last night. We were lucky they did not attack us as we slept with no fire. We cannot be so lax again. We must take turns to stand guard and we need fire at all costs. It is fire that they fear the most.”
“How do you know so much about them?” Gamying asked.
“I make it my business to know my enemies. The library at Wizards’ Keep contains much important knowledge.”
“I’ll wager that wizards know even more. Will you please tell me what you are talking about?” Kris pleaded.
“They are wargs,” said Manfred. There is a pack on our trail. They are not ordinary wolves, I’m afraid. They are much bigger and more powerful. They have the power of language and communicate with each other and their lycanthrope. They are supernatural creatures. I fear Weylyn’s involvement here. Well, I have little choice now. I didn’t want to draw attention to us. But it seems needs must. Let us move on. It’s unlikely they will attack in daylight. Does anyone have a rope?”
Aglaral produced a rope from his pack and the four travellers secured themselves tightly together, Manfred in the front and Gamying bringing up the rear. “Secure your clothes and cover your faces,” Manfred ordered. He removed his staff from inside his cloak and held it before him. He spoke strange words in a language that none of the others understood. His staff burned blue, then orange, and finally red. The very mountains seemed to rumble as a strange wind began to roar. The wind seemed to emanate from just behind them. As it passed them, it seemed no more than a cool breeze that gently propelled them forward. As it passed Manfred’s staff, it seemed to take on new energy and become a hot tornado that cut a swathe through the snow blocking their way. They shielded their eyes from the swirling mix of snow, water and steam as they quickly moved forward, seemingly walking on air. I might as well have erected a large neon sign, saying Manfred is here.
They didn’t stop until they made the hut at the base of the Ice Stair. It was close to dark. The hut was built from grey stone, without windows. It had a chimney and a doorway, which had contained a sturdy oak door. The door was now broken and splintered. The hut was empty, a cold rock floor with a few wooden benches. The cupboard doors were smashed and the cupboards were empty. The beds had been destroyed. The walls were covered with obscene graffiti, drawn with something particularly obnoxious. As well as the foul obscenities, there were many symbols scrawled on the walls. They looked like an A in a circle, with the bar of the letter extended to form a diameter. The room smelt putrid, like a battleground latrine.
Manfred collapsed on the floor, totally spent from his exertions. “I must sleep, I cannot help you now. Build a fire. Defend the hut.” May the Balance preserve us; I am too exhausted to do it.
The silence was suddenly filled with raucous howling. Gamying, Aglaral and Kris needed little more motivation to do as Manfred had urged. “It would appear that since we have made our presence known, the wargs have chosen to do the same. Let us hope their fear of Manfred keeps them at bay for a while,” Gamying said.
The three men quickly gathered wood from the shattered door, cupboards and furniture. They soon had a small fire burning close to the doorway. “We must be careful to make sure we have enough fuel to last all night,” Aglaral said.
They made Manfred as comfortable as they could and the three men huddled around the small fire wrapped in all of their clothing. The hut kept the cold wind mostly at bay, which was some consolation for the disgusting smell of urine and faeces, which constantly assailed their nostrils. They collected snow and ice and made tea on the fire. It was the first warm food or drink they had taken since leaving the Impenetrable Forest. The terror of the forest seemed mild compared to what they now faced. All of them would gladly have gone back into those trees rather than face the howling wargs.
The three drew lots and Kris drew the first watch. Aglaral and Gamying lay down beside Manfred and tried to get some rest. Both of them slept fitfully, with hands on the hilts of their swords. Kris tended the fire and examined the sword he had been given before they left Elannort. He was a writer not a fighter and had never used a sword in anger before. He wondered whether he would have the skill or courage to use it when the time came. It would make a wonderful story, if he slew a warg. The howls grew louder and more frequent. Each time he jumped and the hairs stood up on the back of his neck. He wondered why he had volunteered for such an adventure. Then he remembered why. He figured it would matter little to the wargs as they tore out his throat. He almost jumped out of his skin when all of a sudden he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Take some rest.” Aglaral said. “I’ll take over now. They won’t attack until just before dawn, when it’s at its darkest. Until then they will torment us with their howls and hope that fear will win their battle for them. They are cowards at heart. Our fire and steel will be a match for them. Fear not, we’ll be in Devil’s Mouth before this day ends.”
Kris simply nodded and shuffled off to take his turn for whatever rest he could find. Aglaral’s words did little to improve his mood. As he drifted off to sleep, he heard a voice in his head. Soon. Very soon.
Aglaral was restless. Despite Manfred’s assurances, he was concerned about his family. Would Velacourt keep his word? He was also worried about the symbols on the walls of the hut. He had seen them before, burned into the tortured flesh of escaped slaves amongst the refugees he had processed. Their stories were too gruesome to recall. They found the refugee internment camp like a luxurious inn, compared with what they had gone through in the hands of their masters. Better to die than be captured by the forces of evil.
The howls of the wargs came ever closer and more frequent. He had never seen a warg, let alone fought a pack of them. However, he had spent his free time in Elannort wisely and had studied much in the library. He knew that they feared fire, more than anything else and that they disliked being about in daylight. If they could keep the fire alive until dawn, they would have a chance against them – so long as their lycanthrope, their werewolf leader, wasn’t with them.
Gamying soon stirred and came to sit by the fire. “Get some more rest, Aglaral; I’ll wake you when the action starts.”
Aglaral declined, instead making more tea to warm them. They sat in silence for a while, disturbed only by the regular howls.
Gamying eventually spoke. “When they attack, we will take our places either side of the door, you and I. I don’t want to depend on Kris; I can’t see him as a great warrior somehow. Let’s hope that Manfred is recovered soon. We should be able to hold them off until dawn, even without him.”
“Can I ask you something?” Aglaral ventured. “Do you believe in all of this Hero and Sword stuff? Can that weakling boy really help us?”
“I know it seems hard to believe. Manfred has been a friend to Tamarlan for as long as my family have been regents, and before then for all I know. We trust him with our lives. If Manfred says Simon is the one, then I believe him. As for the Sword, well you must have heard the stories. If it could be found, it would be the most powerful talisman at our command. Manfred has great power; you saw it today. But even he would be as nothing compared to the Sword. With the Hero and the Sword, we would have a chance. Let us hope that things are going better for the others.”
Their conversation was interrupted by more, loud howling, now close by. The wargs had arrived.
Quickly the two warriors took up their positions. Kris too was on his feet. Manfred snored on.
“Quickly, Kris, build up the fire. Use all the wood,” Gamying ordered. Kris gathered up their remaining timber and placed it on the fire. The flames burned brighter, casting shadows of two men with swords drawn out into the night. A noisome smell assailed their nostrils, worse even than the smell of the hut. It was an ugly smell; wet dog mixed with evil. There was a group of wargs out there now, not far from the door. How many there were, Gamying could not tell. He could count at least twelve burning red eyes, reflecting the faint firelight, but that was probably just the first rank of the pack. One warg pushed forward. In the flickering firelight, it was an awesome sight. It was about half as big again as a wolf with a long shaggy coat, large ears, and a gaping maw filled with razor sharp teeth. Its eyes were blood red and burned with an evil intelligence. It surprised the men by speaking in a low, guttural voice.
“Give us Red Boy. Rest leave, safe. Pack not hungry. Eat today. Lucky you is. Else all die.”
Before Gamying could frame a reply, Kris shouted. “The Red Boy is not with us. He seeks the Sword.”
“It is Kris. Kris, Bard of Karo.”
“No value. No Red Boy, all die.”
Gamying was outraged. “Speak again Bard and I shall personally sever your head and feed your guts to the wargs. Not only do you endanger us, but also you put Simon’s mission in jeopardy. If we survive this day, you will have some explaining to do before the Traitors’ Court in Tamarlan.” He turned his anger outwards.
“Know this. I am Gamying, Heir-Regent of Tamarlan. I know your kind, cowards who sneak around in the dark taking defenceless babies from cribs and frightening old women. Leave now or taste cold steel. There will be much blood spilt today and most of it will be yours. We are not all snivelling cowards like wargs and bards. Today is a good day to die.”
The warg did not respond immediately. It seemed to be contemplating Gamying’s words or perhaps it was communicating the information to its lycanthrope. Then it howled at the top of its voice. It was a long, piercing howl that sent shivers of fear through the three men. Seconds later, responses began to echo from afar. Gamying and Aglaral readied themselves for battle. There seemed little hope of victory, but if they could hold the doorway until dawn, perhaps the wargs would fall back and give them chance to rest. Manfred snored on, oblivious to the unfolding drama. Kris was now so white that he could have been mistaken for an albino. He quivered in terror, but drew his sword. He looked from Gamying to the wargs and wondered which he feared the most.
The next few seconds or minutes seemed like hours. The wargs watched and waited for the signal from their leader. When it came, it was in a blurred flurry of fur and fangs. Snarls and howls filled the air. Gamying and Aglaral stood their ground, blades working methodically to keep the wargs at bay. When they fell back, three wargs lay dead at the doorway. Several others retreated to lick their wounds. Gamying and Aglaral collapsed to the floor to recover their breath. The fire was almost burned out. Manfred slept on. Kris was cowering in a foetal position at the back of the hut. “Are you hurt?” Gamying asked Aglaral.”
“Only a few scratches,” replied Aglaral.
“We will need to get them treated. Warg scratches are notorious for becoming infected. It’s still a while before dawn. They will attack again soon. Perhaps the dead will form a barrier to protect us.”
“What about him?” Aglaral gestured towards the cowering Kris.
“I’m afraid there is no treatment for cowardice.” Gamying spat in Kris’s direction. “That infection has taken too great a hold. It will make a good story, one day though. Let’s try to wake Manfred. We need his fireworks.” Gamying cast another disdainful look towards Kris and dragged himself to his feet. He moved to the wizard and began to shake him gently. “Manfred, wake up old man, we need your help.”
Slowly, Manfred stirred. “What is it? Where am I? What’s happening?” He sat up gingerly and took in the scene. “Ah, the hut. I remember now. Is it nearly dawn? What’s happened to the fire? I see you have had company. What’s happened to Kris?”
Gamying quickly brought Manfred up to speed with the events of the night. Manfred reached deep into the pockets of his cloak and withdrew a small metal box. “This is a special salve, made by the elves. It will counter the effects of minor evil wounds. Use it very sparingly. Apply it to all of your wounds. Warg claws carry much disease, but their fangs are far worse. It’s good that neither of you were bitten. I am sufficiently rested to give them a roasting they’ll not soon forget. It’s a pity that their flesh is too rancid to eat; we could feast on roast warg for breakfast.” Manfred laughed and the mood in the hut changed from one of despair to one of hope.
Gamying and Aglaral tended their wounds. Kris uncurled himself and stood up. He looked sheepishly towards Manfred. “Forgive me great Sage, I…”
Manfred cut him short. “Not now. We shall talk at length when we get below the mountain at Devil’s Mouth. Your actions tonight may have cost us dearly.” Kris returned to his foetal position and rocked backwards and forwards. He seemed to be in despair. There is more going on there than I have the time to fathom at the moment. I’ll deal with him later. Let him stew in his own juices. Bring on the dogs.
Manfred didn’t have to wait too long. The first rays of dawn were visible on the horizon. In the gloom, the pack assembled again, restless, nervous, and eager to finish the job. The leader again moved forward. “Why fight? All die soon. Make easy for you. Better tear throat. Slow death not funny. What say you?”
Manfred stood up and slowly drew himself to his full height, his aged back creaking and complaining. The wizened old man withdrew his staff from inside his cloak and held it before him. The staff began to glow with blue light and Manfred seemed to grow to twice his height. His voice now was loud and powerful. “Be gone, wargs! Lest I turn you all into rat fodder. Know you not with whom you are dealing? I am Manfred the Magician, leader of the Council of the Wise, maintainer of the Balance. You will let me and my companions pass to Devil’s Mouth and on to Tamarlan without further hindrance. Cross me, and you shall pay with your lives. Take this message to Weylyn your leader. Tell him that Manfred is coming for him and he brings the Everlasting Hero to cleanse FirstWorld of him and all of his scum.”
The leader snarled with fury and jumped forward to attack Manfred’s throat. Gamying and Aglaral were too slow to react and the warg crossed the threshold. Manfred muttered a few words and a bright flash jumped from his staff to the warg. The warg’s anger quickly changed to surprise, then pain and fear. Its shaggy coat erupted into flames. It was flung backwards, out of the hut and into the midst of the pack. It screamed its last howl. The flames quickly spread to others. The air was filled with acrid smoke, the smell of burning flesh and the howls of agony. By the time the sun had risen, the wargs were gone. Many partially burned bodies remained, together with the three that had died by the sword. Manfred replaced his staff inside his cloak. Just one time, I’m going to blow the end of my staff like a gunslinger in a western movie. He laughed at the thought.
“My Sage,” Aglaral said. “Why do you laugh?”
“You wouldn’t understand, my friend. Just an old man’s vanity. Let us be away from here as quickly as we can. The creatures that eat carrion warg are not pretty or sweet smelling.”
As they made ready to leave, forsaking breakfast for a rapid departure, Gamying approached Manfred and whispered to him. “Was it wise to tell Weylyn about the Hero?”
“The damage had already been done, by Kris. Better now to let him think we are further advanced than we are. It may panic him, or rather his master, to premature actions that may aid our cause. He will wonder whether we have the Sword. We have not played all of our cards yet.”
“Let us hope that we will have that card to play.”
“Let us hope indeed.” Manfred’s thoughts turned again to Simon. He looks on me as a grandfather. Would a grandfather send his grandson on such a dangerous errand without support?
Again, Gamying seemed to sense his mood. “You could do no more than you have done, Manfred. The power of the four you have sent will be enough. Let us climb the Ice Stair and visit my good friend Dia son of Din son of Dane, King Beneath the Mountain. Things will look better with a foaming pint of ale in your hand, a good meal in your belly, and a warm fire to tell tales around.”
They left the noisome hut and the bloody battleground and began the long ascent of the Ice Stair. The fresh, crisp morning air cleansed them of the foul odours they had endured. They said little. Each was lost in his own thoughts and the exertion in the thin mountain air left little energy for chatting. The Ice Stair was relatively clear of snow. It has been maintained even through the harshest winter. That is a good sign. They climbed steadily, stopping several times to rest and eat from their dry rations and fast-emptying water bottles. They saw or heard no sign of wargs or any other living things.
It took the best part of the day to ascend. There were a few slips and minor falls, but no one was seriously hurt. The weary travellers emerged onto the snowfield at the top of the Fang Glacier just as the afternoon sun was beginning to set in hues of red and gold behind the jagged white peaks of the Mountains of Death. For Kris and Aglaral, who had never seen it before, the view took away what little breath they had left. Even Gamying seemed moved. Manfred watched them. I have seen this view so many times. It always reminds me of why we are doing this. He spoke aloud.
“If you look carefully between the two peaks you can see right down to Fang Mouth and the Middle Sea. Some have even claimed to have seen the lighthouse at Rhakotis on a clear night. This view always reminds me of the importance of the Balance. There is both order and chaos in these mountains. Without both, we would not be able to survive up here. Come, we have but a short climb now to the welcoming halls of Devil’s Mouth.”
He led them forward across the snow bank, so frozen that there was little risk of breaking the surface and being engulfed in a snowy tomb. They climbed towards a gap between two peaks, where a huge rock archway beckoned. Behind the archway stood a pair of thick oak doors, which opened into the upper level of First Delve. The archway had many jagged rocks pointing down. Many other rocks had been positioned on the ground pointing up. The entrance looked every part its name.
“Welcome to Devil’s Mouth, my friends. Fear not, there is no devil waiting inside, only dwarven hospitality. If you have never tasted dwarven ale, you have never lived. Come; let us seek a warm welcome in the halls of the mountain king.” A good feed and a good sleep is what I need.
The sun was setting as they approached the doors, which appeared to be closed. Manfred withdrew his staff and smote the door three times. The noise boomed through the caverns. “Hail Dia son of Din son of Dane, King Beneath the Mountain, ruler of the Dwarves. We have travelled long and far and seek refuge and sustenance in your hallowed halls. We come as friends of the dwarves and representatives of the Balance. You know me, I am Manfred the Magician. With me is your friend and ally Gamying, Heir-Regent of Tamarlan; Aglaral, Captain of the Guard of the City States; and Kris of Karo who is a bard and will enliven your fires this evening with his stories. Bid us welcome, we beseech you.” That should get their attention. They love a good story.
There was no response. Manfred pushed the door and it swung open, complaining on its hinges. Inside the darkness was complete. They took down lanterns hanging by the door and lit them. Tentatively, they ventured inside, closing the door behind them. Except for their tiny lights, there was total darkness. Except for their muffled footsteps, there was total silence. The dwarves were all gone.