(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
Relentless was the pain that coursed through the boy’s body as he felt each of his injuries flare at once. He jolted awake, his eyes so wide they looked ready to burst. His limbs shook and thumped against the earth in ceaseless agony. Jethrin had seen men fall into fits before, usually caused by a poor diet or something sour in the blood since birth, but this disturbed him more. It was not because of the obvious anguish that the boy endured, but because he would not scream.
Then, as suddenly as the fit had started it ended. Jethrin half expected to see smoke rising from the body, but that was nothing more than Karinskar superstition. When it had become obvious that the boy would not quickly regain the use of his feet he had been brought to an area of flat and relatively dry ground, the only place where he might lay safely and in any semblance of peace. After this vicious display Jethrin wondered if maybe it would have been a blessing had he been left to drown in his sleep.
‘What is wrong with him?’ asked Lord Drovalak, his voice more curious than concerned.
‘I’m not a medician, Lord,’ retorted Jethrin.
‘Calm your tongue, old friend,’ said Odius barely controlling his own. He had been willing to give Jethrin the freedom to speak his mind in the past, but since the start of this expedition he had chosen to exercise that freedom with alarming regularity. For all the kinship he felt with the man, he would not see his authority tested so frequently and so blatantly. ‘I know you do not much like babysitting but he may be the only lead we have.’
‘Aside from the whacking great settlement up ahead you mean?’ asked the retainer sourly.
‘I said calm your tongue,’ spat Odius, suddenly aware that a few of the soldiers had turned to watch. A scowl in their direction set them back about their tasks but he more than suspected they would continue to eavesdrop. He would have to be doubly careful. He turned his attention back to the boy who was now holding himself in the aftershock of the pain. ‘Speak boy, do you have a name?’
‘I…’ the boy coughed the words more than spoke them, ‘I… Hansel…?’
Jethrin rolled his eyes impatiently. ‘The boy’s an idiot.’
‘What an apt diagnosis, and there you say you are not even a medician,’ said the boy. He was standing up now, the blanket cast aside. He stared down at his hands with a look of wonder that seemed wrong somehow. It was as though he was seeing them for the first time.
The retainer looked at the boy in fury and indignation, the slight at his pride moved him to raise a fist, but the shock of the boy’s rapid recovery stayed his hand. He watched the boy as he folded the blanket neatly, placed it on a mound of earth behind him and then proceeded to sit on it.
‘So Hansel,’ said Odius, ‘tell me…’
‘Hansel?’ interrupted the boy. ‘Oh no, I’m not Hansel. I mean, this wretch is Hansel,’ he waved his hands around his body with a strange look of amusement, ‘But I am not. My name is Elder Swansow, this boy is my nephew and apprentice. I would appreciate it if you did not harm him further.’
‘A sage?’ said Odius, the annoyance at being interrupted overcome by a newfound curiosity, ‘And you say you have possessed this boy?’
‘In the simple man’s tongue, yes,’ sighed the boy. He looked at the man, no longer shrouded by the greyness. He was about medium height, though his black steel armour made him look much taller. His hair was well groomed but unimaginatively swept back, and his long, sharp chin sported a finely trimmed goatee. There were dark lines beneath his cold grey eyes, and he bore upon his face three scars, one across his neck, and two on his left brow. There was also a slight hint that further and more extensive scarring might be found beneath the neck of his armour.
He was an impressive sight, even in the eerie ghost-light of the glowing pools. What surprised the Elder was that of all the soldiers, the Thesal retainer included, this man was the only one that did not reek of fear. In fact he did not taste of anything. He was a void, an empty space that Swansow could not read. The absence was dizzying.
‘So tell me, sage,’ said Odius almost conversationally. ‘What brings one of your most distinguished order to a place like this?’
‘I could ask you the same,’ said Swansow through the boy’s mouth.
‘You could,’ agreed Odius, ‘But your nephew is my captive here, as I am sure you are now very aware, and as you were so blunt as to ask him to spy on me I think it is only fair that you answer my questions. As a matter of good faith I will introduce myself first. My name is Lord Odius Drovalak, son and heir of Arbaron Drovalak of Nordmere. My faithful retainer here is Jethrin Lockwood, formerly of Thesaly.’
‘Well met indeed then,’ said Swansow. ‘You already know my name and that of my nephew. More than that I am a sage you do not need to know. As to why I am here, I suspect our purposes may be aligned. You are searching for traces of the Distorted Ones, are you not?’
‘The question was aimed at you,’ said Odius.
‘So you are,’ continued Swansow taking this as confirmation. ‘The Order of Sages is not blind to the threat that this organisation may represent should it actually exist, but that is not the whole reason of why I am here nor is it the true reason you are here.’
At those words Jethrin looked at his lord, eying him with confusion and suspicion. Could he still be keeping things from him even after he had sworn not to? He dismissed the thought, but it did not sit well in his mind. He was used to Drovalak keeping the truth from him, but to lie to him was something he had been sure that he would never do, of that Jethrin was sure.
‘You speak falsely,’ said Odius, ‘The Distorted Ones are my only objective here. Their rot must be eliminated before it spreads further.’
Swansow nodded. ‘As you wish then. If truly all you seek to do is discover the truth of their existence then I believe that we can help one another, provided you have the decency to release my nephew into my custody once more when all this is finished.’
‘What would we want with him anyway?’ snorted Jethrin.
‘Agreed,’ said Swansow. ‘So we have a deal? My nephew will be returned to me unharmed and both he and I will be allowed to leave in peace upon completion of our association. These terms are not unreasonable I hope?’
‘Sage, you shame me’ said Odius his tone friendly. ‘Naturally you are both free to leave as you will. I have only the utmost respect for your order. All I ask is for your aid in our endeavour. Now that we know who you are of course you may have your nephew returned to you. I have no wish to hold him hostage.’
‘Save me the rhetoric, noble,’ grumbled Swansow. ‘Just see that you keep to my terms.’
Odius bit back a retort and nodded. He had no wish to defy a sage, their reputations spoke volumes of their abilities, but at the same time he had no wish to lose contact with someone who could potentially shed more light on the search. As unusual as the situation was it could only have been providence that brought them both to this place at the same time. He was thankful for that, but made a mental note to ensure the opportunity did not slip through his fingers.