Into the Woods

by Michael Richards

AKA Harper Mykal

The Dean looked disbelievingly at Herald Daria. "Not one?" he asked.

"Nope," she replied, flatly. "We've put Tomas through every training class in the book. His strongest gift is his Firestarting, and it's all he can do with that to light a candle. He just doesn't seem to have any strong Gifts."

The Dean sighed. "And he's about as much use with a sword as...well, as most first year students, despite all his practicing," he sighed. "Lady bright, what are we going to do with him?"

His colleague shrugged. "Train him as best we can and use him where his talents are needed," she replied. "At least he's got the Truth Spell down solid. That's something."

He sighed and nodded. "You're right. Still, I can't help but wish Arrant had Chosen someone with a little more talent...well, he's off down to the Black Forest with the others of his group. At least he ought to be okay down there."

It was definitely too hot, Tomas decided. Much too hot. He fingered at the collar of his uniform, wishing he could loosen it a little, as he tried to listen to the older Herald.

:Tomas, it's merely a warm day,: came the familiar mind-voice of his Companion. :What are you going to do when it gets hot?:

He smiled despite his discomfort, and replied in kind. :Melt, probably,: he sent.

:Now, if only we could go somewhere nice and cool...: Arrant shuddered beneath him, and he leaned forward to stroke his neck and hide the grin.

"So, that's what not to do. Here's what you are meant to do. Somewhere in the forest will be a hostile force--that's us," Herald Dorik indicated the handful of woodsmen who were assisting her with the exercise. "You're to proceed into the forest separately, locate us, gather information, and get it back to the camp here, without us spotting you. After a week we come looking for you. Any questions?"

"What if you see us?"

Tomas turned his head to glance at the dark-haired young woman who'd asked the question. :Pay attention, Tomas.:

:Just looking, is all.:

Herald Dorik smiled nastily. "If we catch you, you're lunch," she said, "any more?"

The group of trainees shook their heads, one by one, and she nodded approvingly. "Off you go, then. Try not to get too lost."

:So no day-dreaming this time.:

Tomas contrived to look hurt as he and Arrant trotted slowly down their assigned path. :I still say the map was wrong,: he replied. :We took the right road. It just didn't go where it was meant to.:

:All roads go where they're meant to. Unlike you, I might add.:

:Come on, we got there in the end. And we weren't too late...:

:True.: Arrant conceded. :How far were we supposed to go before we turn off?:

Tomas smiled triumphantly, "One more turning--this time I was counting."

:You're learning. Slowly, but there may be hope for you yet.: Tomas chuckled, and ducked a low-hanging branch. The two continued for several candle-marks until they were deep in the forest, and the sun was starting to go down.

"I think we should start looking for a place to spend the night," Tomas said, glancing round. "Agreed?"

:Agreed. There's water off to our left.:

A few minutes of pushing past berry bushes later, they reached a small stream, gurgling it's way quietly through the forest. The water looked pure and sweet. A few yards downstream it meandered underneath the bushes at the far side for a short way, forming a natural (if small) campsite. :Suit you, oh fussy one?: Tomas sent.

:It's not Haven, but it'll do,: Arrant replied. :Sheltered, water, and cover if it rains. No room for a fire.:

"If you think I'm building a fire at this time of the year--"

:One of these days I'm taking you to Rethwellan. Then you'll have a better idea of what a hot day is.:

Tomas shuddered as he dismounted, Arrant standing tall beside his small frame. "No, thanks," he replied. "Why don't we go up to Sorrows for the winter instead?"

:You're cruel.:

He grinned, slipping the packs off his Companion's back and removing a blanket to give him a good rub down. :Probably why we get on so well, hmm?:

:Probably, aye. Ahhhh, that's lovely.: Arrant shook his head, his mane flaring out behind, as Tomas worked out the layer of sweat. :I don't suppose you have an apple?:

"After your dinner, Arrant," Tomas smiled.

:Yes, mother.:

As the sun gradually set and the shadows grew longer, Tomas set up his little camp. No stranger to a forest, he spread his bed beneath the berry bushes, as a precaution against early-morning rain. Fortunately the bushes were large enough that, with a little judicious pruning of branches, Arrant was able to lie sheltered as well.

After a supper of cold meat pie or oats and an apple, the two sought their respective beds.

:Glad we've got the bushes, they'll keep out any unwelcome visitors in the night,: Tomas sent sleepily.

:Or at least wake us up in plenty of time,: Arrant agreed. :Tomorrow we go hunting. Enjoy your rest.:

:Tomas, wake up, but don't move,: Arrant's deep mind-voice interrupted an otherwise pleasant dream. Time spent growing up near the border had made Tomas a light sleeper, and he came instantly awake.

:What's up, Arrant?: he sent. He opened his eyes a crack, and could see that dawn was barely starting to relieve the darkness of night that gave the forest its name.

:Listen.:

Tomas listened for a heartbeat, then he heard it too. Voices, and men on horseback, on a trail nearby. :Dorik?:

:Not unless she'd hidden mounts for those woodsmen. But nobody else should be this deep in the woods. I don't like this, Tomas.:

:Me either. Wait here, I'll try and get a closer view.:

:This isn't part of the exercise, Tomas. Be careful.:

He nodded, then crawled forward, glad for once he wasn't entitled and required to wear a full set of Herald's whites. His gray tunic blended in well against the background as he carefully brushed aside branches and crawled towards the track. He could hear the sounds of hoof-beats getting louder, and a few moments later half a dozen men approached in single file. He stiffened. Draped across one of the saddles, apparently unconscious, was the dark-haired trainee.

:Arant!:

:Quiet, Tomas, you won't do anything just by charging them. They might have found her injured.:

:Then where's her Companion?:

Arrant was silent for a moment, then he sounded worried. :She's trapped. She slipped and fell a short way down a ravine last night, knocked them both out. Tomas, we have to help her, she's frantic about her Chosen.:

:But...: he began, then stopped as the men moved past his hiding place. Now they were close, he could hear their conversation.

"Pretty little thing, ain't she?"

"Aye, she is. Wonder if she'll be grateful to us for rescuing her?"

Several people laughed at that. One mimicked a woman's voice, "Oh, you're so brave and strong, how can I ever repay you?" which provoked more laughter and jeers.

"Such a shame she lost her horse," one said, in a nasty voice. "Far too dangerous to walk through these woods alone. Lads, when she wakes up we is gonna have some fun!"

:Arrant, what do we do?: Tomas sent frantically. :They're going to.--to--:

:Calm yourself, Tomas, she's safe for the time being. Until she wakes up, anyhow...one trainee and one Companion against six isn't good odds. Wait till they're out of sight, then we rescue Telver, then we show those fine gentlemen our idea of fun,: Arrant's voice was cold and hard, sharing Tomas's anger.

Waiting until the men moved out of earshot was one of the hardest things Tomas had ever done, but he forced himself to do so, pulling back to his little camp as soon as it was safe to do so. He didn't strike the camp, just collected his sword, bow, arrows, and some rope. With Arrant leading the way, he set off for the ravine, moving between the trees as quickly as they could. Fortunately, it was not far, and soon they could see the trapped Companion.

Tomas frowned; the sides of the ravine were steep, even if they were fairly low. :Any ideas?: he sent.

:Loop the rope round her body and we'll pull her up,: Arrant replied. :Too bad you're not a strong enough Fetcher to lift her up.:

Tomas winced with familiar pain at the weakness of his gifts, but nodded his agreement with the plan. :Warn her I'm coming, please?: he sent, sliding down the slope.

:She's ready. Tie the rope.:

Awkwardly, Tomas looped the rope round her, drawing it snug against her chest, careful not to make it too tight. Her eyes were glowing a sullen red with anger and fear, and he could sense brief snatches of her worry as he touched her. "Right, we're ready here," Tomas said, and scrambled up the ravine, pulling the other end of the rope with him. He tied it around Arrant with equal care. "Ready, both of you?"

Arrant braced himself; Telver moved to the foot of the slope. :We're ready, Tomas.:

"Then pull!" Tomas and Arrant pulled hard, not giving an inch as Telver scrambled determinedly up the slope. She teetered near the top for a long moment, her legs straining to reach it, then with a final convulsive effort she pulled herself up. Tomas staggered with the cessation of effort, and the two Companions hastened to support him.

:We must hurry, Chosen,: Arrant said apologetically. :She will awaken soon, Telver thinks.:

Tomas nodded, and unfastened the rope. Then he readied his weapons, and mounted Arrant. "Lead the way, Telver," he said quietly. The Companion bowed her head briefly to him, then took off, gliding through the trees like she was a very part of them, Arrant close behind. They rode for perhaps half a candle-mark, then Telver suddenly stopped as they came to a track. Tomas could see the hoofmarks on it; fresh marks, less than a candle-mark old.

:She's just ahead, Telver says,: Arrant reported. :She's just starting to come 'round, and Telver thinks they've stopped to set up camp. After that...:

Tomas thought furiously. A frontal assault was possible, but a last resort; he needed a distraction first. Maybe... :Arrant, tell me what you think of this...: he outlined his plan in a few quick sentences.

:It's crazy. We're ready when you are.:

Tomas took a deep breath, nodded, dismounted, and crept forward along the bushes to the side of the track. He rounded a corner and could see the camp. As he'd suspected, they were setting up tents, and pretty much ignoring their captive. As he'd feared, she was bound to a tree, and her hands had been tied together.

:No time to wool-gather, Tomas.:

Tomas ignored Arrant, focusing instead on a rock in his hand and a lantern carelessly left by a tent. Straining his gift, he pushed the stone out, above the lantern. There was a soft pop, then a tinkle of broken glass as the rock fell on the lantern, breaking the glass and spilling out a pool of oil. He was sweating with the effort, but he couldn't wait. He concentrated on the oil, focusing his will on it.

:I can't do it, Arrant!:

:You must! You can!:

The oil suddenly flared and burst into flame, igniting the tent. As the cloth enthusiastically caught, the men began yelling and trying to put it out, or at least keep it from spreading. That was all the distraction he needed, and he ran through the trees to the girl. Her eyes widened with recognition and hope as she saw him, but she wisely kept quiet while he sawed through the rope binding her wrists together and to the tree. Then he glanced up, just as the leader of the group saw him.

:Arrant!:

:Coming!:

With a roar, the man ran towards them, drawing a sword. Suddenly two great white things leapt through the smoke above the still burning tent and bore down on him. He yelped and froze for a moment, just long enough for the two trainees to mount. "Go!" Tomas yelled unnecessarily, as they headed down the track as fast as they dared.

Tomas wasn't a strong rider, and a quick glance told him that his fellow trainee wasn't doing too well, either. Worse, he could hear the sounds of pursuit in the distance. "We have to slow them down!" he gasped out, ducking the branches that threatened to knock him to the ground.

:We've called for help. Dorik and Tanyar are too far off, but there are a couple of trainees heading our way.:

"Sunfall!" Tomas swore, and drew his bow. "Arrant, slow down and for sun's sake, warn me of any low branches!"

:Tomas, you can't mean to...: Arrant began, then their pursuers swung into view, the Companions slowed down by the trees and inexperienced riders. :I take that back.:

Tomas was dimly aware that his colleague had drawn her own bow. Cara, that was her name, he remembered, even as he sighted on the leader. His bow sang, followed closely by another, and the leader cursed as one stuck in his right arm. Tomas reached for another arrow, conscious only of picking his targets, and a second arrow flew from his bow, ricocheting off the leader's shoulder.

:Tomas, duck!: Tomas ducked as the two cut under a low branch, then he straightened and fired again, catching the leader just as he was off balance from dodging the same branch and sending him off his horse.

"Yes!" the girl cried, eyes narrowing as she targeted the fallen man, her own shot narrowly missing his leg. Tomas was less exultant.

"We can't hold them off much longer," he muttered, still firing.

:We don't have to. They ought to be in for a nasty surprise any moment...: Arrant sent back. Scant seconds later, two more bows joined their attack, arrows flying out of bushes to either side.

"Turn and stand!" Tomas commanded, and both Companions slowed their frantic race. Now on stationary mounts, the two trainees joined their unseen colleagues and their arrows unerringly found shoulders and legs.

It was too much for their opponents. With a final curse, the lead rider swung round and headed back down the trail, followed by the others. Tomas glanced at the girl, then nodded his gratitude to the two still-wary trainees as they came out of the bushes. "Let's get out of this forest," he suggested. "No sense tempting fate."

:Agreed. We've stung them, but not hurt them.:

The others nodded in agreement, and the four trainees moved off down the train, away from their attackers and out of the forest. Dorik was waiting for them when they arrived.

"Well, Tomas, Cara, it looks like you had a little excitement," she said dryly. "Are you both alright?"

"We're fine," Cara replied, then smiled weakly. "Thanks to Tomas, anyway."

Dorik smiled, ignoring Tomas's bright blush. "Well, that wasn't quite the exercise we had planned for you," she continued, "but I think there's been quite enough excitement for one trip. By now those bandits are going to be safely hidden and on guard...the Army will clean them out in a couple of days, when they're less wary."

"But..." Tomas began, unwilling to let their attackers escape, even for just a few days.

Dorik shook her head. "I know, Tomas, it's not easy. But you have to learn to use the best tool for the job. We're not the best tool, the army is, perhaps with a Herald to lead them. Not a group of inexperienced Herald-trainees."

:Particularly ones with but little training at defending themselves. Don't worry, Chosen. They'll get what they've earned at another's hand.:

Tomas looked rebellious for a few moments longer, then nodded reluctantly, the other trainees agreeing. Dorik glanced at him, looking thoughtful. "While we're waiting for Tamarak, suppose you tell us what you learned from this, Cara, Tomas?"

The dark-haired girl frowned, "Not to take stupid chances like riding in the darkness."

"Tomas took chances rescuing you. Should he have left you?"

"No..."

"Then..?"

She paused, then rushed on, "Not to take unnecessary chances. Sometimes you have to take a chance, but there's no point when there's no need." She paused again, then smiled weakly. "Telver says she's learned not to walk near the edge of ravines."

The Herald smiled. "And you, Tomas? What did you learn from your, ah, lone charge?"

Tomas looked down. "Next time I call for help straight away," he replied quietly.

"T'would have been far better to have hit the camp with three humans and Companions, than with just Telver and Arrant."

:Do I detect a hint of tactical sense penetrating that thick skull of yours?:

:You'd be amazed how being chased through a forest at high speed can drive lessons home, Arrant. Thanks for calling in the others.:

:You're welcome, Tomas.:

"Excellent, Tomas, and well done. Now, we're all here, let's head back to the Collegium."


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