This is the sixteenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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The next few weeks were passed largely in isolation. Callidus would present Brand with drawings from his collection of books on flowers, leaves, and fungi and would send him off into the wild to gather them. Collecting the various plants wasn’t much of a challenge; Callidus was able to tell him when and where each would likely be found, be it in a clearing near a fast moving stream or on the north side of a well shaded boulder.
Game, too, was easy to track, at least in the space between towns. The challenge came in keeping up with the caravan. Often he would haul himself and his load into camp well after everyone had gone to sleep, or occasionally, lose them entirely and not catch up with them again until they stopped in a new town. It was hard and tiring work, but Brand found himself enjoying it. He had a purpose other than survival and it kept his mind off of more troubling thoughts.
They headed continuously south, running from winter. As they headed into new lands, the trees changed, birds Brand had never seen sang in the trees, and delicious fruits fell from tall and strong trees, still green in what he thought must be late autumn.
The troupe’s attitude seemed to change towards him, too. At first they were surprised at his returns, having thought he’d run off. Then they were grateful for the food and supplies he collected, as his predecessor Jaymes had been neither a hunter nor nearly as adventurous in his searches for provender. As the weeks passed, their greetings gained a sense of relief, particularly when he went missing for days at a time. Eventually, some joy even snuck in to greet his arrivals.
Their journey took them down to a glistening lake so large that Brand couldn’t see the far shore, through a forest filled with bright white broad-leafed trees and ferns as tall as a man, and through countless villages filled with all manner of people. Slowly their path turned east into some mountains and they left any trace of civilization behind them.
When they reached the base of a high peak, they were forced to abandon their carts in a sheltered copse of trees and proceed on foot. They hauled several days’ worth of food and drink along with them, and Brand was saddled with dragging a skiff full of bedding.
There was excitement bubbling through the troupe as they trudged up a barely discernible path. Everyone grinned beneath their loads and Mitali bounded ahead, completely free. When Brand finally demanded to know where in the gods’ earth they were going he got a confusing chorus of answers.
“It’s amazing!” squealed Illea.
“It is secret,” hissed Ivan.
“You will love it,” laughed Igor.
“You’ll hate it,” sneered Jaymes.
His comment somewhat changed the mood of the group. They fell silent and looked evasive.
Callidus took some form of pity on Brand and explained, somewhat. “You recall the distillation of the firesalts? Well this will be nearly as unpleasant a process, and somewhat worsened in that everyone else will be enjoying themselves rather thoroughly. You are here to collect brimstone, we are here to relax.”
“What is brimstone?” asked Brand.
“Crystalized rot, as far as I can tell,” replied Jaymes. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you started. It’s not hard work, really, it just feels like someone is vomiting up your nose.”
“That may well be true,” said the wizard. “But I promise that with this new misery will come some knowledge of value. When we return to the wagons, we will create some proper wizardry. I give you my word.”
A couple of hours later, Brand started to understand. The air grew foul with the scent of rotting eggs and steam started rising from patches on the ground.
“This is an angry mountain,” muttered Brand before giving a silent prayer to Oreamnos.
“Oh no,” replied Estheria. “This is a lovely mountain. You get used to the smell after a while.”
Minutes later they crested a ridge and Brand lost his words. The sun was just beginning to dip behind the peaks as he caught sight of the most beautiful valley he’d ever seen. From the north, a stream trickled in through a small glade of familiar pines. It filled a perfect, glittering lake that was flawlessly circular, utterly clear, and seemed to glow with aquamarine light. Steam rose steadily from it in the early evening air.
Everyone cheered and clambered awkwardly down into the valley. Mitali, not encumbered by food-packs or good manners, bounded ahead and splashed into the water with the enthusiasm of a toddler.
Brand sat motionless at the lip of the valley. It seemed a sin not to properly appreciate the beauty of such a pristine landscape. He watched his companions as they struggled down the rocky ridge, a band of clumsy interlopers. He watched as the sun dipped lower and filled the basin with shadow. The others built a fire and began to cook the food they had brought. He felt the cool evening wind pick up and wash over him. The foul smell in it could not spoil the feeling. He was home.
He kicked the skiff over into the vale and loped after it like a nimble fox as it skittered its way down towards the lake. They both came to a sliding halt just short of the cooking fire, raising something of an alarm in the others as they dove for cover.
Then he did something that he had almost forgotten how to do. He grinned. It was a big, dumb joyful smile that felt as though it reached his toes. He emitted sort of a drawn out half-laugh, having somewhat forgotten how it was done and rolled onto his back to stretch out on the cool ground.
This lasted only a moment as he threw himself back to his feet and stared accusingly at the soft dirt. It wasn’t at cool at all, but quite hot. It was then everyone else’s turn to laugh.
“It’s glorious isn’t it?” bubbled Illea as she lounged on the hot soil, “it just soaks into your bones when you sleep.”
“This place is good for soul,” added Ivan dreamily.
“Just wait until you get in the water,” smiled Igor as he started to roast a couple of partridges.
Mitali signaled her agreement with Igor by shaking herself dry behind Brand, soaking his back in a hot spray.
“The water’s warm?” remarked Brand.
“The water is hot,” corrected Yannis as he dipped his feet in at the edge.
“This is amazing!” Brand’s appreciation burst forth and his grin returned. “Why would anyone ever leave this place?”
“Because it is a desert,” came the cold reply from Callidus. “Nothing lives here. It rarely rains. There is little water and no food. The lake would cook any fish that tried to make it home. Not even birds try to nest up here. This is the tantalizing edge of hell, full of temptation, devoid of nourishment. Tomorrow you will cross that threshold and mine the detritus of demons, so get some good sleep tonight.”
Brand was becoming weary of being told to sleep well immediately after promises of misery and threats of personal harm and said so. This generated a chorus of heartfelt laughter from the troupe and elicited what was very nearly a sincere apology from Callidus.
Exhausted from the climb, everyone collapsed into bed shortly after dinner. Brand couldn’t help but agree with Illea about the joy of the heated ground; it penetrated his blankets and warmed him to the core, and he drifted peacefully into sleep serenaded by the familiar lullaby of wolves baying to the moon on from a neighboring summit.
The soft, glowing comfort made morning all the worse, however. The cold mountain dawn came far too early. And with it, an uncaged Mitali had decided that Brand’s bear-hide blanket would make a fine plaything. Brand stood shivering at the edge of the lake as the firecat paddled about, dragging his warmth and comfort behind her.
Brand was barely allowed to eat the breakfast that he cooked before a scowling Callidus sent him and Jaymes off to their repellant task. Jaymes led Brand up and over another ridge, this one crested with sharp, twisted black spires. What he found on the other side truly seemed to be a shard of hell fallen to earth. The valley was not so different in form the one they had left in form, but in place of a placid lake and a charming grove were steaming and bubbling pits of mud, sharp and jagged growths of rock, and a foul stench that turned his stomach and made his eyes water. Built into the far side of the bubbling pit was a small structure, cobbled together from poorly formed clay bricks.
Under Jaymes’ direction, Brand took gathered the large, yellow growths of crystal that protruded from around some of the steam chimneys. He fought to break them free with his heavy pick without being chocked by the noxious gas. The cool mountain air seemed unwilling to penetrate the foul pit, and the hot stinking air hung about them and refused to cool their sweat. By noon they had built a sizeable pile beside the brick structure and they headed back for food.
Passing back through the hellish teeth that divided the two valleys was both a relief and a torture. The rest of the troupe lounged sleepily around the lake. Some napped in the shade of the small grove of trees, some floated casually in the hot lake, and others had dug out seats in the dirt and were basking in the sun.
The two miners tromped into the camp, guzzled water, and devoured the meager lunch. Then, to the considerable confusion of Brand, stole the soup pot.
It gradually became clear that the pot had not originally been intended for soup-making, that had just been a convenience. Its actual purpose was for boiling the rocks that had been gathered. The very idea seemed mad to Brand; stone was not the sort of thing that melted, let alone boiled, but Jaymes quickly proved him quite mistaken.
The brick structure was a multi-chambered kiln, built atop a crack in the mountain that blasted searing heat and made little work of liquefying the stone. The creamy yellow faded as it melted and it ran a deep red. Slowly it boiled, froze, melted again and flowed out of a spout at the far end of the kiln into a waiting mold.
“Pure brimstone, the blood of devils…” Jaymes said darkly as he swapped one clay mold for another. “The rest of today and tomorrow all you need to do is refill the pot and swap the forms. You can bring a book if you like. It doesn’t take much attention.”
Brand watched, transfixed, as the devils’ blood congealed and hardened again, fading back to a pure yellow, hiding its true nature. “Huh? What? Why would I do that?”
“To read,” Jaymes sneered.
“For what purpose? I am not a priest or a wizard.”
“There are books other than those of gods and magic.” Jaymes chuckled at Brand’s naivety.
“To tell stories, mostly.” Jaymes smiled. “They’re full of adventure and mystery and romance… you can’t read?”
“Of course not.” This seemed wholly obvious to Brand and was startled at the Jaymes’ suggestion that this might be unusual. “Can you?”
“Well,” said Jaymes, building his resolve. “I guess it’s my turn. Cal taught Felisia, Felisia taught me. I suppose you’re next.”
“You’re going to teach me to read?” Brand regarded Jaymes apprehensively. “Is it allowed?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s going to take a while, mind you, not something you can pick up in a day. But at the very least, I’ll read you a story. Wait here, I’ll be back.”
He returned with an abused, leather-bound tome and, true to his word, Jaymes spend the next two days reading an adventure story to Brand. When Jaymes became tired of reading, he would attempt to explain the alphabet and writing and together they scratched out letters and words into the dirt.
By the time the pot had finally boiled itself dry, Brand had learned to write his name with some confidence, come to understand rather more about romantic relations than he imagined existing, and had developed the strong desire to see the sea and travel on a ship.
It was late afternoon when they finally dragged themselves and their load of golden brimstone bars past the gates of hell and back into the soft sand around the glass-like lake. The entire troupe were bathing in the warm waters and Jaymes wasted no time in joining them, stripping down to his undergarments and diving in with an enthusiastic lack of grace.
Brand was somewhat less eager; life had not furnished him with many positive experiences with water. The small lakes and rivers in his valley were painfully cold at the best of times. Hidden currents and greedy mud had attempted to drag him down whenever he trespassed into the realm of the fish. The Great Mountain Ram may have given him a stay of execution, but the Water Serpent had clearly not consented.
He edged to the shore. The previous day’s sweat and grime clung to him and begged to be washed clean. The stones at the bottom of the lake seemed to glow in the fading sunlight, inviting him to touch them. The warmth radiated from the water promising to ease his sore muscles. Still he dared not cross that threshold.
“Aren’t you coming in?” shouted Jaymes, wiping clear his eyes.
“I’d best not, I think,” replied Brand.
“Are you afraid?” accused Felisia. Brand hardly recognized her. Her typically wild hair was matted against her face making her look young and sweet, her bandoliers of blades and bodysuit had been replaced with bedclothes that flowed casually about her tiny frame. Even her scowl was having a hard time penetrating the soothing effects of the waters. Even still, Brand noted that there was a knife within reach on the shore.
“I am not certain that I am welcome.”
“You could not be more welcome!” boomed Igor, kicking off the edge and into the deep, making waves across the perfect surface.
“It is not your permission that I’m worried about. The river god and I have come to something of an agreement, which largely involves me staying well away from him.”
“No gods here.” Grumbled Callidus, not bothering to open his eyes. “Nothing here over which to preside.”
Brand was about to question Callidus on his certainty when something beneath the water distracted him. A form glided along the bottom of the pool, an elegant ghost rippling beneath the waves. It reached the edge and shot up, spraying Brand as he lunged backwards.
Illea grinned wickedly as she bobbed at the surface. Her gossamer bedclothes swirled about her, clinging to her curves and threatening tantalizing transparency. “You really should come in,” she said in a lilting, hypnotic tone.
“She’s just a distraction.” Callidus gave Brand this strange warning, seeming to know her mind without even having to look.
“Spoilsport,” she sneered and then made a clicking noise in the side of her mouth.
Mitali roared. She was mere inches behind Brand and he threw himself away from the startling noise, falling headlong into the water.
He swam like a panicked brick and had to be hauled to safety, coughing and sputtering, by Illea who made a noble effort to be apologetic in between bouts of laughter.
With help, his feet found purchase and his nerves calmed, helped in no small part by the soothing heat of the lake. With some coaxing, encouragement, and earnest promises that he could stay in the shallows, he agreed to strip down and join them properly.
As he laid his tunic and breeches out to dry, he felt eyes burning into him from behind and a fearful silence fell. He turned, defensively, to face the others. They all stared, jaws agape.
His growing comfort among humans vanished. He began to retreat. “What is it?” he said, peering out from behind his dripping bangs.
Ivan pulled himself up out of the water and slowly paced towards Brand. His face rapt in confusion and wonder as he scrutinized Brand, without ever looking in his eyes. Brand was ready to bolt by the time Ivan reached out delicately to touch his chest and at last said, “The scars.”
Brand looked down at his body, exposed in the fiery sunset. His flesh carried the memories of countless wounds, hard lessons taught by The Mountain. They were a part of him and in many ways he had forgotten that they were unusual. Now that he saw the perfect, well-muscled form of the acrobat, flawless white skin glistening in the sunlight, he realized again how much unlike them he was: scrawny, short, hairy, dark… a beast in man’s clothing. He shrunk away.
Brand glared at Ivan, who finally looked up from his mesmerized scrutiny. His eyes, though, were not full of fear or loathing, but sorrow and empathy. “I did not know your pains” he said, and hugged Brand.
Startled confusion turned quickly to awkward uncertainty. Brand dangled limply in the heartfelt embrace. His eyes begged for rescue or explanation from the others in the pool, but they seemed equally at a loss for words. After a distressingly long while, Ivan released his captive, clasped his shoulders firmly, nodded smartly and said, “You are strong. Very strong.”
Brand had the feeling, though he couldn’t put a name to it, of culture shock. This man, he thought, was even more of an alien in this land. The baffling exchange in which he had just involuntarily participated was clearly of great meaning and importance which was entirely lost in translation. It was, however, friendly.
Ivan walked with Brand back to the water. As he cautiously entered the pool, the stunned silence of his companions shattered and questions exploded as each clamored to be heard and demanded to know each and every story that the scars held.
Slowly, cautiously, he unraveled their tales. He explained the gashes of clumsiness and stupidity. He told them of the ones he had earned as a hunter and those bestowed on him as prey. He displayed the wounds of bravery and of desperation. He stared in confusion at the marks of lessons learned but apparently forgotten. He talked well into the dark of night before running out of wounds.
Later that night, when all the others had fallen asleep, Brand gave himself a new scar. A small one.
He stared at the yellow bars of brimstone. “Devils’ blood,” he thought. He pulled out the knife that Felicia had given him and made a small cut on the back of his hand. It flowed dark red like the devils blood, but as he let it cool, it did not fade to yellow. It stayed red, like a human.
“Not all demon,” he thought “not yet.”