By Gerry Torbert
A wizard’s familiar can be quite a boon to his plans; it can see and relate to him things that go on far away, and for the most part, in a clandestine manner. Few expect a bird, an insect, or something like a feral cat to spy on them, and for those who do, it’s often too late.
Morbagg realized this, but forgot a few things that were very important to such a pet: they have heightened intelligence and senses, but with that comes a certain ego, a certain need for respect and fair treatment.
In the case of Grunt, a very intelligent crow who has been the eyes and ears of the orcish wizard Morbagg, he never lost the need to be treated with the basic respect required by any animal. The torture he had seen administered to Gemlat often made him cringe and fear for his own safety.
Perhaps their relationship never elevated to the true bond between shaman and familiar; perhaps the touchy-feeley attitudes were far too humane to be hard-wired into an orc’s brain; perhaps it was simply based on the crow’s desire to stay alive, once under his power.
In any case, Grunt left the window of Morbagg’s tent after relating the meeting at the campfire to his master. The orc called to him and demanded to know where he was going, to which Grunt replied, “Bird’s gotta eat.” As he put more distance between the tent and himself, he thought exclusively of hunting mice; he could feel the influence of Morbagg wane to a point where it shut off, just as he approached the nesting tree of Maize.
Crows in Farland are fairly intelligent birds. Even the less intelligent of them play games, race over defined courses, engage in vocal battles, roll stones down packed roads for distance, even drop stones on targets. Even more strangely, they do favors for one another, and even “count” the favors; some amass the good deeds in an unspoken account that can be cashed in when needed.
Maize owed Grunt in the worst way; he was a poor protector and an even worse nest builder. Why Leaf stayed with him all these years was far beyond the imagination of Grunt… he often thought he must have been that good in nest…
After a friendly approach and testing the wind for Morbagg’s presence, Grunt related a favor to Maize that he felt could be easily done and still retain a little of his account. He flew back to Morbagg, filling up on a wormy streambed along the way.
Maize was happy to help, since he owed Grunt a lot. He found the cave by following the directions to a tee, and flew inside when he was sure there was little or no traffic in and out. He wasn’t sure what he’d find; Grunt had to keep his exposure to a minimum, so he said little. He did say he would have to find a giant.
He flew a little at a time, finding crags or splits in the rock behind which he could hide and rest along the way.
Groll heard and ‘saw’ him coming from a hundred feet away. Bored and looking for something to do, he guided him in to a point just beyond the “barrier” Morbagg had set in Groll’s mind, past which he was told he would be in great pain.
Maize hopped closer. “Maize. Grunt sent.”
“Ah… you talk! Who is Grunt?”
“Grunt Morbagg’s bird. Told me to tell you thing. Not let Morbagg hear.”
Morbagg stirred from his planning in his tent; the “talk” was garbled, but he heard his name.
Groll thought for a moment and held his hand up to quiet Maize. He held his hand out and said, “Come closer. Touch hand. I cannot go to you.”
The bird hopped to his hand and jumped onto it. He was not subject to Morbagg’s mind impression, so he passed the barrier quite easily. “Now can talk. Show me your mind.”
Morbagg heard Groll talking, but things went blank quickly. He stopped all else and sat back in his chair, searching the “waves,” but heard no more.
Maize let Groll listen to his thoughts, directly transmitted to him as opposed to being sent “by air.” Groll realized the importance of the message and the need for silence, so he gently placed his thumb on the bird’s head and thought “forget.” He flicked the bird out into the passageway; it flew out the adit as if nothing happened.
The giant super-oluk leaned back against the rock wall and sighed. The wizard’s power was evident; now was his duplicity and trickery seen in the same light.
Groll now wondered about some of the other things he’d been told. He walked to the entry to his cave and reached out past the edge into the passageway. He could feel the tingle of the barrier; he girded himself and pushed his hand past the barrier.
Waves of pain dug like daggers into his hand. He closed his eyes and reopened them, only to see the fire bubbling away as his skin melted off his hand. He could take it no longer, and pulled his hand back, grabbing it with the other.
But he felt no heat or any ‘melted’ flesh as he touched it. He looked down to see the skin untouched, and the pain gone.
He knew that if he put his hand there again, he would suffer pain in his mind, once again; he understood that he was under Morbagg’s spell; he knew he wouldn’t be hurt, but his mind would shut down his body to avoid the torture.
He then remembered what Twa had shown him. He sat down beside the entry to the passageway and crossed his legs; he sat as comfortably as possible and began breathing slowly, regularly, deeply. He began to hum slightly, as it made him feel comfortable.
Slowly, his heartbeat slowed to the point where he could feel every thump of the muscle in the veins in his head. He felt light and less dense, even hollow and capable of floating. He then slowly inched his hand toward the passageway, but felt it burn.
He pulled his hand back and tried another approach; there was a crack in the roof of the cavern, and it met another crack in a tee; he stared at the tee and concentrated, calming himself once more. Soon, he was able to push his hand out of the barrier and into the passageway.
Groll smiled and leaned back against the rock to relax. He planned what to say to get Twa alone again, to warn his friend.
The same orc prodded Twa down the passageway, right on time. Groll leaned forward, stood up and walked to the entrance, glaring at his distant relative. The orc stopped pushing the Kunese, not coming any further; Groll nodded sternly and glanced down the walkway. The orc turned and retreated to wait.
Groll looked at Twa and motioned for him to walk near. He spoke softly and tried to mask his thoughts with pictures of other things in his mind. “Be careful, little one. Morbagg wants to harm you.”
Twa nodded as Groll put his finger to his own lips. “Will make orc forget you, and you can slip by him. You can hide from orcs in woods.”
“No, Groll. I will take chances. It may be a rough road that has the best view.”
Groll frowned, but his thinking caught up with the metaphor more quickly this time. “Morbagg can listen to you; he can hear you think. I should protect… family…”
Twa smiled; it was something with which Groll was entirely unfamiliar, but he felt its warmth and sincerity—neither of which he understood. “I can hide from him as I stand in front of him. It is an old trick; I’ll teach it to you sometime.”
Groll sighed. “That is good. Be careful…family…”
Darmon sat upon a broad helmet of rock overlooking the final day’s journey to Norville. He reached behind him into his knapsack to break off a piece of oatcake, and felt something like grass or leaves. This broke his concentration, and he turned quickly to look into the bag; he was quite surprised to see a beautiful, dark-haired woman standing there.
“What th… Tao! Don’t scare me like ‘at!” He laughed and shook his head, half embarrassed; he slapped the rock beside him. “Come, sit and talk. I think I’ve been gruff wi’ yae, an’ I dinna mean ta be.”
She scooted over and sat beside him, looking out over the plain; it was suitable for framing with black tree branches along both sides, bright stars high in the heavens, and more of the expanse of light gray, starlit sandstone rolling like a blanket in front of them. “It is beautiful, Darmon-san. So much beauty can be dark, yet blind one to evil ahead. I am sorry for being quiet, but it is how I… walk, you might say.”
“Heh, yae, yair quiet, it’s true. It serves ya well. Yer story is one of sadness, but hope. It would be good if we can find yer loved one. Musta been lonesome, all ‘is time.”
She nodded and rested her head on her knees, her arms around her calves; her sigh was a model of loneliness, and answered better than her metaphor-laced language could ever do. “Yes, but it was far worse, until I came north. At least I have friends who can help.”
“But it must be lonely for you as well, immortal one. To fall in love, to raise a family, to watch them die. What do you feel most?”
“Guilt, Tao. Guilt. When me wife passed, I could un’stand it, as could she. We were near the same age. But me chillun’s—‘at was too much. A man canna be vibrant, powerful, strong, an’ watch ‘is kids die ‘o ol’ age.”
“I tried followin’ ‘em, but I just canna die. I tried, but I just healed, no matta wha’ I did. I begged, mind ya, begged Tanarus; ‘e turned a deaf ear. Why did I have ta live?”
“I tried unitin’ the Creags, but they just thought I was a dodderin’ ol’ man, even tho I coulda whupped any of ‘em. So I left ‘em all, hid in the hills. Took on an alter ego, I did, as a gambler; another one as a hired mercenary. It all left me hollow, an’ filled wi’ guilt. An’ guilt is like a lye, poured over yair head, boilin’ yair skin, yair hair, then your very soul.”
Tao looked deeply in his eyes and feared what she thought she saw. The starlight plays many games with the eyes, stretching that thin thread that links the light with what the brain thinks it sees; Tao thought, for a moment, she saw a gaunt, gray ghost of a man sitting beside her, eaten in places by the guilt he felt.
She placed a hand on his; he nodded slightly and turned his head to gaze out over the plain; perhaps he realized how much he looked like the ghost he was chasing, perhaps he thought he opened too much, and perhaps he felt guilt, that he had no right to make others feel they had to help him.
He placed his other hand on hers, then picked hers up, placed it on her leg and let go. He smiled appreciatively, and looking into her eyes said “I’ll look exactly as I do now, when you are gone from this land and your bones turned to dust. I’ll remember your kindness, but forget your face. It’s the way I am, and what I’ve become. And what I have to bear.”
“We will find yair ‘usband, Tao; I swear it. Yae shunna haveta bear a ghost.”
Tao nodded; a tear welled up in one eye, and she turned away to wipe it. “I understand, Darmon-san. And I will be forever in your debt.” She turned to his knapsack and pulled out the leaves he felt when she surprised him earlier. “Here; these are herbs that I found, plus some I brought with me. They will clear your head and make you comfortable this evening. Simply eat them.”
Darmon took the leaves and smelled them, then chewed a few leaves. “Thank you, Tao. Get some sleep, little one.” He smiled and gave her a little hug; she left for the camp.
Darmon finished off the herbs; they were delicious, and within minutes he fell asleep for the first time in what felt like two hundred years…