OK World. Here is Episode 6 of The Wolf Pack. Those of you who have only just caught up, you should be able to find earlier extracts in my earlier blogs. It is also available in kindle and print format from www.amazon.com. Don't forget that you can read kindle books on ipad, ipod and iphone too if you download the free app.
The ranger had been wandering in the wilderness for some days now. He was vaguely heading in the direction of the city of Hambara, for although he hated cities, he needed to get some kind of paid work. Maybe he could get work as a scout for one of the caravans that were always arriving and leaving such places, or perhaps he could get a job with a hunting party. After all, the hunting season had not quite ended yet.
He sat down on one of the logs he saw littering the ground. It was cold, but then it was not spring for another month. He took out his water-skin and took a drink. He had crossed the land of Grosmer from the west, and having been warned of the dangers of the Mistmere and the Dead Marshes, he avoided them as best he could and travelled with a group of other young men. He had still been able to hear the moans of the dead that inhabited that area though. Those poor souls that had been drowned in the deep pools that were scattered through the swamp could not rest. Some said that they were evil spirits who lured people to their deaths and then kept their souls in bondage rather than the unrestful dead who had been denied their death rites. Certainly the place had had an evil feel and he was pleased to have left it behind. He found this land strange. He was from far to the south, from the land called Beridon beyond the Great Desert.
As he sat there in the shadow of the huge trees, he began to think back through the past nine years. Had it really been so long? He had been only fourteen when he left his home. He sighed. He did miss his family. He was from a large family. He had three older sisters and four younger, and two younger brothers. It was because of the preponderance of girls that the family was so large. Life, especially for children, was uncertain. Many did not live to reach their fifth year, and girls were not valued in his society. His culture believed that women had been put on Vimar for the sole purpose of bearing children and looking after men. So his mother had kept on bearing children so that there would be a sufficient number of boys to ensure at least one survive to carry on the family name and business and to provide for their parents in their old age
The ranger, being the eldest boy, had been expected to take over the business when his father became too old and failing eyesight made close work impossible. His father was a sandal maker. It was a steady job, but did not make a lot of money, so the family was poor. Fero, for that was his name, unfortunately hated the work, and had decided to become a ranger. He had found a ranger to take him on as an apprentice, and then he told his father. There had been a furious row, and his father had forbidden him from leaving. The fourteen-year-old, however, possessed a strong will and had been adamant. He had packed his few possessions in a pack and started for the door. His mother had come running after him, pleading, and crying, and as he left, she called after him:
‘Fero. Don’t forget us, Fero.’
The last thing he heard from his family was his father’s voice calling to his mother.
‘Come in, woman. We have no son called Fero.’
He had wept then, as he knew he could never return so long as his father lived, but he soon put it behind him and spent the next five years with the ranger, learning the skills he would need.
Eventually, of course, he had to leave his new home. The ranger who had taught him deemed that he must travel on his own and learn by experience. He had wandered for a year around his own country, then found himself one day in the Great Desert. Thirsty beyond belief, he had been picked up by nomads who lived in the desert. Here he learned more of the ways of survival in hostile climes. He lived with the nomads for a year before coming with them to one of the small fishing villages on the shores of the Inner Sea. The nomads came here once a year to trade for goods they could not find or make for themselves. Fish was a great delicacy and luxury for these people. Fero thought the small town an enormous city after his small village and the tents of the nomads, and he found it fascinating. He then determined to find out more about the lands to the north, and managed to get a working passage across the sea, even though he had never been on a boat before.
So Fero came to Grosmer. In the year of his arrival he helped with harvests around the coast, oranges and olives, grapes and peaches, lemons and apricots. He found the climate agreeable. The summer was quite hot and dry, but winters were mild and with enough rain that it was not a problem in the dry summer. He quickly learned the language, but the culture was more difficult. Here women were treated as equals. He found this very strange at first and got into trouble a few times trying to make a woman obey him and wait on him. Soon, however, he found that he could actually enjoy the company of women, and that they were as interesting and intelligent as men were. He enjoyed listening to their arguments and disputing with them. He also found out that his exotic looks were very attractive to these northern women, with his long, black hair, coppery skin and near black eyes. He took to wearing black too, to accentuate his difference, even though he was aware that it was an affectation on his part. He became known as the Black Ranger by some.
So he worked his way across the south of the country over the next couple of years. Then a group of young men with whom he was working at the last farm decided to travel north, and so he thought he would go with them. He wanted to travel to the lands to the west of the Western Mountains where he had heard lived tribes of nomads very different from those of the desert. These tribes were reputed to roam vast grasslands and tend herds of beautiful horses. They were said to be the best horsemen in the world. However, soon after passing the Dead Marshes and the Mistmere, Fero suddenly decided to turn back east and go to Hambara, the second largest and most important city in the land after the capital. He was still unsure why he had decided to do that. He just felt it was right. So here he was, sitting on a log in the forests of Grosmer, heading to the city and thinking of his past life. He rose and set off once more in an easterly direction, hoping to meet the road that ran from Bluehaven to Hambara.
Fero stood up from the log where he had been sitting and stretched. He looked around for any tracks to show if there was game around. He was beginning to feel rather hungry, and he realised that he had not eaten since the previous day. It was necessary for him to live off the land now since he had finished all his supplies two days previously. He saw the tracks of some small game, rabbit, he decided after examining the tracks. He quickly found the run and set a snare, then melted into the background, his black clothing blending into the shadows. With the patience learned over years of practice, and which was not natural to the young man, he sat waiting for his trap to be sprung. Soon, a small rabbit approached, and ran straight into the snare. Quickly, to spare the little animal as much suffering as possible, Fero leaped from his hiding place, killed the creature and set to skinning it. The rabbit was soon roasting over the fire he lit. He threw the entrails into the bushes. Some creature would benefit from them. As soon as his rabbit was cooked, he set about eating.
His meal completed, Fero looked at the sky. It was beginning to show a red glow in the west, and he decided to remain where he was for the night. He built up the fire to deter any predators, and settled down to sleep.
The next morning, Fero woke with the dawn and finished off his rabbit. He took a long drink from his water skin and ensured the fire was completely out covering the ashes with soil and leaf mould and then he carefully obliterated as many other signs of his habitation as he could. Only then did he pass out of his campsite to continue with his travels. He was a ranger and expert at leaving the countryside as it was before his coming. He travelled through the woodland without leaving any signs of his passing, and his movements were such that he was to all intents and purposes silent. That and his habitual dress of black made him an almost invisible presence in the woods.
After travelling almost half a day, he came to a road. It must be the road between Bluehaven and Hambara, he reasoned. He was not aware of any other north south roads in this area, although he was not very familiar with the geography of Grosmer. He then decided that he would make more speed travelling along the road, so he set off, walking briskly. Soon he spotted a place where people had camped. He looked around. It was abandoned, that much was clear, but the signs suggested that he was only about a day behind. There had been two people in the camp, he decided. He found two depressions in the grass where they had slept, but there was a third that he did not at first understand. It was as though something heavy was lying on some sticks, two long ones and several others running across. This was further borne out by the fact that there were tracks of two grooves leading in and out of the small clearing. Were these bandits, carrying loot stolen from travellers on the road? Fero was not worried about theft as he had little enough to warrant a robbery, but he knew that bandits were often ruthless and had been known to kill or maim for the pleasure of so doing. Not having any goods worth stealing could be just the excuse for such activity. He decided that he had better be very careful before showing himself to anyone travelling on these roads.
Eventually it grew dark. Fero continued to walk along the road until he saw the gleam of a fire. There ahead of him were the people he had been following. The roadsides were heavily wooded here and he melted into the trees like a ghost, and remained watching them. He was an experienced fighter, but did not like to fight unless there was no alternative and so he watched until he was sure they were no threat. There were in fact three of them, as he had deduced, although one of them was on a kind of wooden contraption and was obviously unconscious. This was what had made the tracks he had been so puzzled about. Was he a prisoner? This question was answered shortly by the female, a young black-haired elven cleric, coming to perform some healing on him. The care with which she did this told Fero that this was not a prisoner. Also, the young auburn-haired apprentice mage showed even more concern. Eventually, the elf took the first watch, and Fero watched as the half-elf mage lay down by the fire. He still had no idea who these people were, and could hardly go barging into their camp in the middle of the night. That would make him a threat and if they were no bandits, as it seemed, they would be greatly disturbed. So he bided his time, thinking to reveal himself the following morning. He sat down and prepared to sleep.
Unfortunately for Fero, just before dawn, a dwarf came into the camp. He looked around, and sighed as he saw the young mage asleep, slumped down by the log on which he had been sitting for his watch. He muttered to himself in his own language, and then busied himself with making up the fire, after which he sat down on another log to wait for the pair to wake up. A rabbit crept into the clearing, and the dwarf slowly picked up his crossbow and fired. The rabbit was killed instantly, and the dwarf picked it up and took it to his seat to skin and prepare for cooking. Soon there was a delicious smell of roasting meat wafting towards where the ranger was sitting, and his mouth watered. Was this someone they knew and had been waiting for, he wondered? He would have to keep watching to find out. If they did in fact know each other, then he could continue with his plan of approaching them, but if the dwarf was a stranger to them, then he would have to bide his time. It would seem just a little too much of a coincidence to have two strangers appear on the same morning. Fero knew that if that had happened to him, he would not have trusted either of the strangers, thinking that maybe they were in league and there was an elaborate plot involved.
His question was soon answered by the reaction of the young cleric. He listened to the talk, and learned their names and how they came to be there. He decided to wait until the next night and then introduce himself. Until then, he would watch and wait.
Later in the day, Fero saw the meeting with Borolis and family. The dogs at first made to bark at him too, but with the skills of a ranger, he whistled to them, and they came over. He quickly made friends with them and after that, they ignored him. To his surprise, the travellers did not come out after eating. Maybe this was their destination, but he thought they had said they were all going to Hambara. He waited patiently for quite a long time. All remained quiet for the rest of the day. The farmer came out, milked his cows and gave the dogs some food, then returned to the house. Nothing else happened. He waited but there was no further observable activity. Fero considered moving on and not waiting for the travellers, but he had been on his own for a long time and craved some company. He could live for long days without seeing anyone most of the time, but occasionally he desired the company of others. He had learned many languages and customs in his travels and was eager to learn something of the elves. (He knew a little of the dwarves having spent some time with a band of those people when he first came to this side of the Three Seas and had learned to speak a passable dwarvish, but had never really known any elves.) Anyway, the sun was now setting and so he decided to wait and see what happened in the morning.
The next morning, the farmer and his two sons came out with heavy shovels and picks and managed to dig a hole in a small fenced-off patch of ground. Eventually, they all came out with a man on a plank of wood, covered by a sheet. Fero deduced that the injured man had died and that this was to be his funeral. A sad song sung by the cleric confirmed this, and that the man had been close to the young mage was apparent by his distressed appearance and the way he bent down and spoke to the dead man. Maybe a relative, Fero thought. Shortly after the brief funeral, the remaining three left the house and set off on the road towards the city.
Fero followed. He was aware of an atmosphere between the travellers, and thought he had better see what developed. Maybe today was not a good time to reveal himself after all, so that night he hid himself in the trees once more.