The rising sun added nothing to the hovel that it didn't quickly take away. Even the walls were in poor repair, and it seemed like masses of caulk and tar used in haphazard repairs were all that held them together. The half of the roof that had not collapsed looked weighted down and ready to fall, and the hardened ground around the edges was uneven and eroded, revealing more than one animal's burrow.
Johannes knocked on the door, and no one answered. He waited and knocked again, and this time, Mindolpha opened the door, still wrapped in her blanket, and then shut it immediately. “I told you to –” was all Johannes heard before the door closed in his face.
Johannes bowed his head for a moment, calling through the door. “Please. I need to talk to you! And I'm sorry. I hurt you, and…” He shook his head, his face twisted in a grimace of regret.
For at least fifteen seconds, Johannes heard nothing but the villagers leading the others out in the distance. Then the door opened. “I told you I didn't want to see you again. What do you want?”
Johannes sighed and looked up. “I need a guide to find Uyithlyaw, and I understand that you would welcome the chance to leave the village for a time. And I wanted to apologize for hurting you before. It wasn't my intent, and I'm sorry.” He sighed deeply, shaking his head.
“Who told you I wanted to leave? Lutont? He should mind his own business.” Again, she slammed the door in Johannes' face, but it dragged against the ground and stopped before it was fully closed. After a couple seconds, Mindolpha opened the door again. “Alright, I'll take you there. But I can't leave Mineasia.”
“I understand.” Johannes nodded slowly. “Thank you for your help, Mindolpha. I can pay you for your time, of course. It wouldn't be fair to ask this of you otherwise.”
“I have no use for your money,” she said. Then she looked back towards the pile of blankets and clothing. “Forty aglars.”
Johannes dug into the pouch by his side, pulled out four golden coins and handed them to Mindolpha. “Agreed.”
Mindolpha walked into her hovel, leaving the door open. “Mineasia,” she called to the pile of blankets, which shifted at the name, “we're going on a trip. Pack some clothes.” Mineasia emerged from her pile, and looked surprised to see Johannes again, but still walked around, picking up pieces of clothing that she liked. She was still wearing the floor-length shirt she'd put on for Johannes' benefit. Mindolpha dropped her blanket without regard to Johannes or the open door, and began to get dressed. “Isn't there anyone else in this town?” she asked while pulling on torn but warm-looking undergarments. “Why would you pick me?”
“In truth, because I regretted having hurt you before, and I hoped to find some way to balance the account.” He shrugged sheepishly.
“Hmph.” She looked at him with squinted eyes, glancing away only briefly to pull on a pair of men's trousers. “I notice you don't carry a sword. Are you going to defend yourself with that crossbow?”
“If I can. When I first purchased it, I was with other armed people who would be able to assist if somebody came too close. Why? Are you aware of brigandage in the area?” He nodded soberly.
“There's brigandage in every area. Don't shoot anything you don't have to.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
“She's two days northeast of here,” Mindolpha said, while stuffing blankets, clothing, pots and other things into a wide sack. “Do you have food for all three of us? No? Then I'll have to prepare it. We'll leave at noon. Now go away.”
When Johannes returned with his animals, Mindolpha and her daughter were waiting outside, ready to leave. Each wore a small pack made of rags sewn together, and the large sack sat slumped over between them, absorbing the melting snow.
Mindolpha looked at Johannes and the animals for a while, and Johannes looked at her. In the light, he could see a number of scars, some very old and some barely healed, on her face and hands. Mindolpha finally looked at her daughter and said, “Mineasia, would you like to ride that mule?”
“By myself?” Mineasia asked, a glowing eagerness in her eyes.
“Yes. I'll ride with the man.”
Johannes laughed a little, shaking his head, a smile spreading across his face as he saw Mineasia's eagerness. “Be careful, Mineasia. He can sometimes be a bit stubborn.” He walked over towards the mule, taking a hold of his bridle and trying to ensure that the mule was well under control when Mineasia was put atop him.
Mindolpha lifted her daughter into the air. The mule tried to take a step back, but Johannes held him steady, and Mindolpha lowered Mineasia onto the mule's back. “Hold on, Mineasia. It will hurt if you fall,” her mother said. Mineasia tightened her legs around the mule's sides and grabbed hold of its hair, and looked intently forward, eager to ride.
Mindolpha waited until Johannes locked his fingers to give her a step up to the horse – she was as light as a child. Then Johannes sat himself in front of her and took the reins. She clung stiffly to his back and told him to follow the road east.
As they went farther and farther from Osander River Village, Mindolpha's grip loosened and her body relaxed. At one point, Johannes looked around to hear her give further directions, and for a moment thought that a different person sat behind him. Her face had brightened and some of the pain had faded away, allowing her beauty to shine through. Sitting on Johannes' horse and telling him where to enter the forest, she seemed almost happy.
Johannes relaxed as they rode, using the peaceful travel as a time where he could examine his thoughts at his leisure. The Osander River village was strange, it was true, but he was inclined to believe their claims that the strangeness there had its roots in Dunweig. What was more curious was the claim that the villagers served to keep Dunweig in check – how could they manage that? What did they do? He was certain that there were those in the village who knew more than they were telling about whatever poison was hidden in Dunweig, but he also had his doubts that Mindolpha would be privy to such knowledge, as isolated as she had made herself from the goings-on of the village. At the moment, all there was to do was travel, and the clarity and simplicity of the goal calmed Johannes' mind.
Afternoon was wearing away when Johannes felt sharp nails dig into his back. A moment later he felt just as sharp a pain in his head, but it dissipated quickly, and Mindolpha relaxed her fingers. Mineasia glanced up from the mule, but soon lost interest and went back to enjoying the ride.
Several more sharp pains afflicted Johannes for the next hour, before the real headache set in. It felt like an external force was pulling Johannes' eyelids open. He could not shut out the strange images around him, or even blink, and soon the pain in his head spread to his drying eyes. The trees shifted over and over, changing colors, species, age and position, but always remaining the same trees in the same forest. At times Johannes would be surrounded by a burnt patch of forest, and sunlight would stream down on him. At other times he could see only darkness, and was buried in mulch or snow. Finally, the shifting stopped, and the forest stood still in the twilight, but there was something wrong. The trees were spread apart, and low brush covered the ground, as if this were recently overgrown farmland. “I heard something!” someone yelled in the distance, but the voice did not fit the setting, so Johannes ignored it.
A sudden flash of purple light appeared above Johannes' head, and disappeared almost as soon as he saw it. From the north a hundred angry voices came. When they were closer, Johannes saw a mob of peasants with torches and pitchforks, followed by a dozen bowmen and half a dozen fully suited knights. “Fear not,” said the short, foreign- looking man on his left, though the man was armed only with a knife at his belt, and a twig two hands long, which he pointed at the enemy as if it were a weapon. “Yes,” said the wild-eyed, white-haired woman on his right. “They will not take us this time.” “Then when?” asked Johannes. “Some day, we will not be so well prepared.” Johannes lifted his arms and the mob stopped, frozen in time. “That was wasteful,” said the man on his left. “No, it will help if you will listen. It is time we ended this. If we leave now, they will never find us.” The woman shot a piercing glance at Johannes, and the pain in his head redoubled. “This is our home! We will not go!” The three of them fell silent, and waited until the mob continued, acting as if nothing had happened.
The mob came within fifty yards, and the woman's gaze fell on them. One by one, peasants dropped their weapons and ran in terror. Others saw their allies flee, and pressed on.
Forty yards. Archers turned around suddenly and fired at their neighbors, breaking the mob into dozens of tiny battles, but those unaffected by this insanity continued forward.
Thirty yards. The man lifted his twig in the air, and clouds pulled together from nothing in the sky. Rain started as a drizzle, and within seconds became a powerful storm, blurring the battlefield. Lightning fell from the sky, once, twice, three times, unerringly striking groups of men. Two knights fell from their horses when a bolt of lightning struck between them.
Twenty yards. The man lowered his twig and swept it in an arc before him. The ground opened up in a narrow chasm, sending a dozen men stumbling to their deaths before those further behind learned to jump over.
Ten yards. Johannes spread his fingers wide, and a thousand creatures of no natural form crawled from the chasm, grabbing legs and pulling more men to their deaths. Others leapt from the chasm and gnawed at armor, clothing or skin. The woman's gaze sent another dozen diving in after their comrades, and streamers of fire and ice wound from the man's twig, evoking screams from men who had sworn they would never show pain.
Five yards. What was left of the mob stopped. Knights' horses held still in mid-gallop, peasants held their dying breaths, and fires waited on Johannes' will before they would flicker. “Wasteful!” the man cried. “We can go,” Johannes said. “No!” yelled the woman. “We will stay here and defeat them! We will not leave our home!” “Ten men remain,” Johannes said. “Two knights with swords drawn. Eight poor serfs who have wanted us dead since they first heard our names. We will not live if we stay.” “Then we will die,” the man said.
Ten men continued forward. The base of the woman's neck caught a pitchfork just as her attacker changed his mind and he and two others beat their neighbors with bare fists. A sword bit into the short man's shoulder, sending his twig flying from his grip, but a pulsating energy engulfed the sword with such power that its wielder was dismounted and lay quivering on the ground. “There they are!” an unimportant voice said from behind Johannes. Five more enemies fell at the man's touch before a sword swept his head from its base.
Johannes raised his arms to the sky, and shouted words he did not understand. The last remaining knight lifted his sword for a killing blow, and Johannes felt hands shaking him by the shoulders. His head throbbed, and he had to blink his dry eyes several times before he could see anything. The sun had almost set, and he was sitting up on the ground. Mineasia let go of him and went back to her mother, trying to shake her awake too. Leaves rustled behind Johannes, and he turned his head to see three men emerge from the woods, carrying branches shaped into well-weighted clubs. “Your weapons,” one of the men said, “and that horse. Give us those and you can go with your lives.”
As Johannes looked on the brigands, something in him, a part of him which had been frustrated by his powerlessness to stop the evil he had seen in Dunweig, a part which had been tormented by mysteries upon mysteries with no answers, a part which had been unable to hold back Kreemon, and was tired of being helpless before that which he saw in the world, snapped. He reached up to unsling his crossbow, leveling it at the bandits. “There may be more of you, but I'm sure none of you wants to be the one that dies here.” His voice was dark and brittle with too much anger and frustration seething beneath the surface, and he gritted his teeth. If they intended to attack him, one of them _would_ be shot, he intended to insure that, and he would not passively let himself be robbed by filthy scum such as these.
One of the bandits shouted a curse, and all three aborted their charge and hesitated. They started to take flanking positions, when the one who had spoken before yelled, “Back down,” to the others, and all three disappeared into the forest.
Mindolpha had woken and was sitting up, and Mineasia clung to her, all four limbs wrapped tightly around her mother's body. Tears still moistened Mindolpha's face from the effects of Johannes' headache.
Johannes dropped to his knees, regarding Mindolpha with a worried expression, his voice regretful as he spoke. “Are you all right? Sorry… I'm so sorry about that…” He shook his head slowly, shivering.
“I've been through far worse, and there's nothing you can do about it, except see Uyithlyaw.” She squinted as another brief pain washed over Johannes' head. “They might come back. We should go.”
He nodded and sighed. “OK, then. Let's mount up. I hope Mineasia is well…”
“Mineasia,” she said, stroking her daughter's hair. “It's time to go. Do you want to ride the mule again?” Mineasia raised her head and looked up at her mother. “Good. Let's go then.” Mindolpha stood up and carried Mineasia to the mule. Johannes noticed that Mindolpha had developed a limp.
Mineasia's humor improved as they rode, and she once again immersed herself in the experience of riding a mule. Johannes felt a dull ache in his head, punctuated by an occasional sharp pain, which spread down through his ears and eyes.
They rode on for another hour, and then Johannes and Mindolpha walked the horses for an hour, finding a path with difficulty in the darkness. Finally, they had to stop.
As soon as they stopped, Mindolpha, exhausted, curled up in her coat and blanket on the ground, and fell asleep immediately. Mineasia, on the other hand, was far too excited to sleep, so she helped Johannes gather firewood and pelted him with questions.
“Your head still hurts… What's your name?”
“My name is Johannes Eltermann. I come from way up north, in Duerstadt, near where the king lives.” Johannes smiled gently, scooping another stick up onto his arms.
“You know the king?”
“No, I'm not such a big and important person. But there are lots of people there… there are buildings everywhere, and many of them taller and bigger than all the places in your village.” He smiled.
“I'm not big and important, but I can go talk to Harran whenever I want to. Don't you ever talk to the king?”
“The king is a very busy person, and even most people near him never even get a chance to see him. I've seen his palace from outside, though. It's a beautiful building…”
“Why did you come here? Wouldn't you rather be home?”
Johannes chuckled a little. “I came here to see what this part of Rang is like. There's a great deal to learn in life, and already I've seen some things I never would have expected. You know, most places people don't know things the way you know how people are sick, or the other people in your village know things. So it's pretty amazing to me.”
“But you know things.”
Johannes sighed gently. “I never started knowing things like that until after I came to Dunweig. Really, the change and the headaches are sort of scary for me… so I'm glad you and your mother are helping me find Uyithlyaw.” He shook his head, turning back towards the camp with a load of wood. “I hope she'll be well. I feel bad about making her suffer from my headaches.”
Mineasia ran after him with her own small bundle of sticks, matching each of his steps with two of hers. “Tell me a story,” she said, “about where you come from.”
Johannes smiled. “A story. Well, Mineasia, once there was a poor boy named Gotthard who lived in the city. He saw how hard life was for him and for his father, and he wanted to change that. So, very early each day, he'd go to the shops of the artisans there, doing what he could to run errands for them, since many of them always had work to do, making belts and buckles, pots and pans, cloaks and cowls, or any other of a hundred different things.
“And what this little boy Gotthard hoped was that one of these artisans would agree to take him on as a helper and teach him his craft, so that he could become an artisan himself so he'd have a warm house, enough food, nice clothes, and a soft bed to sleep in at night when he grew up. Well, Mineasia, Gotthard worked hard doing errands for many of these artisans, running back and forth, fetching and carrying, and getting a few diyars, and sometimes even an aglar, for the work he did. But many of them already had their own children who they were teaching as their apprentices, and didn't want to teach a poor boy like him. But one day, a kind old glassmaker named Josef who had never married and had no children saw what a clever and hard-working boy Gotthard was, and he agreed that Gotthard could help around his shop and learn how to make beautiful things out of glass as his apprentice. And when Gotthard heard this, he laughed out loud for joy, since he knew he wouldn't have to be a poor boy all his life. Gotthard worked hard for Josef, and as he grew, he grew to love Josef like he was his own father. And as he grew into a man, he learned more about his craft, and became a glassmaker just like Josef was. And as he grew into a man, he fell in love with Josef's beautiful niece, Katarina, and they became married. And now Gotthard lives in a big warm house with plenty of good food to eat, has comfortable clothes and a good soft bed, and a wife who loves him and three children of his own. And one of those three children, Mineasia, was named Johannes, and he's walking right by you with a load full of firewood to warm us at night.”
By the end of Johannes' story, they back at the small clearing they'd used as a camp. “The little ones go on the bottom,” Mineasia said confidently, stacking her sticks carefully around in a square. “You make it into a house shape, and burn that first, so the fire will be hot enough to burn the big wood…
“I don't have any brothers or sisters. Do you have any children?”
Johannes shook his head, stacking the wood as Mineasia directed. “No, Mineasia, I don't have any children of my own. I've spent my life doing other things instead, so far.”
“You're older than my mother. You should have children already. How old are you?”
“I'm twenty-seven, little one. How old are you?”
“I'm five. And my mother is twenty five, but when I'm six she'll still be twenty five.” Mindolpha groaned and rolled over, but remained asleep.
Johannes smiled, working with a scrap of flint against his knife to try and strike up a fire. “I see.” Momentarily, he frowned. “You know those bad men who were trying to hurt us earlier? I'm not sure it will be safe for all of us to be asleep at once right now…”
Mineasia's eyebrows curled with worry. “You mean they'll be back? I thought you made them go away.”
“I did, Mineasia, but I don't know if they'll try to come back. They might think that if they can sneak up on me without me noticing, I won't be able to stop them. So what I'm going to do is stay up as long as I can to watch for them coming, and then wake your mother to watch for them the rest of the night. If we notice them coming before they get here, I can frighten them off again, but if we're all asleep at the same time, they could do bad things to us without anybody to stop them. I hope they stay frightened off, but I don't want to take chances…” Johannes sighed deeply, shaking his head, his brow furrowed.
“Can't you just make them go far away, like Harran does when Yilly says something's wrong?”
Johannes shook his head. “I don't have that power. Maybe only Harran has it – I've never seen or heard of it outside of your village.”
“What'll they do to us?”
“They'd hurt us, maybe kill us, I don't know. But you shouldn't worry. We'll protect you, I promise. You should try and get to sleep…” Johannes sighed.
Mineasia looked worried for a moment, but then she formed her face into a bold look and stood very straight. “I can stay up and watch for them too.”
Johannes paused for a long moment, considering this, before he finally spoke. “It's very important that you not wander off, then, and that you wake your mother as soon as you feel like you might fall asleep. I'll wake you up when I can't stand watch any longer, if that's fine with you…”
“Okay. I'll go to sleep right now so I'll be wide awake.”
Mineasia continued to pester Johannes with questions for an hour or so before she finally fell asleep. With the area quiet, Johannes wrapped himself in his cloak and paced anxiously to keep himself awake, peering away from the campsite to see if he could make out anything in the gloom.
Wow. Letting Mineasia watch camp. That should be fun. :)