Four. Beyond the Fringe

Wiz woke from a dream of home to rain on his face.

Judging from the sodden state of the campfire, it had been raining for sometime, but the water had only now filtered through the leaves of the tree theyhad slept under.r.

He spluttered, rolled over and wiped the water out of his eyes.

“Awake at last,” Moira said. She was already up and had her packon her back with her cloak on over everything. “Come on. We need to getgoing.”.”

“I don’t suppose there is any sense in suggesting we hole up someplacewarm and dry?””

Moira cocked an eyebrow. “In the Wild Wood? Besides, we have adistance to travel.””

Wiz pulled his cloak free of his pack. “How long is this likely tolast?””

Moira studied the sky. “Not more than one day,” she pronounced.”Summer storms are seldom longer than that.””

“Great,” Wiz grumbled.

“It will be uncomfortable,” she agreed, “but it is ablessing too. The rain will deaden our trail to those things which track byscent.” She looked up at the leaden, lowering sky.y.

“Also, dragons do not like flying through rain.”

“Thank heaven for small favors.”

Their breakfast was a handful of dried fruit, devoured as they walked. Theypicked their way through a gap in the ruined wall and struck off into theforest.t.

It rained all day. Sometimes it was just a fine soft mist wafting from thelowering gray skies. Sometimes it pelted down in huge face-stinging drops. Whenit was at its worst they sought shelter under a tree or overhanging rock.Mostly it just rained and they just walked.ed.

At first it wasn’t too bad. The rain was depressing but their wool cloakskept out the water and the footing was. However as the downpour continued,water seeped through the tightly woven cloaks and gradually soaked them to theskin. The ground squished beneath their feet. The carpet of wet leaves turnedas slippery and treacherous as ice. Where there were no leaves there was mud,or wet grass nearly as slippery as the leaves.aves.

At every low spot they splashed through puddles or forded littlestreamlets. Wiz’s running shoes became soaked and squelched at every step.Moira’s boots weren’t much better.r.

Wiz lost all sense of time and direction. His entire world narrowed down toMoira’s feet in front of him, the rasp of his breath and the chill trickle downhis back. He plodded doggedly along, locked in his own little sphere of misery.Unbalanced by the weight of his pack, he slipped and fell repeatedly on theuneven ground.und.

Moira wasn’t immune. She was also thoroughly soaked and she slipped andslid almost as much as he did. By the time they stopped for a mid-afternoonrest they were drenched and muddy from falling.g.

Unmindful of the soggy ground, they threw themselves down under a huge pinetree and sprawled back against the dripping trunk. For once Moira seemed as outof breath as Wiz.z.

Under other circumstances—say as a picture on someone’s wall—the forestmight have been beautiful. The big old trees towered around them, their leaveswashed clean and brilliant green. The rain and mist added a soft gray backdropand the landscape reminded Wiz of a Japanese garden. There was no sound but thegentle drip of water from the branches and, off in the distance, the rushingchuckle of a stream running over rocks.ocks.

Abstractly, Wiz could appreciate the beauty. But only very abstractly.Concretely, he was wet, chilled, miserable, exhausted and hungry..

“Fortuna!” Moira exclaimed. Wiz looked up and saw she had thrownback her cloak and pulled up her skirt, exposing her left leg and aconsiderable expanse of creamy thigh lightly dusted with freckles.s.

“Close your mouth and stop gaping,” she said crossly. “Ihurt my knee when I slipped crossing that last stream.””

“How bad is it?” he asked as he scrambled over next to her.

Moira prodded the joint. “Bad enough. It is starting to swell.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Of course it hurts!” she said in disgust. “But moreimportantly I will not be able to walk on it much longer.””

“Maybe you should put some ice on it.”

Moira glared at him.

“Sorry. I forgot.”

“What I need is a healing poultice. I have the materials in my pouch,but they must be boiled and steeped.” She looked around and sighed.”We are unlikely to find dry wood anywhere in the Wild Wood thisday.”y.”

“There are ways of finding dry wood even in a rain.”

Moira looked interested. “Do you know how?”

Wiz realized he hadn’t the faintest idea. His apartment didn’t even have afireplace and his method of starting a barbeque involved liberal lashings oflighter fluid followed by the application of a propane torch.h.

“Well, no,” he admitted. “But I know you can do it.”

“That I know also,” Moira snorted. “Were I a ranger or awoodsman I would doubtless know how it is done. But I am neither, nor areyou.”.”

“Can’t you use magic?”

She shook her head. “I dare not. A spell to light wet wood is obviousand could well betray us. Besides, I threw away my fire lighter.””

“What are you going to do?”

“I can walk for a while longer. As we came over the last rise I saw aclearing that looked man-made. We shall have to go in that direction and hopewe can find someone who will grant us the use of his fire.”.”

“That’s dangerous.”

“Less dangerous than using magic, if we are careful. We will approachcautiously and if aught seems amiss we will depart quietly. Now, give me yourhand.”.”

Wiz pulled the hedge witch to her feet and for a brief tingling instanttheir bodies touched down the whole length. Then Moira turned away and startedoff.f.

Mercifully, the going was easier in the new direction. There were no hillsto climb and the rain gradually slacked off. Moira started to limp, but sherefused Wiz’s offer of assistance.e.

As afternoon faded to evening, they threaded their way through the drippingtrees until at last Moira motioned Wiz to stop and eased forward carefully..

There, in a rude clearing hacked into the forest, stood a cottage. Some ofthe felled trees had gone to build the dwelling and some into the split-railfences around the field. Knee-high stumps still stood among the crops. Thecottage was roofed with shingles and the chimney was stone. A thin curl ofsmoke hung low over the field. It was crude and Spartan, but to Wiz it lookedbeautiful.iful.

“Hallo the house!” Moira called without entering the clearing.

“Who calls?” came a man’s voice from the cabin.

“Two travellers seeking a fire.”

“Show yourselves then.”

Moira limped into the clearing with Wiz following. Ostentatiously shereached up and threw back the hood of her cloak. She nudged Wiz and he did thesame.e.

The householder stepped into the door of the cabin. He was a stockymiddle-aged man with a full black beard shot with streaks of gray. Wiz noticedthat one hand was out of sight, possibly holding a weapon.n.

“Advance then, the two of you,” he called. Wiz and Moira pickedtheir way across the field to the cabin door..

The man stood in the door, just inside the threshold. “I will notinvite you in,” he said stolidly. Moira nodded and stepped forward. Hebacked away to let her enter.r.

She turned and they both looked at Wiz, but neither Moira nor thehouseholder bade him enter nor made any motion to him. They looked and Wizlooked. Finally he got tired of it and stepped inside.e.

“Welcome,” said the peasant, smiling. “Welcome, Lady.”He nodded to Wiz. “Sir.””

The cottage was a single large room with a fireplace at one end. There wasa ladder leading to the loft and at the loft trap Wiz saw three wide-eyedchildren peeking down.n.

The furniture was plain and obviously home-made, built to last rather thanfor comfort. A spinning wheel stood in the corner next to a bag of wool. Thesmell of smoke and wool oil filled the house.e.

“Seat yourselves, please.” Their host gestured to a high-backedbench to one side of the fireplace..

“What was that all about?” Wiz asked as they sat down.

“What?”

“The business at the door.”

“There are things which can take human form and deceive all save themost clever. But few of those can enter a house unbidden. In the Wild Wood onlythe foolish or very powerful invite a guest within.”.”

“Umm,” said Wiz.

The cottager settled himself on a similar bench across from them. “Iam called Lothar,” he said..

“I am called Moira, a hedge witch. He,” she jerked a nod at Wiz,”is called Sparrow. We thank you for the use of your fire. I have injuredmy leg and wish to brew a healing poultice, if you will allow it. If you or anyof yours have ills that I may treat I will be happy to do so.”o.”

“You’re welcome to the fire, Lady, but none of us are in need ofhealing.””

Moira looked skeptical but said nothing.

“You are also welcome to spend the night within if you so wish,”Lothar said grandly..

“Thank you, Goodman. We would be most grateful.”

Moira produced the small bronze kettle from her pack and Lothar called thechildren down from the loft. He sent the oldest, a boy of about ten, to fetchwater. While Moira laid out her kit on the rough plank table the other twochildren, a boy and a girl about eight and six respectively, watched in awe.we.

When the water was fetched, Moira selected several leaves and roots fromthe packets in her pouch and put them to simmer over the fire. Meanwhile Lotharbustled about fixing a meal.l.

They dined on venison, tubers and vegetables and Lothar served up a pitcherof beer to wash it down. It was a delicious change from trail food and Wizwolfed down his portion.n.

As they ate the twilight deepened to night. The only light came from thefire crackling on the hearth. The smell of pine smoke filled the room. Outsidethe crickets began to sing.g.

After dinner they retired to the fireside. Although Lothar had said littlewhile they were eating, he began to pump them for news as soon as they wereseated. Since he was mostly concerned with the happenings around his oldvillage of Oakstorm Crossing, and since that village was fairly far fromMoira’s there was little she could tell him. She answered as best she could andWiz and the children listened.ened.

“How fare you, Goodman?” Moira asked when she had run out ofinformation..

Lothar smiled and Wiz saw two of his front teeth were missing. “Wellenough, Lady. Well enough.””

“You are far from neighbors here.”

“Aye, but I’ve good land. And more for the clearing.”

“Did you not have a farm where you were before?”

“Well, you know how it is on the Fringe. Farms are small and the soilis worn thin. It’s hard to make a living in the best of times, and when thecrops aren’t good, well…” He shrugged his massive shoulders.s.

“My grandsire talked of this land,” Lothar told them. “Hisfather’s father lived near here. So when things got bad in our village, we camehere.”.”

“It is dangerous to lie this deep in the Wild Wood,” Moira saidnoncommittally..

Lothar smiled. “Not if you keep your wits about you. Oh, it was hardenough at first. Our first two crops failed in a row and the cattle werestolen. Then my wife died and my daughter had to look after the little ones.But we stuck it out and here we are.” His smile widened. “Secure on afarm the likes of which I could never have had back on the Fringe.”ge.”

Moira smiled back tightly and the tension grew thick.

“It looks like a nice place,” Wiz said.

“Wait another few years,” Lothar told him. “Next year I willclear more land and erect a proper barn. Then we will expand the house and addstorerooms. Oh, my grandsire did not lie when he called this land rich!”!”

“I wish you good fortune,” Moira said neutrally.

“Thank you, Lady. But you make good fortune. It takes hard work andplanning, but if you give it that, you will have all the good fortune you coulddesire.”.”

Moira looked uncomfortable, but she nodded as if Lothar had said somethingwise..

“Well, it looks like you’ve done all right for yourself,” Wizsaid, trying to break the tension..

“Thank you sir. We have. It’s not easy, running a farm and raisingfour children without help, but it’s a good life none the less.””

“Four children?” Wiz asked and then shut up when he caughtMoira’s glare..

“There’s my oldest daughter, Lya,” Lothar said hesitantly.

“She’s gone to nurse an elf child,” the youngest child piped up.Her older brother poked her sharply in the ribs and Moira and Lothar bothlooked embarrassed.d.

“They offered us their protection,” the man said simply.”Since then things have been better.””

Kar-Sher, late a brown robe of the League and now the Master of the Sea ofScrying, hurried down the corridor, his sandals padding softly on the unevenfloor of black basalt. At every turning and each intersection he paused tolisten and peer around corners.rs.

It had all been so easy when Xind had done it, he thought as he strained to catch a sign thathe might be followed. Now the North was stirred and the Watchers of the Councilwere blocking him at every turn. Clear sight of the North was hard to come bythese days and the Dread Master grew ever more impatient. He wondered if he hadbeen so wise to undermine Xind when he did.did.

Well, that is a deed done. It raised me high in the League and with a bitof fortune I may rise higher yet..

Satisfied there was no one behind him, he continued down the corridor. Ihave power of my own now. I am no longer a brown robe, I am an ally to becourted. . A rough hand reached out of the darkness and clasped his shoulderin an iron grip. Kar-Sher jumped and squeaked..

“Quietly, you fool!” Atros whispered, dragging him back into ashadowed alcove..

“You, you startled me,” he said looking up at the hulking form ofthe League’s second most powerful wizard..

Atros grinned mirthlessly. “You should be more alert. Now, what haveyou?””

“Only this: The Dread Master…”

“The old crow,” Atros interrupted.

“Eh?”

“He is an old crow. Soon to be no one’s master, dread or otherwise.You should learn to call him so.””

“Yes Master,” said Kar-Sher. “Ah, as I said, the—oldcrow—stays close to the City. There is no sign of new magic furthersouth.”.”

“Cloaking spells?”

“They would show.”

“Like the cloaking spell this new northern wizard shows?”

Kar-Sher made an annoyed gesture. “That is different. It would take atruly mighty wizard to cast a spell that effective.””

“Toth-Set-Ra has that reputation.”

“You don’t think… ?”

“I think you should be very careful what you assume about the oldcrow. Now. Are you sure there is no sign of secret magic being made to theSouth?”?”

Kar-sher considered and then shook his head. “Nothing at all.”

“Well, then. Keep your watch.” He turned to go, but Kar-Sherplucked at his cloak..

“Master, will we strike soon? The old crow grows impatient. I do notknow how much longer I will hold my position.””

Atros regarded him coldly. “The old crow is impatient for one thingonly; this strange wizard. Events are already in motion to snare him. In a dayor two that will be accomplished. Meanwhile it keeps our master occupied.”.”

“What if he finds out about us?”

“He does not even suspect. Keep your wits about you a few days longerand you are safe. Now wait here until I am out of sight.” Atros steppedout into the corridor and strode on.n.

Kar-Sher waited until he had his nerve back and started up the corridor inthe opposite direction..

Neither of them had noticed the fat black spider hanging motionless in herweb above their heads..

“So,” hissed Toth-Set-Ra as he broke contact with his spy.”So indeed.” He leaned back and rubbed his forehead. Peering througha spider’s eyes was disorienting. His brain kept trying to merge eight imageswith apparatus designed for two.wo.

A spider’s eyesight might be poor, but there was nothing wrong with aspider’s hearing. He had heard exactly what he expected to hear..

You run too fast, Atros. It is time you were taught another lesson. Heextended his hand and an amethyst goblet flew to his grasp..

He expected Atros to connive against him, just as he had connived againstthe Council of the League to win his present power. It was his good fortunethat Atros was nearly as clumsy a plotter as he was as a wizard. Powerfulenough, perhaps, but lacking the finesse, the last measure of ability thatraised a plotter or wizard to true greatness.ess.

He sipped the wine and reflected on the best way to check his subordinate. Somedaysoon, Atros, I will send Bale-Zur to you.. But not yet. One does not discarda tool merely because it is flawed. One uses it, preferably to destruction,while a new tool is forged.d.

Still, this tool was showing signs of blunting. In spite of all the powerhe had been given, Atros had still not brought him the alien wizard.Toth-Set-Ra rotated the goblet in his hand and frowned at the purple sparksthat glinted off its facets. That wizard was the immediate problem, theunknown. Once he had been found and neutralized there would be time to dealwith Atros.tros.

A pity I cannot send Bale-Zur to that wizard. He could, of course. Bale-Zur could find anddestroy any mortal whose true name had ever been spoken. Unlike other demons hedid not need to know the true name of his quarry. It was sufficient that thetrue name had been spoken just once somewhere in the World.ld.

It was that special power which had raised Toth-Set-Ra from a minor wizardto the leadership of the Dark League in a single blood-red night of slaughter.But Bale-Zur could only destroy. Toth-Set-Ra wanted to take alive this wizardwhom Patrius had died for. He wanted to squeeze him, to wring the secrets ofhis foreign magic from him. Killing him was an option, but only a last resort.ort.

Bale-Zur was almost as crude a tool as Atros, but both were useful. Thisother one now, this Kar-Sher, was much less useful. Under his mastership theSea of Scrying had been useless in the search and all he could do was whineabout Northern interference with his magic.ic.

Yes, the wizardthought. This one is eminently dispensable. He paused to admire the playof fire in the goblet again. But not yet. Not quite yet.

In his own way Toth-Set-Ra was a frugal man. He always wanted the maximumreturn from his actions..

They slept on straw ticks on the floor that night. Lothar offered them hisbed in the loft, but Moira declined politely. Before retiring, she took thepoultice, which had been simmering in the pot, wrapped it in a clean cloth, andtied it about her knee. She turned her back while she did so and Wiz tried notto look.ook.

By the next morning the swelling had vanished. She did several deep kneebends and pronounced herself healed..

“Lady, if we could get you back to my world, you could make a fortuneas a team doctor for the NFL,” Wiz told her. She cocked an eyebrow but didnot ask for an explanation.n.

Lothar insisted on feeding them a breakfast of flatbread, sausage and beerbefore they left. Both he and Moira were obviously uncomfortable, but Moirathanked him kindly and Lothar gave them some dried fruit and parched grain toadd to the supplies.es.

It had stopped raining and the sun was shining brightly. As they left theclearing, Wiz noticed a detail he had missed the night before. Four mounds ofearth, one large and three much smaller, neatly laid out next to the cabin andenclosed by rude rail fence.ce.

Moira saw him looking at the three small graves. “They only count thechildren who live,” she said..

Once out of the clearing, they angled away from the path they had taken theday before. The woods were still sodden, but there were no rivulets to crossand, except in the shadiest places, things seemed to be drying rapidly.y.

Whether because the footing was still somewhat uncertain or to spare herknee, Moira did not walk as fast..

“What happened back there anyway?” Wiz asked when the clearingwas lost from sight..

“What do you mean?”

“Between you and Lothar. Everything started out all right,then—boom—it was like you’d bumped into your ex at a cocktail party.””

“My ex at a… ?”

“I mean you both got real cold and distant,” he amended.

“Was it that obvious? Moira sighed. “I tried to conceal it. Hegave us shelter and aid when we needed it and that is no small thing in theWild Wood. I should have tried harder to be gracious.”.”

“Yeah, but why?”

“Because he is a fool!” Moira snapped. “There is no place inthe wild wood for mortals, Sparrow. Only fools try to live here and theyfail.”.”

“I guess it was rough at first, but he seems to be doing all rightnow.””

“Yes. Because he bartered away his daughter.”

“What?”

“You heard the child. His daughter has been given to the elves intrade for the safety of his miserable farm!””

“He traded his daughter to the elves?”

“Life in the Wild Wood is hard for those who have little magic.”She smiled a little bitterly. “Call it a ’fostering.’ That puts a betterface upon it.”.”

“What did they want with her?”

“As the little one said. She is a nursemaid to an elven infant.”Moira’s face softened. “Elves seldom have young. That must have been anevent beneath the Elf Hill.”.”

“Wait a minute,” Wiz protested. “She wasn’t… ah, I meanshe wasn’t married when she went, was she?””

“You mean was she unspoiled? Probably. Elves prefer virgin’s milk whenthey can get it.””

“But how… ? Oh, magic. Never mind.”

They walked on a bit in silence. “What a fate. Locked under a hillforever.””

“It has its compensations. The elves are kind enough in their unhumanfashion. They do not mistreat their servants.””

“But to spend your whole life like that!”

“No,” Moira said. “Time passes oddly under the hill.Someday, when the elf child needs her no longer, she will emerge as young aswhen she went in.” She sobered. “Of course that stead will likelylong be dust by then and there will be none who know her. That is the cruelestfate.”te.”

“Yeah,” Wiz said, thinking of the graves. “I’m not sureliving in safety is worth what it cost Lothar.””

“The price has only been partly paid.” Moira made a face.”Wait. As the children grow up they will go one by one to drudge for theelves. Plague, murrain, raids by trolls or others. There will always be anotherneed and Lothar will always return to the elf hill to seek aid.”d.”

Wiz was shocked. “Doesn’t Lothar realize that?”

“Not he,” she said contemptuously. “I have seen his kindbefore. He hopes long and hard that something will happen. Like most mortals helives for today and puts off the reckoning as long as he may.” Sheincreased her pace.ce.

“It is an old, old story, Sparrow. As farms get smaller and the soilwears out within the Fringe there have always been those who sought to gobeyond it to carve out new homes. But the Wild Wood is not for mortals. It is aplace full of Magic, given to others, and mortals violate it at theirperil.”il.”

“Well, why not? My whole country was a howling wilderness once and wesettled it.””

“Because the magic in the Wild Wood is too strong, Sparrow. Within theFringe the hedge witches and other orders can stand between the World’s magicand people. Beyond the Fringe there is too much powerful magic. If we were tomake the attempt we would only be swept away and our people with us. Believe meSparrow, it has been tried and it has never worked. The Fringe is this limit oflands where mortals can live.”ive.”

“Umm,” said Wiz again and shifted his pack.

“What did Lothar mean when he said his grandfather knew thisplace?” he said after they had walked a bit more..

Moira snorted. “He was probably making it up. I doubt his grandfatherever came within a weeks journey of that stead.””

“But men did live in the Wild Wood once, didn’t they?”

“Parts of it, yes.”

“Why did they leave?”

“Because they were fools like that man,” Moira snapped.”Because they went where they should not and paid the penalty for it! Nowsave your breath for walking.” She lengthened her stride and left himstaring at her back.ck.

They’re being pushed back, Wiz thought as he struggled to keep up with the hedge witch. This wholearea was inhabited once and the people have been forced out. The Wild Woodwas creeping into the Fringe like the African desert creeps south in drought.And the results were the same. The people either moved or died.d.

Would the rains ever come to turn back the Wild Wood? Wiz wondered. Moira’sreaction hinted she didn’t think so. When magic became too strong people couldno longer co-exist with it and they had to leave. The part of the world wherehumans could live was shrinking under the pressure of magic.ic.

Wiz shook his head. All his life he had been taught that wilderness neededprotection from encroaching humans. Here the humans were the ones who neededprotecting.g.

Wiz wondered if the trolls, elves and other magical creatures wouldestablish preserves for humans. Somehow he didn’t think so..

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