“I’ve never heard of more than one coming this far upland,” Shaenyll said. She held out her own focus, a long intricately carved piece of ivory with a narrow tip, in the same manner as Hamon.
“I know what I hear,” Hamon said. He drew his focus, a square piece of knotted bone terminating in a series of blunted spikes, back and forth, his eyes looking over it at the horizon. “I know what I feel in the lines two. There are more coming. Two. Three?” His throat grated slightly as he inhaled.
“Get the livestock inside the walls,” Shaenyll said. “And fetch your father, or any other elder you can rouse. You’ve done more than could ever be expected of you, and I suspect your light is well-spent.”
“I drew…” Aphella paused. How had she regained so much light? She thought to describe it, the drawing in of breath and power, but another part of her told her to hold back.
“Do as I say,” Shaenyll said. “Let the warder and I handle this!” She pushed up her long, puffy sleeves, revealing arms that were strong and covered with tight white skin.
Aphella nodded silently and pushed herself up. She picked up Hamon’s discarded lamp, unable to coax the remains of her spear into light. Breathing heavily, she raced over uneven rocks on legs that felt weak and wobbly, toward a group of snufflers huddling together in the darkened water.
“Go on! Get!” She said hoarsely to the little animals, swinging her lamp in front of her. Slowly and tentatively the animals began to waddle away from her, back toward the entrance to the town and the now slain dreadtusk. She saw Ty approaching, pushing forward his own group of snufflers.
“Is this all of them?” He said, trying to shoo the snufflers past the dreadtusk corpse.
Aphella looked them over, counting quickly in her head. “We’re missing two – No! Just one. I forgot the dreadtusk got one of them.”
“Good enough,” Ty said, and stooped, pushing the back sides of a few beasts.
“Maybe since none of them are yours,” Aphella said. “But what if the one left behind was your only beast?”
“I wouldn’t blame the ones who went to fetch them,” Ty said.
Aphella stopped and turned away, looking out toward the blackened edges of the pit, now lit only by the ambient glow of the town and the lantern she held in her left hand.
“Get them inside,” Aphella said. “I’ll go find the missing snuffler.”
“Not this time.”
“Fine. Help me, then.”
Ty gave Aphella a hard look, then scoffed and continued pushing the herd toward the town gate.
Aphella took a deep breath and stepped toward the edge of the pit, feeling her ankles grow chill in the shallow water as she moved away from the source of the town’s hot spring. Her ears picked out a sound among the splashes – a slight squeak, the whimper of one of the snufflers. With a few more steps the pool of light cast by the crystal lamp revealed a pink nose and a long set of furry ears; the body of the snuffler was pushed beneath a cluster of rocks. Aphella reached down and touched the ears, attempting to sooth the animal. Slowly, it emerged from the rocks, covered in moss and sludge. Fully grown Snufflers were too large for Aphella to carry. She had seen only Malyan the smith manage it, and even then the over-large man had a hard time of it, and so Aphella resorted to pushing the beast along through the shallow water, urging with a quiet voice for it to hurry.
Soon it did hurry, bolting away with swift pumps of its short, plump legs, as low, guttural roar shook the earth. Aphella found herself fumbling with the lamp as the handle slipped from her fingers, tumbling into the shallows and sending out flashes of pale yellow light. As she managed to pull the light free from the water, the pit was lit up with a brighter light, this one coming from overhead. Aphella looked up to see a shooting ball of white light flying upward, though not from the direction of Hamon and Shaenyll. The light hung in the sky, like a giant, spinning lamp, and Aphella was able to see for the first time in one view the entire expanse of ground from the pit to spires of stone that marked the beginning of the wilderness.
Three dread tusks marched ahead, stone breaking under their feet and the dust they kicked up creating a white fog around them.
“Creator, no!” she said aloud, dropping the lamp back into the water. She held up the broken half of her bone spear and breathed into it. Faint sparks and light clouds jumped off the surface, but the object refused to focus her energies. She was breathing out her light into the void. She let out a grunt as her own personal curse, then turned to run. It was slow going through the water, her feet getting caught in moss and muck as well as being slowed by the water. She reached the edge of the pit, still a hundred paces or more away from the town gate, and pulled herself onto the tall rocks.
In a scant few seconds the dreadtusks had closed the distance. The one in the lead burst through a low wall of boulders, sending shards of stone flying in all directions.
They’re not hungry, they’ve gone mad, Aphella thought, watching as the dreadtusk barreled through the moss pit where her splashing footsteps had just echoed. Another light lit up the sky as the first died, again coming from the stone spires. Amid the trampling, she heard shouts and cries, and though she could not make them out clearly, she heard words.
Behind the dreadtusks appeared a cadre of men, riding on strange beasts of four legs each, like a snuffler only larger and leaner. They moved quickly between the beasts, and she saw escaping from each bolts of light like missiles, fired from short bows of bone and iron. The missiles bit into the dreadtusks, spilling blood and severing bone. The dreadtusk that had been facing Aphella collapsed onto its front knees, tusks kicking up water. Two men rode beside it and shot more arrows into it, then turned their mounts to the other two.
More light went up overhead, and Aphella could at last see the caster that created it, a small figure seated atop a large carriage wagon drawn by beasts similar to those that bore the riders. He had a large spear that acted as focus, and as he approached, he sent out more beacons, and even threw bolts of what looked like blue fire onto the remaining dreadtusks. Soon, three corpses sat in heaps at the edge of the moss pit, bleeding light, and the riders were assembling around the caravan. There were four of them that she could make out, with one man appearing to give orders to the other three. After some terse words that Aphella could not make out, one of the riders broke away and turned toward her.
“Ho!” the rider said, drawing in the mount around the rock wall. The light above was failing, and she could make out the glow of his eyes only very dimly. His skin was dark and showed many lines of age and his face was covered in a thin beard. “Ho there!” he said.
Aphella stood up straight. She clutched the remnants of her spear like a club.
Seeing her posture, the man turned his mount and said, “Are you injured lady? We mean you no harm.”
“Not that I would be able to do much to resist you at the moment anyway,” Aphella said.
“There is nothing to resist,” the man said again. “We’re just traders. Well, Boddel is. I’m just escort.”
“You’re dim,” Aphella said.
“My name is Rolf,” the man said, raising an eyebrow over a pale blue eye.
Aphella nodded. “I suppose we are expecting you.”