The stones over the long cook pit glowed a pale red, sending out radiant heat that tingled Aphella’s face as she sat nearby; it vanquished the chill of the open square, but also threatened sweat on Aphella’s neck and arms. She watched her father and Talcho, another one of the town’s husbandmen and a butcher, as they walked from end to end of the twenty pace-long pit, laying down and turning over long cuts of meat gleaned from the dreadtusk upon grates of iron. Occasionally one of them would find a cool spot in the stones and breath more heat and life into the rock. The smell of the cooking flesh had a savory-sweet aroma, hinting at a full flavor that was hidden below the dreadtusk’s hideous appearance and disposition.
“Have you ever had dreadtusk meat before?”
Aphella turned her head up from where she sat to see Rolf, the dim-man that had spoken to her first after the attack. He had a slight smile that split his weathered face and his eyes, lit only dimly from within, reflected the glow of the pit as he watched the cooks work.
“Twice,” Aphella said. “But it’s been a few years. The other two times were from hunts overseen by the eld, when the herd was growing thin for whatever reasons.”
“I’ve had it three times in this expedition alone,” Rolf said. “And now three in one day.”
“That’s exceptional to you, then?”
Rolf looked into her eyes and nodded. “I’ve been a sword-hand for many a turn, since I was a lineless lad, not as bright as you, but brighter than I am. I’ve never seen this many beasts coming in out of the darkened wilds.”
“Brighter?” Aphella said. “You mean you weren’t born…” Aphella looked away, suddenly embarrassed. Around the village calling a man dim was considered an insult, and she remembered one time Ty had called the smith’s son as such and found himself grounded with a fractured cheek bone.
“Born dim?” Rolf said, and chuckled. “Maybe I was always a bit dim, but I had more light in me once. Lived in a village like this one. We had a run in with…” he shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Point is, I’ve been a sell-sword for men like Frey a long time. Travelled the same roads, and never seen beasts riled into the open like this. Maybe it’s a particularly lean year in the deeps. Could be the hotsprings are a bit dry, or a bit cold.”
“Ours is as warm as ever. As much water as ever.”
Rolf nodded. “Like I said. Could be. Beyond that, who knows? I just know that I’ve earned my pay on this caravan.”
“You don’t usually earn your pay?”
Rolf laughed. “You always hope not to. Only a fool wants to earn his pay in risk and blood. Still, Frey makes it easy for us. He’s as good a lightweaver as I’ve seen.”
“I saw your arrows. They were enchanted?”
“They’re bone all the way through; no iron at all. Something Frey does to them. Makes them cut through beast hide like was water.” Rolf reached into a quiver than hung from his hip and produced a single bone arrow. He handed it to Aphella. “This one’s gone out.”
Aphella ran her fingers along it, from its feathered butt to its sharpened, headless tip. She breathed out a soft word and put light into the arrow. It leapt to life like her old focus, but became brighter than she anticipated, almost hurting her eyes with its flash.
“Strong leys,” she said. “Dreadtusk bone?”
“As far as I know. Frey made that one, and these. At least, he says he made them.”
Aphella turned the light in the arrow toward the cook pit, and lit up a few cool stones with warm radiance. The arrow dimmed, and she handed it back to Rolf.