Part Five: Where Rhys is Compared to a Riddle, and Brey Wishes for Answers
They still moved fast, but with not quite the same urgency as before. The other King’s Men probably wouldn’t go looking for their missing companions for a little while.
After a little while, Brey said, "I wish I could have seen you with that sword."
"Don’t," was all Rhys said.
Brey persisted in talking, now that the immediate danger was (more or less) gone. She hadn’t forgotten her fear (or Yllna for that matter), but maybe this was her way of deflecting her thoughts. "It must have been amazing, taking so little time like that." She paused, then changed the subject. "You’re a terrible liar," she said. "Cows, pigs, and chickens in a forest? Come on."
He didn’t reply, just turned around irritably. "Must you talk so much?"
"Must you talk so little?" Brey retorted.
"Words waste time on days like this," said Rhys.
"Words are wonderful!" said Brey defiantly.
"Then save your wonder for later. We need to reach the camp soon- by morning they’ll be after us like hounds cornering a fox."
Brey was about to remark that if they were really to be like foxes, they could avoid the snare, but then said, "Camp? What camp?"
"The camp we’re going to," Rhys said, which was more of an affirmation than an answer.
"Oh." She had been hoping for something more specific, but she supposed Rhys wasn’t going to hand out information the way bakers hand out pastry samples.
Brey gathered the cloak above her knees to keep her from tripping, then hop-skip-jumped her way next to Rhys, who had a much longer, faster stride than she did, and consequently was far ahead of her (this had caused some of the trouble when they had been running together).
They walked all through the night. When the sun began to filter through the tangled tree-tops, Brey, exhausted, finally collapsed against a tree. "Can we rest?" she gasped. "I’m tired and hungry and thirsty. How long until we reach wherever we’re going?"
Rhys didn’t seem tired at all, but I suppose he was more used to that sort of thing. "We can rest a little, and eat. But we’ve still got a distance to travel. The camp is on the other side of the city of Awdir."
Brey’s jaw dropped. "Awdir is a five day’s walk from the village!"
"If you go around the forest. We’re going through. I give us one day to go through the forest, one to go around Awdir, and a third day to-"
"Around Awdir? Why not through it? We’re going through the wood, after all."
"We can’t risk being recognized by King’s Men."
This made sense, Brey admitted.
Rhys continued what he had been saying. "And a third day to go through Phoenix Forest on the other side of Awdir and find the camp."
A camp in the middle of the forest? thought Brey. "Will we have enough supplies for a three day’s journey?" she asked.
"We’ll ration the food and water carefully. If we should run out, I can find you a hiding place and go into Awdir in disguise. But I’m reasonably hopeful that it won’t come to that, with your supplies and mine combined." Almost as an afterthought, he added, "Three days isn’t much of a journey."
He was right. The passage through the rest of the wood was uneventful. They rested, ate a little, and walked all morning and part of the afternoon until they finally came out of the wood. Here Brey asked if they could eat again, but Rhys said it would probably be best to wait, so Brey complied.
Just within sight of Awdir, Brey proved that she had the worst timing ever. She didn’t trip, so she must have stepped wrong or something. Whatever she did, it resulted in a twisted ankle.
"Can you walk?" Rhys asked.
"Yes," she said, but winced when she tried. "No."
Rhys examined her foot gently, frowning. "It may be sprained. You’ll have to use your staff until I can get a real crutch- and some ice." He raised his eyes to the walled city before them, and whispered to himself (but Brey heard it), "I had hoped to pass it by, but now it can’t be helped."
"I can manage," Brey said stoutly. "My staff is fine." Actually, the twisted top made it almost unbearably uncomfortable to put under her arm. "You don’t have to go into Awdir."
He smiled wanly at her. "Yes, I do. I suppose I can get supplies while I’m at it. But I’ll need my cloak back."
"How long will I be alone?" she asked later, after Rhys had explained himself; the plan being that Rhys would go into the city, escaping notice, she would hide, and he would come back out with supplies and aid for her foot. They were just outside the city, hiding in an abandoned barn.
Rhys said nothing for a moment, and Brey almost repeated the question. Then he said grimly, "If I don’t come out by sundown, you’ll have to go on without me."
"But I don’t know where to go!" she exclaimed, frightened at the thought.
Rhys pulled his hood up so that it shadowed his eyes. Other than his hair being slightly cleaner (having stopped by a river on the way to douse it), he had very little "disguise". His plan was simply to blend in.
He looked back at her and handed her a slip of paper. "If anyone comes and you can’t get away, act like a beggar. You might be driven off, but with any luck, they won’t know who you are. But if you know you can’t get away, destroy this. I have people I need to protect. Be sure to save some food in case you have to go on without me." Then he was gone.
Brey unfolded the paper. It was a map, but extremely hard to read. She wondered if worst should come to worst, could she even read it?
As far as she could tell, the trail led past Awdir, and through a series of zigzags and twists to somewhere within the forest on the other side. Looking at the tiny lines made her dizzy. She tucked it into her dress and resolved to use it as the very last resort.
The barn was very uncomfortable. The floor was bare dirt; no hay was left. Brey tried to sleep- daytime or no, she was exhausted and could use it- but it was a restless sort of nap she took, and kept waking up. It was also stuffy in the barn, and increasingly brighter. The boards were too warped to keep out the sunlight, which may have been a good thing for someone who meant to stay awake, but for Brey it just made her eyes hurt.
Unable to sleep, she decided to practice her beggar impression, just in case she should need it. She didn’t know much about beggars (she came from a small village), but she had heard about them. As soon as she stood up, her ankle began a loud protest, even with her staff. She cried out with the sharpness of the pain and sat down hard. She took a look at the offending foot.
It was very swollen now, like a giant bug bite. In addition, the soles of both her feet were scratched, sore, and dirty from lack of shoes. But she couldn’t put the sandals on because of her ankle. She frowned and leaned against the wall.
She tried to rest. Eventually she fell into a sort of sleep, but was woken up by hunger. She dug into the pack.
There was plenty of water (Rhys had refilled the flask at the same stream where he had washed his hair). Two of the four apples and both the pancakes were left. She had one pancake, then an apple, leaving the water untouched.
After spotting a rat in the loft, Brey began to start at every small noise, but it was needless, as the rat did not come down. No one else came, either. It was, after all, called an abandoned barn for a reason.
The sun grew orange as it neared the horizon, and Brey began to worry. Would she really have to set out on her own? With her twisted ankle, unreadable map, and food shortage it would be almost impossible. It hurt her morale to think about it.
She admitted slowly to herself that she needed Rhys. And that hurt her pride to think about.
So as she hurt her various emotions by thinking, the sky grew darker, and as the sky grew even darker, Brey got even more worried. It seems like an endless circle of woe, does it not?
Brey must have fallen asleep, because sometime later, she woke up. Her head hurt from sleeping on the ground and her ankle was numb. She looked down to see how swollen it was, but inside the barn it was too dark to tell.
Too dark to tell. She had stayed far beyond sundown- and Rhys was still gone. She was going on by herself. Almost without her realizing it, a tear slipped down her cheek, and she sniffed. Then she reached out a hand, groping for her staff. She found it, but accidentally knocked it over. It clattered on the ground
A voice spoke from the darkness. "Ah, so you’re awake. Finally."
She almost burst with relief. Rhys! "Why didn’t you wake me when you got back?" she cried.
"You needed the rest." A light flared suddenly, wavered, then held. Rhys had a torch, just waiting for the opportunity to be useful.
He was crouching in a corner, hood drawn. He had a bag of supplies next to him.
"Did you meet any trouble?" she asked.
"Only over prices. You obviously haven’t, either."
"Did you get ice?"
"It’s on your foot," said Rhys.
Rhys hadn’t said it meanly, but Brey felt foolish anyway.
"I got a proper crutch, too," Rhys continued, bringing it forward.
It really was a good crutch, as crutches go; the support was even padded under her arm. "Wow, thank you," she said. "How much did it cost?"
"Enough that I expect you to use it well and take care of it."
"I will," said Brey. Of course.
She tried it out. It still hurt under her arm, but not half as much as the staff had. She hobbled around in circles. Finally, she gave her approval. "It’s good. Let’s go."
As Rhys made ready- which took little to no time- Brey realized the problem that had been posed. "How am I supposed to carry my staff now?" she asked aloud, more to herself than Rhys.
"I’ll carry it, if you like," said Rhys.
Brey felt somehow uncomfortable letting Rhys touch her staff. It had been her father’s, after all.
"Be careful," she said doubtfully.
Rhys didn’t answer, just picked it up and nodded.
They had, more or less, wasted an entire day. They had plenty of supplies, but now the King’s Men had had a chance to catch up. And if the Men went into Awdir and asked for news, they would get it. But with Brey’s ankle, the little party-of-two couldn’t speed up.
As dawn spread, Brey tried not to complain. Her ankle still hurt, she was tired, and she was hungry and thirsty. And on top of it all she had to use an outhouse- of which there were none in sight- except bushes.
"Um, Rhys…" she said slowly.
"Yes?" he grunted.
"I have to… umm… well… Can we stop?"
Rhys must have understood, because she saw him stiffen slightly. He nodded quickly, still facing away from her. He pretended to be completely absorbed in his map (which he had reclaimed). "Hurry, then." He sounded as though talking about it was awkward for him, and as Brey felt the same, she did hurry, and they didn’t mention it for the rest of their lives.
Late in the afternoon, they came in close range to Phoenix Forest. Not close enough to actually enter, but getting there. Having been mostly silent all day, Brey decided to ask a question that had been forming. Hobbling as quickly as she could behind her guide, she asked, "Why is it called Phoenix Forest?"
First Rhys didn’t say anything. Brey noticed that he often thought before he spoke- and if he didn’t see it worth time or words, he didn’t speak at all. Then, "Certainly not because any actual phoenixes live there." Rhys lowered his voice. "There’s a legend- very old, so old that few now remember it, and fewer who can freely tell it. The goes that a certain magician, a Fairy, once lived here. Her name was Phoenix."
Brey realized he was beginning a tale, so she closed her mouth and hurried after him.
He went on, "Phoenix’s talent was not like most magicans’, who boost along the regular mortals. Her talent was with plants.
"Well, the way I was told the tale, Phoenix was rather eccentric. They say she used to talk to her plants more than other humans. She loved her garden; loved to sing to it, loved to tend to it, loved to be in it.
"One day a great fire swept the land, destroying almost everything it crossed. When the fire finally burned out, everything as far as one could see was bare and burnt. It broke Phoenix’s heart.
"She vowed to make the land green again. A noble quest. Trouble was, her talent was with smaller plants- flowers, vines, bushes, and such." Rhys paused.
"What happened next?" urged Brey. This was the most Rhys had said at one time so far, and she certainly didn’t want it to end there.
His strange eyes flickered. "Different versions say different things. The way I heard it was… odd." But the strange look in his eyes made Brey wonder if by "odd" he meant something more like "scary" or "morbid".
"This telling of the story went this way- Phoenix lay on the bare ground and began to weep. And as she wept, she sang. As she sang, her hair began to grow and spread across the ground, winding around the dead trees and through the earth.
"According to the story, Phoenix never intentionally stopped singing. Her voice just got weaker and weaker and quieter and quieter. Then she died." Rhys sighed, and they were both silent. Then he resumed.
"When Phoenix died, everywhere her hair had trailed and her tears had dropped and moistened, trees and other growth sprang up. They grew at ten times the rate of normal plants and filled the area. True to her vow, Phoenix had made the land green again.
"And so, the legend goes, that is how Phoenix Forest came to be."
They both paused and looked around them. As Brey looked, she thought of the fairy of the tale. She felt a kinship with her, not just because they were both Fairies. Phoenix was a lot like me, she thought. She was perfectly content, and suddenly something beyond her control took all that away. The only difference is, she did something about it- even though it killed her. Brey unconsciously said aloud, "What will I do?" What could she do? Like Phoenix, her life was ruined, but she had no idea how to reconstruct it- or even if she wanted to, if the cost would be her life.
A question, less enigmatic or profound, sprang up in her mind. "Rhys, how do you know this tale?"
Rhys said nothing at first. "I was told it."
"But who told you? How did they know?"
"Those are secrets," the wanderer said.
Brey snorted. "Everything is a secret with you. You’re like a living riddle."
The thought must have amused Rhys somehow, because he laughed. It was kind of rough, as though unused for a long time, which was probably correct. The sound and the tale both served to catch Brey off-guard, since Rhys had been so closed-mouthed and irritable since the King’s Men had caught up.
They were at the first fringe of the forest now. The trees looked green, mossy, and inviting. Brey glanced around. "Phoenix Forest," she breathed wonderingly.
Then, from Rhys, a completely unexpected and voluntary sentence. That laugh must have been affecting him. "Home, sweet home." This was followed by a somewhat sarcastic smile playing on his mouth- and another laugh.
Brey soon found out why the words were so ironic. Phoenix Forest may have been beautiful on the first fringe, and when first sung into being, but it had run rampant inside. It was stuffy and the trees were crowded, overgrown, and shadowy. Rhys assured Brey that it got better the deeper one went, but she couldn’t see how.
Outside of the woods, Brey’s spirits had lifted some, despite her ankle. Now the ground was rough with roots, littered with leaves, and damp and cold to her bare feet (she still did not want to put on her sandals because of her ankle). And beneath the depressing exterior of the trees she suspected there was only more depression. Worst of all, she couldn’t see the sky. She wondered if sunlight would have made any difference. Maybe the trees inside the forest, like the ones outside, would seem bright and happy. But she doubted it.
Brey kept no time-record of the journey. It was likely within a day, because that had been Rhys’s estimate. But then, Brey’s ankle forced them to go slower than they would have liked. The dreary trip became rather mindless on Brey’s behalf, but mindlessness and traveling isn’t a very good mix. Once she walked straight into a tree. After that Rhys kept a closer eye on her, and when she seemed to be drifting off, he would none too gently recall her back.
Brey was in one such daze now. It was for this reason that she was totally unprepared for the sudden light that came upon her. She was momentarily blinded, even though the light wasn’t too bright (the sun was just setting). She threw up her arm to shield her eyes. When she finally adjusted from the forest gloom, she saw that they were in a clearing- a beautiful, sun-shiny (as much sun as the evening light allowed, anyway) clearing. She could see the sky again!
The trees lining the clearing seemed normal, at first glance. But on closer inspection Brey saw rough-looking tree-houses, joined by rickety rope bridges. Leading down from the doors were long, unstable-looking ladders. The tree-houses looked delicate, and almost unreal; the lines were thin and spidery against the wavering orange evening light, resembling something out of a fairytale. Dazzled by their seemingly sudden appearance, Brey stepped back, mouth gaping.
The clearing was quite large, and littered with chairs, fire pits, barrels, and other things you might find in a house or village. But it was seemingly deserted.
Rhys stepped into the clearing, undaunted. (Of course he wouldn’t be, thought Brey, recovering. This must be the camp. This is where he lives.) He looked around, then cupped his hands around his mouth and called, "Well, I’m back!"
People became pouring out of the houses-in-trees and down the ladders, out from the bushes and from behind trees, gathering to meet Rhys. Their clothing was rough and homespun, woven by hand, and they were dirty from living in the forest. There were men and women, and a few children. The older of the male children and the other men had assorted weapons- bows, daggers, staves, etc.
Suddenly Brey realized what was going on. "You’re- you’re all outlaws." It frightened her.
"Of course we are," said Rhys. "Why else do you think the King’s Men recognized me?" Brey started to say something, but Rhys wasn’t done. "But don’t be afraid. They are only wanted because they chose to stay with me."
This did make Brey any less uneasy. What was Rhys guilty of, anyway?
Rhys turned to them. "They are all worthy men- not only trustworthy, but also worthy of anything from sword-handling to shelter-making." One or two men smiled in warm recognition of the praise. Rhys motioned to the men in turn, and some of them bowed. "Brey, this is Garrett, Philip, Ryken…"
Brey lost track of the other names. There were about twelve men. The women and children she had seen were their wives and children, of course.
The one named Garrett, who looked nice enough (his coloring reminded Brey of Nobin), spoke. "Why are you here- Brey?"
Brey hesitated. Then she looked up at Rhys beside her. She didn’t trust him completely, but he wouldn’t let anyone harm her, not after everything that had already happened- she hoped. "I’m a Fairy," she said, voice wavering a little as she faced the band of outlaws.
They drew back, whispering fiercely. Ryken, a shortish man, bald, with a big beard tinged red like flame at the edges, stepped forward. "Rhys, this is madness. We cannot let her stay with us. It’s too dangerous for us to have a fairy in the camp."
"Too dangerous for us?" said Rhys with a snort. "Too dangerous for her, maybe, but not for us. Besides, I hardly think one more magician is going to make much difference," he added coldly.
Brey looked up at him with surprise. Another magician was in the camp?
Ryken dipped his head respectfully. "I did not mean that, Rhys. You have proved your worth as our leader and friend one hundred times over. I only meant…"
Brey gasped. Rhys was a wizard?!!
"…is a different matter entirely. We don’t know anything about her."
Rhys looked down at Brey, who was now more occupied with Rhys’s race than her own fate among the outlaws. Then he looked back up at Ryken. "My decision is final. She stays. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave. Though I hope you don’t."
Ryken said nothing, scowling at Brey.
Rhys continued, more gently then Brey had seen him before, "You know it has always been my intention to bring other Magicians here."
Ryken’s scowl deepened. "I didn’t think you were actually serious. Things are hard enough the way they are."
Garrett took Ryken by the shoulder. "You heard him. You can go if you don’t like it."
Ryken looked at Garrett, then Rhys, then Brey, each in turn. It was apparent he still disliked her greatly, but also did not want to leave. So he simply turned around and stalked off.
"Ryken’s a been a bit touchy," said Garrett to Rhys, as though trying to explain something.
"You mean more than usual?" said Rhys, with the slightest ghost of a smile.
A smile flashed across Garrett’s face as well, then he sobered. "Yes, more than usual. Especially the last couple of days he’s been overly tense. Seemed to think things were falling apart while you were gone."
Rhys frowned. "I haven’t been gone any longer than usual."
Garrett shrugged. "Well, he is Ryken."
Rhys nodded. "There is that."
Then they returned their attentions to Brey, who was still standing quietly beside Rhys.
"She can stay with Cwyn and I," said Garrett finally. Cwyn (pronounced "swin", as in "swindle") was his wife. "We’ve got room."
"Really?" said Brey excitedly. Of all the men at the camp, she liked the look of Garrett the most. He had an bright, open manner that she liked far more than Rhys’s close, mysterious demeanor. And from what little she had seen of Cwyn, the thought of living with the two seemed very appealing.
Rhys smiled. "I had hoped you would say that," he said to Garrett, ignoring Brey. "But will Landon and Kayelli mind?"
Landon and Kayelli? thought Brey.
"The twins will be fine," said Garrett reassuringly. "Brey can sleep in Kayelli’s room."
That’s when Brey saw two youths standing aside, staring at her as though she were some tropical species of bird found in a snowdrift.
Landon and Kayelli were the sixteen-year-old twins children of Garrett and Cwyn. Brey had been nervous that they would be annoyed with her for moving in with them, or because they had had to help her struggle up the ladder to their tree-house, or maybe even because she was a fairy. But they didn’t seem to mind. Kayelli especially seemed to be glad of another girl in the camp. "The others are either babies or adults," she explained.
Landon didn’t say anything much one way or another. He shook hands, and introduced himself, and walked away.
"My brother’s not much for talking to girls," said Kayelli in disgust. "He’d much rather work with the men and his friends."
So Brey found out that while there were no other girls her age in the camp, there were boys. But she didn’t much expect to hang out with them. She didn’t really know what to expect. She wasn’t even very sure what she was supposed to be here for. She would have to talk about it with Rhys.
Rhys. He’s a Magician too, she thought. Not that she had forgotten, but somehow it was a comforting thing. I really must talk to him soon. But not until her foot got better. She doubted she could manage the ladder any more until it was. Then perhaps she would get the answers she so needed.