"Svelta, he is nowhere to be found. Your hero has run away," said Caliban.
"No, curse him! No! He can't be gone!" Svelta cried. "He should have slept till I awakened him." The nymph ran about her bower and searched the tussocks of living grass that had held his clothes and weapons. She found all of what he'd possessed to be gone. Svelta dropped to her knees and began to weep.
"Sister," Caliban put his hands on her shoulders, "Do not despair. He may be near. You say that you were not gone for long. We may find him yet."
She held her brother’s hands in her own and ceased her tears. "Yes, you are right. But Caliban, what if he is gone? I have no way to repay our mother except with my life."
"We will worry about that when it is time to worry, not before," Caliban told her.
"He spoke of warning the lowlanders, though their fate is already at hand," she said. "He would have followed the river downstream."
"Then let us start," said Caliban.
The cambion, child of the nymph queen and a demon-lord, set out with his half-sister Svelta by his side.
Brambles pulled at Arawn's shirt. It was already torn along its side and stiff with old blood, but it was the best that he had to wear. Their pace was slow, the old hound ambled beside him uninterested in the early spring forest life, but instead wanting to stay close at hand. The dog was always at his left, he could feel its tail hit him across the leg as they walked.
Draupnir's would be a long walk through these woods, Arawn thought. He did not like to approach it from the road, but with his injured feet he wasn't sure if there would be another way. The hills turned into mountains, Draupnir's mine sat at the base of one, deep in a valley with the tallest and last of the hills to its south and the rising mountains all around. One long and curving trail followed a path cut by a stream, an old run-off from the Aelphstream river.
"Dog, that canny dwarf would not be taken completely unawares."
Draupnir was old, but smart and strong. He'd fought hobs and formorians before, but in recent years it had been bandits which had plagued his workings and his men. The trail to the mines was well guarded, posted with watchers and easily defended.
"If the hobs have not come upon them from behind as Sharptooth had said, curse that hob and all his kind," he said to the dog, "and curse all the days I've lost." But he would not curse the nymph. He held the memory of her locked away, afraid to let himself think of her at all.
Half a day had passed as Svelta and Caliban searched down the river. The nymph would run ahead or swim across, unaffected by the strong flow, and search the other bank. Her brother tried to bring her cheer, but his words faltered and she became more frantic and despaired.
"He is nowhere to be found," she said to Caliban.
"We will try upstream," he turned and began to retrace their steps.
"It is useless," said the nymph.
"Come now, Svelta, we have to try." Caliban gave her arm a tug to start her on the way back.
They stood near a human dwelling, a rough wooden box that showed the wear of years and the harsh treatment of the monsters which had so recently passed this way. Svelta looked out across the wide pool that boiled beneath a waterfall.
"I am lost," she said to Caliban. "I cannot face her, I have made my promise that my debt would be paid and now I have nothing to pay her with."
"Svelta," Caliban said to her fiercely."You must either face her or flee. no good comes from bemoaning fate."
"I cannot face her," Svelta said. "I will flee, but where, this river is my home."
"Mother does not rule this river. Her dominion ends with the mountains." Caliban pointed down toward the lowlands. "There the river flows into other streams and other lakes. Sister you must find a new home, you must exile yourself or face our mother’s wrath."
"I will go," she said. "I have no other choice. But down there, I do not know what dangers I will face. Caliban," she looked into her brother’s eyes. "Come with me, please. Why do you stay with her?"
"Sister you pay a debt to our mother, I pay a tithe as well," Caliban explained. "But I will go. She would have me slain for letting you escape."
"Then let us leave this place, but I tell you I will return one day," Svelta swore her oath upon the river bank.
The night was cold. Arawn was glad to have the dog traveling with him, it slept across his chest, its head under his chin, heavy but warm. Morning came as a surprise, Arawn had barely closed his eyes before the light of the rising sun woke him from a deep and dreamless sleep. His dreams had been too real of late and he was glad to be without them while he slept.
The pain from his feet had passed, the swelling had gone down, but they were still red and tender, the cuts healing and crusted over, but the walking had kept them from closing right. The bandages were damp with blood and serum leaking from the wounds. He took them off and buried them in a shallow hole. He had more, a long length of the cloth from the medicine kit he'd emptied and left behind.
With clean bandages on his feet and a quick meal of dried meat and wild onions dug fresh from a patch he'd found along his trail, Arawn set off. The dog had eaten a small share of the dried meat, but preferred more active food. It took off after an unlucky hare then later caught a squirrel as well.
"Dog," Arawn said. "I should have you do the hunting for both of us. I won't forget to set some traps tonight before we sleep. I'll breakfast on some rabbit too."
The day was a long and agonizing trek through the woodlands. Sometime after the noon sun had begun to wane Arawn heard loud singing coming from the roadway. The voices were rough and the words unintelligible, but he did not think that human throats were behind the sound. He had to hush the dog, it heard the off-tune wails and almost began to howl, but Arawn held its head and closed its jaws with his hands. What he wanted most was to see for himself what creatures were marching past, but he dared not take the dog and did not trust his wounded skills. Cut feet and days with little food had made him slow and weak.
Arawn waited till the voices were long gone, the sound drifting through the air as the marchers headed south and east, down toward the duchy and the lands beyond. Angry with himself and daring fate, Arawn left the woods and set out upon the road.
The old dirt track was beaten down, countless feet had passed this way. The grassy verge was almost gone, trees were hacked and stripped of bark, crude symbols carved into their boles. It was risking much to make his way along the road, but it saved Arawn hours of time while the daylight lasted.
"At least no one will spot our trail," he told the dog.
The sun was setting and they had walked hard most of the day but a mile back they turned to the east where the path diverged. The rutted road showed the tracks of formorians' feet frozen hard in mud long dried. Smaller feet were sculpted in the ground as well, claw-toed dogmen and the iron nailed boots of hobgoblins, hundreds had left their mark.
"Draupnir," Arawn murmured. "Draupnir. Still be there," he looked down and spoke to the old hound. "We won't be there before dark. Dog, let’s find a place to sleep for the night."
The two of them moved back within the woods. Arawn found a dry spot and set camp, cutting a layer of fir tree limbs for a bed. A spring was near, an outpouring of the stream which ran close to the road and had cut the valley from the surrounding mountains and the hills.
Arawn used the line he'd taken from the dead fisherman. He set half a dozen traps along the spring and near to clumps of grass and other greens. With any luck he'd catch a hare while they rested for the night.
It was a windy day, breezes howled through the narrow valley road and echoed from its walls. At times a stream trickled along between the cliffs and the dirt trail, but then the way would rise and the stream would disappear sinking once again beneath the ground. It was a bare path, wider than a wagon by a man’s length, but empty. Arawn had no place to hide as he followed it down toward the mountain’s base.
In times past Arawn had gone this way and found it stark but with a sense of strength and beauty. Today he was chilled by the wind and haunted by the ghostly voices calling in the breeze. Beside him the hound was all astir, its ears were raised and it darted looks up at the rising edges of the cliffs. There should have been sentries to greet them and wave them on, shouts to call back man to man to say that rangers approached. Draupnir would broach a keg of ale and have frothing mugs set out in the guardhouse by the gate, waiting for their arrival.
The road seemed longer than Arawn could remember, but he had never had to half-limp down before with stick in hand to help him walk. He had not planned it but the sun rose high as he sank lower between the rocky walls. The final turn was past and the way lead gently down, lit brightly by the noonday sun. Soon darkness would fall even while the sun settled in the east, the high straight valley walls cut the daylight short and made twilight last for hours before the dark of night.
A gate should block the way, he thought, but looking down the road he saw no sign but tumbled stones knocked loose and thrown about the yard. Most of Draupnir's mine was within the caverns at the mountain’s base, but he had a large open circle of land cleared before their mouth. The trail had run to a stone gate with a huge stout wooden door, big enough for wagons to pass in and out. Inside, a guardhouse was set and pathways went up through the cliff and followed trails to the sentry posts which lined both sides of the valley road.
Draupnir's miners were a tough mix, human, gnome and mountain dwarf. They took it in shifts to guard the mine and each was skilled with bow or spear or stone thrown from a sling. Bandits often tried the mine, or had until word went out that it was too tough a nut to crack. But they still tried, the wagons with the ore always went out with heavy guard and Draupnir kept no schedule that bandits could learn, he'd hold up a shipment till his nose felt it was the time to go. The old dwarf always said it itched when someone thought of taking what was his.
Arawn hoped that Draupnir's nose had proven true, maybe he smelled the formorians coming.