"Are you Ok?" Jessica asked.
Tethion had slumped into a sitting position. It appeared the only thing keeping him from falling over was the tight grip he maintained on his staff.
"Ok? What does that mean?" he asked. "I'm not understanding that word." Before Jessica could explain, he said, "Oh, you're asking if I'm in good health. Yes. I'm quite all right, though tired." His voice sounded weak. "I'm just tired. Working a spell takes it out of you. And I haven't really eaten anything but a few berries since I came to this place. When one is not entirely sure of one's circumstances, it doesn't pay to eat unfamiliar things." He paused. "I don't suppose you would have any food to spare?"
Justin dropped his daypack and rummaged around in it. Jessica was putting on her skeptical look.
"If you're a wizard, couldn't you magically produce some food? Like, make an apple appear?"
Tethion looked at her quizzically. "I could, I suppose," he said after a long pause. "But there would be little point to it. It takes energy to work magic. The energy I gained by eating an apple I created magically would be less than the energy I put into making it. It's basic wizardry, you know. The Third Law of Energy Balances of, umm, what was his name? The wizard who defined that law. Only thing he's really remembered for. Learned it so long ago. It'll come to me momentarily."
Meanwhile, Justin had pulled a bag of jerky out of his pack. He offered it to Tethion. As he did, he shot a dirty look at Jessica. He thought her question was a bit rude.
"Jerky?" he asked.
"Jerky?" Tethion repeated, as he took the package. He raised one eyebrow quizzically as he turned it over and over in his hands, studying it.
Could it be he didn't know how to open the package, Jessica wondered? She reached down, took the package, and tore open the end. Just to be sure he knew the contents were edible, she took a small piece of jerky before she handed back the package. Tethion watched as she put it in her mouth and started chewing. He took out a piece, examined it briefly, sniffed it, and put it in his mouth.
"Ah, yes," he said, eyes lighting up. "The flavor is different, stronger, but this is what we call echarqui."
He took another piece and started chewing on it. As he did, he held up the package.
"So this is what this strange paper is used for," he said, as if making a great discovery. "I went foraging near the city yesterday. I kept finding things like this, but I couldn't work out what they were for. And the writing is most strange. I take these markings to be writing? It is a form I've not encountered before - very curious."
He pulled another piece of jerky out of the bag. Before putting it in his mouth, he looked closely at it. This piece of jerky had more than its share of cracked pepper corns stuck to it. Tethion removed one with his fingertips and held it up.
"My word," he said, "this bag contains a small fortune in pippali."
"What's pippali?" Justin asked.
"It must be pepper," Jessica said. "That's a piece of black pepper he's holding."
"Black pepper," Tethion repeated slowly. "Pippali to us, black pepper to you. Whatever you call it, you use it lavishly. Are you perhaps of the nobility?"
"No," Justin replied, his head swelling a little at being mistaken for nobility. "Black pepper is common here. Everybody uses it."
"Really?" Tethion said, raising his eyebrows. "Now I know I came through The Well. Where I'm from our only supply of pippali, your black pepper, comes with the Bronze Ship, and it only comes once a year. The people further south can afford to pay more for it than we can. So black pepper for us is quite a luxury."
Jessica couldn't restrain her curiosity any more. "So, where is it you're from, Mister Tethion?" she asked.
"Where am I from?" Tethion repeated the question. "I've lived in many places. But if home is where one's people live, then my home is Nivlog Traeth, or, as you would say…. " He paused and thought for a moment, then asked, "What is your word for the land, where it meets the ocean?"
"The shore?" Jessica responded.
"Or the coast," Justin added, wanting to make a contribution.
"And when the air is dense and gray and damp and flows in off the ocean," Tethion continued. "What do you call that?"
"Fog," Justin and Jessica said together.
"Or mist," Jessica put in. Justin shot her a nasty look. She returned a smirky smile.
"Ah, what we call our land, Nivlog Traeth, that bears a striking resemblance to this countryside, would be called, in your speech, 'shore of fog' or 'shore of mist'. Or perhaps the 'coast of fog."
"The Misty Shore," Jessica said. "That sounds like what we'd call it."
"The Misty Shore," Tethion repeated. "That does have a pleasant sound to it."
Tethion had finished the jerky. He reached under his cloak and drew out the gourd flask, pulled out the wooden plug and took a long sip of water. Justin reached into his daypack, felt around, and pulled out a granola bar. He offered it to Tethion.
"Try this," he said. "We call it a 'granola bar.'"
Tethion took the granola bar from Justin. Again he struggled briefly with the wrapping, and held it up to marvel at it once he'd removed it. He inspected the granola bar, broke off a piece, and tasted it. He nodded his head slightly and smiled a closed-mouth smile as he chewed.
"Interesting. We make some small dry cakes for travel, but nothing quite like this." He took a bite directly from the bar.
Tethion strength seemed to have recovered quite quickly. Justin's curiosity got the better of him.
"Pardon me, Mister Tethion," he asked, a little nervous because his mother always told him it wasn't polite to snoop into other people's business. "You said something about a well. Where is The Well?"
"Or what is The Well?" Jessica asked. She had a feeling Tethion wasn't talking about just an ordinary water well.
"Ah, yes, The Well," Tethion said, munching on a second granola bar. And then he was silent for a long time, chewing slowly, though it was obvious to both Justin and Jessica that he was really
"I suppose," he said finally, "that it can do no harm to speak of The Well to you, though many a wizard has come to such a conclusion and lived to regret it. Or not lived. Still, as you've shown me courtesy, perhaps I owe you the courtesy of an explanation of how I come to be here in your land. But I must ask that you not reveal the information I am about to impart to anyone else."
He paused again, taking a swig of water to wash down the last of the granola bar.
"Tasty," he said, "but very dry." He cleared his throat and then looked around the Witch Ring, as if making sure no one else was listening.
"This is The Well of Danaan, here." He made a circular motion with his free hand, indicating the depression. "I wish I could tell you more about it, but I, or rather we, the Druids of the Grove of the Two Peaks, know very little about it. We know that this one exists, and we believe there is another far to the south. But what The Wells are and what they do, we have only rumors and suspicions.
"But one person does know about them. At least he seems to know how they work. Malduraut. And it's thanks to Malduraut that I'm here."
"This Malduraut is another wizard?" Justin asked.
"He claims to be, and it's hard to argue with him on that point given his demonstrated ability. No one's certain from where he came. He just appeared at the Council one day many, many years ago, claiming to be a sage from some distant land no one ever heard of. One thing is certain. He is possessed of an unusually strong aptitude for working magic. What is more remarkable, he first appeared, so I'm told, in the year of my birth. Yet the eldest of the Druids, those who were young men when Malduraut first appeared, all vouch that he's scarcely aged in all this time. No other wizard, in history or legend, has yet managed that feat.
"For many years Malduraut seems to have traveled widely, from the wildlands of the north to the imperial capital, and to the kingdoms far to the south. Not unusual. Most wizards make journeys, some more than others. It's how we learn things and teach others the things we've learned.
"But Malduraut was different. Word came back to the Council about Malduraut and his greed for whatever knowledge he could gain, in itself not a bad thing for a wizard. But, while Malduraut was eager to feast at the table, he seldom ever brought so much as a minnow or a shriveled apple to the kitchen. And that was a very bad thing. Malduraut was as tight with his knowledge as a miser with a copper. And thus Malduraut wore out his welcome in many places.
"In fairness, one has to say it is a failing wizards are prone to, more so than druids. Often our knowledge has been bought at a dear price, and often enough we are not always eager to give it freely away. But it is also a warning sign. A wizard who is too grasping about knowledge may well have other, more serious faults."
"This Malduraut doesn't sound like a very nice person," Jessica said.
"Oh, you might well say that. But you have yet to hear the entire story. Word also came back to the Council that Malduraut was not careful in his choice of friends. He was known to have consorted with troublemakers, thieves, and the like. Or, perhaps, one might say he was too careful. When these scoundrels' plots or schemes came to grief there was never more than the suspicion that Malduraut was involved. He concealed his tracks well. And there remains suspicion that a few who might have given information about his plottings were silenced forever, but, again, with never a trace back to Malduraut."
"Couldn't your Druid Council have busted him?" Justin asked.
Tethion looked confused.
"Could the other druids have him arrested?" Jessica put in. It was obvious to her that the word busted had no meaning to Tethion. "Couldn't they have had him locked up?"
"Perhaps they might have tried to confine him, but other wizards hesitate to interfere with fellow wizards, even those they suspect of evil intentions. And as I'm sure you understand, it is no small thing to attempt to apprehend a wizard as powerful as Malduraut. And another thing to consider. Malduraut did not only cultivate friends among the lowest of scoundrels. He had, and still has, friends among the highest-born scoundrels. There are more than a few seemingly respectable people who have use for a powerful and unscrupulous wizard. So, the Council had to be very careful in its dealings with Malduraut. They elected to have him quietly watched."
"And you were one of the people watching Malduraut?" Jessica asked.
"Not originally. That was before the war, when I was too young to be entrusted with such tasks."
"When was the war?" Justin asked. A war with wizards, and all that entailed, caught his interest. Judging by how old Tethion looked, Justin thought the war must have been a long time ago.
"Is it ten years ago now? Yes, I believe it is. Ten years ago war came to the Misty Shore, not for the first time, regrettably. As wars go, it was not a great affair. More in the nature of a very large raid, bands of pirates and renegades, and a large contingent of sea raiders from the north. And, of course, they recruited the usual disorderly mob of would-be looters to fill out the ranks.
"Their plan, as we learned later, had been to strike quickly down the coast and seize Ninua Taergoth, there to install their leader as the new ruler. But the greed of their army undid them. A competent military force would have sped past all the villages of the coast, pausing only long enough to replenish their water and steal as much food as they needed. But not that undisciplined band of thieves. They stopped to pillage every village, rath or lonely hovel they found and burdened themselves with whatever caught their eyes. And, as they loaded their vessels with loot, a steady trickle of robbers turned for home, content with what they'd already stolen, while others turned on each other in arguments over trinkets.
"Needless to say, the people of the coast were aroused, the imperial forces were alerted, and a combined force of spears and ships fell on the raiders as they were sacking Traemilian. It was more a slaughter than a battle and few of the invaders ever returned home."
"Malduraut was their leader?" Jessica asked.
"No, their leader was a notable, and a friend of Malduraut, who had been exiled for previous plots against the empire," Tethion answered. "Malduraut himself was in Ninua Taergoth, as were a small band of villains who had hidden themselves in the city, ready to commit treachery when the time was ripe. Fortunately, they were discovered and apprehended as the plot unraveled. An order was given to seize Malduraut, since it seemed probable that he was involved as well, but he escaped and seemingly disappeared."
"He disappeared?" Justin asked. "You mean he really disappeared. Like he vanished?"
"He was being followed by men-at-arms with orders to capture him. They had tracked him for several days and were within sight of him when he entered a wood. The pursuers quickly set watchers around the wood, lest he slip away. Then a party went into the wood and searched for him. He wasn't there."
"Maybe he was just really, really quick," Justin offered. "Could he have run out the other side of the wood while the good guys were coming in, before the watchers were in place?"
"Perhaps, perhaps," Tethion replied, after considering what they said. "But he was seen going into the wood on foot at mid-morning. The wood filled a small valley, three sides of which were bounded by steep, barren slopes. Malduraut's pursuers were mounted, so they could move much more quickly than Malduraut. They sent riders up the ridges from whence they could see anyone trying to climb the slopes. Others they posted at the entrance to the valley, lest Malduraut escape that way while they searched the wood. They searched until dusk and found no one."
"But, after the sun went down, perhaps he snuck out at night," Jessica suggested. "After it was dark, when no one would see."
"As dusk approached, they fired the wood."
"Fired the wood?" Jessica asked, not understanding what he meant.
"They set fire to the forest," Justin explained.
Jessica seemed a little shocked. She didn't read books where setting fires to forests, villages, and castles was a common occurrence.
"You have to understand, Jessica," Tethion said, "they were very, very angry with Malduraut. They wanted to capture him, and they were prepared to use extreme measures to do so. Still, he never came out of the wood. In the morning, when they searched for his bones, they found nothing."
"But how do they know he didn't make himself invisible or something?" Justin asked. He could think of at least half a dozen stories where the hero or the villain made himself invisible, with a spell or magic cloak or helmet.
"My boy," Tethion responded, a little taken aback, "if you know of someone who can make himself invisible, please introduce me. I want to know how it's done." He paused. "Now, a spell of obscuration, that's commonplace. Most any reasonably accomplished wizard can do one of those. I myself can perform one with no more effort than batting an eye. A very useful skill at times. But they don't make a person truly invisible, and they only really work if you stand absolutely still. So Malduraut could not have used one to escape. He'd have been spotted as soon as he started to move.
"And don't forget, or perhaps I hadn't mentioned this yet, two respected wizards were accompanying Malduraut's pursuers. No one chases a powerful wizard without having wizards of his own for protection. One remained at the entrance to the valley while the other accompanied the searchers. They were casting spells of revelation to counter any spells Malduraut might have been casting."
Jessica's mind went back to what Tethion had said when he began the story. "You said you're here because of Malduraut. So, Malduraut must have survived and escaped. How'd he do it?"
"No one knew it at the time, but within that wood was another Well of Danaan. We know little enough of The Wells now, and we knew much less about them then. We can only suppose he used The Well to escape."
"But he came back again?" Justin asked.
"Yes, about five years ago," Tethion said. "He was seen moving among the villages of the north, a small band of thugs with him. And then he established himself at Caerbruen and started collecting more thieves and cutpurses pretending to be warriors."
"Where's this Caerbruen?"
Tethion motioned in a generally upriver direction. "Several day's journey upriver. That is, if I were where in my own country, it would be several days' journey that way."
"Is it a town?" Jessica asked.
"No, it's an old fortress from one of the great wars of long ago, carved out of a massive rock outcrop. When manned, as it hasn't been for many years, it controls the pass of Caerbruen, one of the better routes between the coast and the Great Valley. So you can see how some people became concerned when Malduraut reappeared and set up his robbers' nest there.
"And that is how I come to be here. The Council needed someone to find out what Malduraut was plotting. I was not well known to him. So it fell my lot to go to Caerbruen and pretend to join his band, feigning disaffection with the Council. It worked, for a while, but then I think he became suspicious. Perhaps I was too curious about The Well. Among my tasks was to discover as much as possible about it and how Malduraut used it, and, undoubtedly, I asked too many questions. I finally wheedled enough to get Malduraut to show me The Well. Little did I realize that Malduraut had decided to use The Well to remove me from our world. No doubt he's back at Caerbruen laughing about the young wizard he sent to oblivion."
"You've kinda lost me, Tethion," Justin said. "Just what is The Well, and what does it do?"
"Ah, I was just getting to that. As to what The Well is, it seems to be some sort of rare natural occurrence. Precisely what it is, we do not know. We only know, as I said, that there are at least two of them, this one and the one near Ninua Taergoth. There may be more.
"As to what it does, I now know that it doesn't do what we thought it did. We had assumed that the Wells were linked, that one could enter The Well at Ninua Taergoth and emerge here, or enter here and emerge at Ninua Taergoth. Or perhaps at another Well. But now I believe The Well is an entry to a different world. Your world."
"So, Malduraut sent you through The Well?" Jessica asked.
"We came through together. That is why I wasn't suspicious. What I didn't know is that passage through The Well is extremely disorienting. I'm certain I was unconscious for a time afterwards. Malduraut, knowing what to expect, either recovered himself more quickly or knew of ways to counter the effects. When I awoke he was gone, passed back through The Well I must assume."
"Well, that's a terrible trick to play on someone," Jessica remarked.
"Yes it was, and no doubt Malduraut thought it would be the last trick he'd ever play on me. But, since you've returned the akshana-mithona to me there's a good chance that I shall be able to return."
"What's an 'aksa, akshoo,' whatever you said?" Justin asked.
Tethion removed the amulet from the pouch at his belt and let it dangle at the end of its chain. It turned slightly, first one way, then the other, before stopping and hanging still.
"This is the akshana-mithona."
Justin and Jessica stared at the amulet for a long minute.
"Is that like a magic charm?" Justin asked.
"Does it open The Well?" Jessica added.
"It doesn't open The Well. There's a spell that does that. Fortunately, I have very good ears and a very good memory. I listened well as Malduraut pronounced the spell. I'm almost certain I can repeat it. And, the akshana-mithona itself contains certain reminders." He ran a finger along the irregular series of loops on the edge of the amulet. "These are symbols that have a certain meaning to those familiar with a very ancient language."
"Those are like letters?" Jessica asked, "in an alphabet?"
"Yes, I suppose that's what you would call them. Like the strange markings on your food wrappings. But where was I? Yes. These markings do not give the spell, but they give clues as to the spell itself. It was done thusly so that only those who had some familiarity with the spell would be aided by it. You wouldn't want just anyone to pick up the akshana-mithona and be able to work the spell, would you?"
Justin thought that it might be fun if it he could just pick up an amulet and work a spell, but he didn't think he should mention that. "No, I don't think that would be a good idea. But is that all you need the aksh…akso…."
"Akshana-mithona?" Jessica provided. Justin shot her another nasty look at showing him up. She smiled serenely back at him. "Do you just need it to get the spell right?"
"Oh no, no, no," Tethion replied. "It's much more important than that. I need three things to work the spell and pass through The Well. The correct wording of the spell, of course. A proper staff, such as this one." He reached over to where his staff lay on the ground and picked it up, holding it upright for them to admire. It was about five feet long, but would have been substantially longer if all the bends and kinks had been straightened out. The bark had been peeled off and the wood polished and oiled, so that it had a glossy dark yellowish appearance, except at the very tip where it was worn and stained with dirt. At the other end, the wood swelled out and four fingers encircled a crystal the size of a hen's egg. Whether the wood had grown that way or been reshaped to hold the crystal was hard to tell. Unlike the crystal in the amulet, this one was not faceted, though it had been polished.
"Does your staff get its power from the crystal?" Justin asked. That's how it usually worked in the fantasies.
"Power? The crystal? Oh, no. The staff has power because it's a branch of the proper sort of oak tree and the sacred mistletoe grew upon it. And then wizards with the proper training performed a set of rituals and spells to release and then shape the innate power of the oak."
He lowered the head of the staff and looked at it a bit smugly. "The crystal's there because it serves as a focal point for some spells. And I like the way it looks. Pretty, isn't it?
"Now, as I was saying. Yes, what was I saying?" He paused for a moment. "And thirdly, I need the akshana-mithona. The need for the spell is quite evident. The staff I need to concentrate the power of the spell at the proper place. And the akshana-mithona I need to locate The Well. I said this is the The Well." He raised an arm and made a circular motion with his hand, describing the Witches' Ring. "But that's not entirely correct. The actual Well is a very, very small and very definite place. A very, very, very small place." He held his thumb and forefinger a bare quarter of an inch apart to illustrate what he meant. "Somewhere here in this depression is The Well. To make the spell work correctly, I must use the staff to concentrate the power of the spell, and I must put the tip of the staff directly on The Well. Close is not good enough. The akshana-mithona is a device with certain powers that, when a correct spell is performed to bring it to life, will point out the location of The Well. Without it I would have to poke about blindly with the staff in hopes of finding The Well by accident."
"So that's why you were searching through the leaves?" Jessica asked. "You lost the akshana-mithona and were looking for it?"
"Yes. I was afraid Malduraut had found it and taken it with him. He has his own, of course. This one," Tethion held it up again, "was discovered quite by accident by a druid who had the sense to send it on to the Council. It sat for many years in a collection of magical curios before anyone understood what it was." He dropped the amulet back in his belt pouch. "As far as I know, Malduraut was not aware that I possessed this. So I assumed it must have fallen out of the pouch when I came through The Well. If Malduraut had taken the akshana-mithona and my staff, I would have had no hope of ever returning home."
"That's funny," Justin said, thinking of how he'd found the amulet. "The akshana was hanging up in a tree." He looked around, then pointed to the one he thought it was, "Over there. It was hanging in a branch way up high. If it fell out of the pouch, how did it get up there?"
Tethion looked up at the tree. "Most unusual. Still, objects that have powerful spells upon them sometimes act in strange ways. Lucky for me I suppose. Had it fallen on the ground Malduraut might have found it."
Strange ways, Jessica thought. "Mister Tethion, does the amu…akshana-mithona feel light or heavy to you?"
Tethion looked at Jessica oddly. "Why, it feels quite weighty considering the size of it. Why do you ask?"
"Because to me it feels heavy," Justin replied, "but to Jessica it felt light. We even did an experiment with a scale. We put it on a scale. When I held the scales it was heavy. When Jessica held them, it was light."
"The most likely explanation is that you are more sensitive to the presence of magical powers. Have you had any training in the arts?"
"Then perhaps you have a natural talent for such things."
"Hear that, Jessica?" Justin asked, smiling broadly. "I might be a natural wizard."
"Not a wizard, Justin," Tethion said, gravely. "It takes many years of training to become a wizard. But you perhaps have the natural potential to become one. Because you have that potential, you sensed the presence of magical properties in the akshana-mithona. But since you couldn't know what it was, you felt it as weight."
"You also have the potential to be late for dinner, mister potential wizard," Jessica said. She'd been noticing the changing light as the afternoon progressed. "We'd better get started for home."
They said good-bye and turned to leave. Then another question occurred to Justin. He turned back.
"Mister Tethion," he asked nervously, "did you cast a spell on me to get me to give you back the akshana-mithona?"
"I cast a spell, yes," Tethion answered after a moment's pause. "But not a spell to force you to do anything. It's very difficult, not to say unethical, to cast a spell that forces someone to do something, especially if it is something they don't want to do or know they shouldn't do. Only a very powerful wizard can do such a thing, and then the spells often come out badly.
"The spell I cast was a spell of summoning. And it was not directed at you but at the akshona-mithona. I was hoping to make it reveal itself. And it seems to have worked after a fashion. You sensed that the akshona-mithona needed to return to me."
"Well, goodbye again," Justin paused. "Maybe we can bring you some more food?"
"That would be most kind. Working with magic builds up a terrible hunger."
Go to Chapter 6