The Forbidden Spark - Chapter 5

Jun 2 2020

Selenia grunted as she pulled the canoe out of the river, using the thick roots of an old tree twisting deep into the stream to disembark. The crossing had been arduous, the nearby waterfall generating a strong current that had required vigorous paddling just to maintain her bearing. A constant spray hovered in the air, continually spawned by the deafening crash of Flint River tumbling almost a hundred feet from Bluefinch Plateau down to the Lendmar Valley.

She walked westward until she reached a rock wall thick with foliage and wet with spray. Selenia only noticed the fissure tucked in the western wall because she knew what to look for. Though the Mountaineers didn't quite advertise this hideout's location, it was no deep secret either, especially for a scout as well informed she was.

Squeezing through the opening, she was met with darkness. In the moments it took for her vision to adjust, the bleak specter of her last foray into a dark cavern churned in her memories. She shoved them aside and focused on her breathing, grimly determined.

Selenia pressed on carefully, keeping a hand against the jagged stones of the cave's south wall. She came upon a platform opening into an underground river, with the faintest hint of daylight visible downstream to the east. Likely connecting to the river originating at the falls, she noted that this would make an excellent spot for discreetly loading merchandise onto boats.

Turning back around, she followed the northern wall. She soon found a passage opening to the north where a layer of scattered rocks covered the ground. Venturing into it quickly revealed that this passage was not like the preceding cave. It seemed man-made, its walls hewn in uneven layers and turning at sharp angles. Loose gravel on the ground rumbled under her feet with every step, guaranteeing her approach would not go unannounced.

Dancing light patterns began pricking the darkness as she progressed, and soon she came upon a large man-made chamber with torches affixed to the walls. She counted just over a dozen dwellers clad in furs and leathers, some resting on bedrolls and others tending to their supplies. None commented on her presence, though she could almost feel the daggers near her back.

She walked towards a tall woman with curly red hair, fiddling with the straps of a leather breastplate on a work bench. If any part of her was interested in Selenia's presence, she did not let it show. Selenia cleared her throat and asked in a hushed voice, "Pardon my intrusion, I'm looking for Kaarl the Shepherd." She wasn't sure that was the proper way to refer to him. She knew that 'Shepherd' was a high rank within their organization, but not whether it was mainly used as a prefix or as a suffix. She doubted they cared.

Without looking up, the tall woman gestured toward a lad sitting on a bedroll, in the early stages of carving a piece of wood roughly in the shape of a four-legged animal. She walked towards him and paused once she obtained a clear view of his face. This fellow was much too young to have served with her mother in the Renisian Army. But she'd also just been directed to him so what was she to do? "Shepherd Kaarl?" she asked meekly.

After a stretch of silence, a burst of laughter spread through the chamber as the man shrugged. "He's deaf, sergeant," cracked a voice behind her. She turned around and noticed an old man standing with one leg back against the wall, running his hands through a thick black beard streaked with gray. "And you clearly don't know who you're asking for," he continued. His lips were drawn into an inscrutable line, but his crinkled eyes seemed amused.

Selenia briefly considered protesting, but thought better of it. He snickered and turned to face a narrow passage in the northwest corner of the chamber, then motioned her to follow him. She felt the dwellers' gaze follow her every step. They came upon a small room, sparsely furnished with just a bedroll, a wide table and a couple of chairs. Kaarl folded a large map sprawled on the table as he walked in, and motioned for Selenia to sit on one of the chairs.

"So," said the Mountaineer, sitting cross-legged and leaning an elbow back against the table, "who might you be?"

"My name is Selenia Karsten. I'm a Renisian Army Scout Sergeant. But I am not here on Army business."

Kaarl smiled. "Ah yes, I thought your face seemed familiar. You are Nora's daughter aren't you?" Selenia nodded. "Well, it's a good thing you're not here on Scout business," he continued. "I'm sure you can appreciate just how problematic an Information Gatherer's presence is within these walls."

"I understand," answered Selenia. "And I wouldn't be here if I had a better option."

"Why don't you tell me why it is that you are here, Sergeant?"

Selenia paused and took a breath. "I am trying to get in touch with a mage," she said. She wasn't exactly sure how to follow that up. Though she'd rehearsed this conversation in her head, the words did not come easily.

An uncomfortable silence hung in the air as Kaarl sat there, frowning. "A mage?" he finally said. "Who?"

"No, I mean… I'm trying to find a mage. Any mage." She crossed and uncrossed her fingers, fiddling nervously, struggling to find words that felt safe to say. "We have access to large troves of information as Scouts," she continued, "but this particular topic is off limits. The Church's libraries are curated by the clerics with a heavy hand, and the only thing I was able to find out after spending several days on it is the existence of a settlement called Ryst, in Brekeren. It seems linked to them somehow, but I don't know to what extent."

The old man ran his hands through his beard, studying her. "Interesting," he said. "And what exactly makes you think we might be able to help you with this?"

"I mean no disrespect saying this," said Selenia, "but the fact that you harbor mages in your ranks is not really a great secret. I am not here to expose anyone, or to report my findings in any way. I only seek answers… for myself."

"That's a pretty bold accusation, Sergeant," said Kaarl, "especially considering where you're making it." He lightly tapped his index finger a few times on the table. "Tell me," he continued, "why do you want to know? What answers are you seeking?"

Selenia shifted uncomfortably. It was a reasonable question, predictable even. But the weight of her circumstances dulled her eagerness to respond.

"Something happened… to me," she said, running her finger along the bandages still wrapping her head. "Last week, I was assaulted by a pair of orcs in the Great Gap. I barely made it out alive, and have been trying to make sense of it ever since, trying to find answers."

"Go on," said Kaarl.

Selenia sighed and shook her head. "I'm sorry Shepherd, I… I can't."

A long silence stretched through the room, and her host nodded his head a few times. "I'm sorry too, Sergeant. But even if I did know mages, and I'm not saying that I do… You know I couldn't let them talk to you. You're wearing a Renisian Army uniform. In the end, the Army is subordinate to the Church. Even if I knew any, I could never dare expose them."

An overwhelming mix of desperation and dire need pooled around Selenia's eyes, but she clenched her jaw and pushed the tears back down. Staring at the creased lines of the old man's steady face, and knowing all she'd heard about a Mountaineer's determination, she was certain there was no swaying him.

She took a deep breath and tried what she estimated would be a lesser ask. "What about Ryst? Can you at least tell me where it is?"

Kaarl seemed to be considering a response when his attention was drawn by the sound of footsteps approaching from the passage to the east. She peered in that direction and a scruffy young man entered the room, a long scar running down his left cheek contrasting with an otherwise boyish face. He flashed a smile at Selenia as he walked past her.

"What, we're recruiting from the Army now? Bold, Kaarl," said the newcomer as he clapped the Shepherd on his back.

"Gerwin, welcome back," said Kaarl.

Selenia tried her best not to gawk as Gerwin crossed the room, nonchalantly tossing his backpack on the ground and sinking down into the bedroll. She'd not expected coming here to meet the Mountain Lord himself, still less that he would be so handsome.

"Who's our guest?" asked Gerwin as he rummaged around in his bag.

"This is Selenia Karsten, Renisian Scout," answered Kaarl. I was just about to show her out."

"Shame," said Gerwin as he pulled out an apple and sunk his teeth into it in a loud crunch. He gave her a wide grin and continued chewing.

Selenia felt her cheeks burning as she got up and followed Kaarl out the room.