Ranxor the bootmaker settled his small pack onto his back and checked that his dagger was seated properly in its sheath on his hip. He had to stoop to get his tall lanky form through the door as he stepped out of his one-room house into the roofed area he used as his workshop. Two pairs of boots owned by villagers were waiting for him to repair. Several half-finished harnesses also hung from pegs on the wall. Even though Ranxor called himself a bootmaker, he turned his hand to any leather goods that the villagers might need: harnesses, straps, shoes, belts, and so on. But the farmers wore out their boots fairly quickly due to heavy use and so most of his work was making or repairing boots.
Ranxor picked up a wooden bucket from a sheltered corner of his workshop. A small quantity of urine sloshed around at the bottom of the bucket. He stepped down into the street and waved at his neighbours, Artruro and Marness, who were resting on the bench outside the front of their house.
“Hey ho,” called Ranxor.
“Hey ho,” replied Artruro, who then stood and went inside. A moment later he came out carrying a bucket of his own. He carefully tipped the contents into Ranxor’s bucket before wishing Ranxor a good day and returning to his bench.
Ranxor continued to stride through the village, greeting other folks as he came to them. The contents of his bucket were added to at each house. Eventually, he came to the gate that allowed entry and exit through the earthen bank, topped with a palisade fence that surrounded the buildings of the village of Mathel. By that time, his bucket was three-quarters full of urine.
A short wooden tower stood beside the gate. Ranxor looked up but he couldn’t see who was up there, so he called, “Hey ho.”
A face appeared, looking down from the platform at the top of the tower. “Hey ho, Ranxor,” came the reply.
“Scadell, a good morning to you,” called Ranxor. “I’m heading out to the tanning shed, then going out to check the traps.”
“It’s been quiet out there, but take care anyway,” came the reply from Scadell. “See you when you get back.” And the face disappeared as Scadell returned to his watch duty, scanning for any sign of trouble, be it unruly stock animals, inquisitive wild animals, travellers, traders, or (very occasionally) raiders.
Ranxor dragged the gate open, stepped through and pulled it shut again. The road turned a sharp right and travelled for a short way between the ditch and the fenced rampart. It was built that way so that any intruders would have to experience the ire of the villagers who would line the fence above them before they could reach the gate. The road then turned out, through a gap in the ditch, to snake between the fields where the farmers already worked – tending their crops or their stock. Ranxor walked down the road for a few minutes before turning off to the side to follow a small track between two fields.
Down near the river, at the downstream end of the settled area and downwind from the village was a small ramshackle shed. This was the shed where Ranxor’s friend, Mirrex, would cure and tan hides and turn them into leather. It needed to be downwind from the village because of the noxious odours that the process generated.
Inside the shed, a set of frames held drying skins. A row of barrels along one side were the main source of the powerful mixture of smells. The village was too small to need a full-time tanner, so Mirrex and Ranxor shared the work between them, while Ranxor also made his boots, and Mirrex often worked as a labourer out in the fields for whichever of the farmers was willing to pay him.
Mirrex was already working in the shed when Ranxor arrived and cheerfully accepted the bucket of urine from Ranxor as they exchanged greetings. Mirrex emptied the bucket into one of the barrels which was already half-full of a noxious mixture of substances. Several hides were soaking in the disgusting mixture.
Mirrex returned the bucket to Ranxor and then picked up a sturdy stick and used it to stir the mess. Ranxor left him to it and took the bucket down to the bank of the river where he rinsed the bucket and then propped it upside down outside the door of the shed to be collected later.
Ranxor then bid Mirrex a good day and followed the path that led from the shed along the inside of the outer fence and ditch. This outer structure marked the division between the farmlands and the wilderness, and was designed to keep stock in as well as keeping wild animals, and the occasional raiders, out. The village of Mathel perched on a low hill in a sharp bend of the river. The outer bank topped by a fence with the ditch in front formed a broad sweeping arc around the farms with the river at each end.
After a short walk, Ranxor came to the gate where the road from the village passed through the fence. There was no guard at the gate as Scadell had a good view of it from his tower and could call the alarm if anything or anyone approached that they needed to know about.
Ranxor made his way through the gate and then strode out and down the road past a strip of open grassland. The meadow extended around the perimeter of the outer boundary of the village and was several hundred feet wide at its narrowest point. Ranxor kept walking along the road until it left the meadow behind and entered woodlands – a scattering of trees that gradually became denser. This was the beginnings of a forest that extended for many miles. A short way into the woodlands, he stepped off the road and followed a small, well-trodden path that lead away from the road and through the trees.
Now he walked a little more cautiously as he didn’t want to surprise any wild animal that might be lurking around. For the most part, they would hear him coming or smell him coming and then keep out of his way. It was very rare in the woodlands to come across any predator large enough to be willing to take on a full-grown man.
That didn’t mean Ranxor could afford to relax as “very rare” is not the same as “never”. He continued to follow the path until he spied a mark he’d made on the trunk of a tree. That was his signal to turn off the path and wind his way deeper into some thick undergrowth to where he had laid a series of traps.
He stopped at each of the traps in turn to check and reset them. Two of the traps had caught rabbits. One of the rabbits had been got at by a predator – probably a small feline by the look of the tracks. There wasn’t much left of the rabbit but a smear of blood and a few tufts of fur. Ranxor scuffed some dirt and leaves over the blood and moved the trap away to a different spot.
The second rabbit was still there and Ranxor’s knife flashed in his sure hand as he gutted the rabbit and drained its blood. He then quickly bound the two hind feet together and looped the hanging rabbit through his belt. Ranxor smiled in pleasure. The skin would make nice thin leather and the meat would be a tasty addition to his stew.
Now Ranxor turned and made his way back to the track and then along the track and back to the road.
It was when Ranxor was walking along the road and crossing the meadow, within sight of the gate, that things went sour.
Even though the sky was clear, there was a sudden crack of thunder and a blast of air that knocked Ranxor to the ground. An oddly-shaped hole appeared in the air almost on top of Ranxor. The hole seemed to be some sort of opening to another world, filled with gleaming red rocks.
A large creature crawled out of the hole and dropped to the ground with a clatter and a hiss. The creature had four legs, each of which ended in a claw, not unlike that of a crab. A carapace covered the torso of the creature and from the front of the carapace extended a leathery neck and a head which was shaped something like that of a bird of prey such as an eagle.
In dropping to the ground, one of the creature’s pincer-like feet landed on Ranxor’s shoulder. The creature screeched and the hole in the air vanished with another clap of thunder. There was a sharp gust of wind as the displaced air rushed back in. The creature screeched again and then ducked its head and tore its beak down the length of Ranxor’s upper right arm.
Ranxor bellowed in shock as the creature extended a long tongue and ran it through the blood that now welled and spurted from the deep gash in his arm. Then Ranxor plucked his dagger from its sheath and plunged the dagger through the leathery skin of the creature’s leg, just above the hardened claw.
The creature screeched and lifted the injured leg off Ranxor, shaking the leg in an attempt to dislodge the sharp knife that had bitten so deeply. The move tore the dagger from Ranxor’s grasp, but at the same time it released him from being pinned to the ground and he frantically rolled to the side, out from under the strange creature.
The creature threw its head back and seemed to screech at the sky but instead of sound, a burst of flame came out of its mouth as if it were a dragon breathing fire. The creature scuttled back from this and shook its head then opened its mouth again and once more a huge fountain of fire burst from its mouth but this time the flame was aimed down and swept across the road as the creature swung its head. The creature seemed surprised by the flame and did not appear to have any control over it whatsoever. Despite this, Ranxor had to dive to the side and roll into the ditch beside the road to avoid being caught in the flame. It came so close to him that he could feel the hair being singed off his arms and his skin immediately started to redden from the burn.
While all of this was happening, there had been the sound of a distant horn as Scadell sounded the alarm. The farmers had picked up the weapons they kept beside them as they worked and rushed to the gate. Now they came advancing carefully down the road. Two arrows came whistling in but they clattered off the thick carapace of the creature and had no effect. Seeing the gouts of flame, the farmers halted a significant distance from the raging creature.
The creature shook its head again and swivelled its head under its torso to examine the knife that still impaled its leg. It snorted a small puff of flame and had to dance to avoid burning its own legs. A second clawed foot lifted off the ground and plucked out the knife which then clattered to the ground.
Then the creature reached out with a claw and slashed it through the air, leaving behind a rent that opened into some other strange place full of shifting purple light. It immediately crawled up and through the rent and disappeared. The rent gradually closed up and soon there was no sign that there had ever been anything amiss.
The farmers now approached and helped Ranxor out of the ditch. There was a great deal of discussion most of which was to the effect that nobody had any clue what type of creature they had seen, nor did anybody have any idea what had happened, nor had anybody ever seen the like of this before, nor had anybody heard tell of any creature that looked like that before, and so on.
Strips of cloth were torn and used to roughly bandage the nasty gash down the length of Ranxor’s arm. His dagger was picked up, cleaned and returned to him. Then, the general opinion being that the creature could return, they all quickly hustled back behind the enclosure fence and pushed the gate closed, acknowledging as they did so that their paltry wooden gate wasn’t going to hold back such a creature should it return.
After a short discussion, the two farmers with bows stayed to watch at the gate, two others walked back to the village with Ranxor, while the remainder went back to their fields and got back to work. With the aid of his escort, Ranxor was able to walk back to the village. He was feeling dizzy and shivering with shock and his right arm was throbbing.
Scadell had the inner gate open for them as they arrived at the village and the farmers took Ranxor straight through to his little house, calling for Marness as they did so. They helped Ranxor lay down on his cot as Marness came bustling in, followed by her two little daughters. She shooed the farmers out to return to their fields and pulled a stool next to Ranxor’s cot so she could examine his arm.
She peeled back the crude bandages and tsked and tutted at the sight of the ugly gash which still oozed blood. She sent her two daughters scurrying, with instructions to fetch supplies and water, and then she asked Ranxor to give an accounting of how he came by the injury.
The story was short and so Ranxor was already finished by the time Marness’ daughters returned, with one lugging a basket full of supplies and the other hauling a kettle of hot water.
Marness poured some powder into a mug and added hot water. After rapidly stirring the mixture, she had Ranxor drink it, saying that the powder had come from the Healer’s Guild and that it should help him sleep and help hasten the healing. Marness explained that such powder was a good deal cheaper than the proper healing potions that the Guild sold and she had only been able to buy the one of those last time a healer had visited, and she had used that when Runmil had shattered his leg falling from a tree.
Ranxor then lay back and watched as she bathed the wound and sluiced it with a herbal wash. This resulted in Ranxor grunting and cursing in pain, despite the healing powder.
Marness then pulled the edges of the gash closed and carefully sewed the flaps of skin together. Finally, she bound a poultice to the outside of the wound and wrapped the entire arm in fresh bandages. By that time Ranxor was more or less asleep, so Marness left him to rest, ushering her daughters out in front of her.
Ranxor came half-awake and became aware of shouting and screaming and the strange sensation of sinking into soft bubbling mud, and then his awareness faded again.
Some time later, Ranxor again came awake.
He was lying on his back and staring up at a star-filled sky. He was lying on furs and had a blanket over him. The air didn’t smell closed-in like he would expect from being in his house, but it was fresh and sharp as if he were outdoors. He could even feel a gentle breeze on his cheek.
Ranxor exhaled and a stream of small glowing insects flew up out of his mouth producing a stream of light pouring up into the darkness. The glowing insects flew up towards the stars for several feet before popping out of existence one at a time with distinct little snapping sounds that together sounded like the popping of corn kernels when heated on a pan. Ranxor decided he was hallucinating and closed his eyes.
The sound of bird-song greeting the dawn roused Ranxor. Despite being covered with blankets, he could feel a slight chill. He moved the blanket away from his head and saw that he was out in the grassy area beyond the edge of the farm enclosure. A light dew had fallen and the outer surface of the blanket was damp.
Ranxor sat up and looked around. He’d been lying on a straw pallet at the centre of an almost perfect circle of scorched grass that was some twenty feet in radius. Beyond the sharp edge of the circle, the grass was green and lush.
A figure draped in furs was seated on a tree stump just beyond the edge of the circle. On seeing Ranxor sitting up, the figure stirred and adjusted the furs to reveal his friend Mirrex who had clearly been watching him sleep.
“Hey ho,” called Mirrex. “How are you feeling?”
“Mirrex? What happened?” replied Ranxor. “Why am I out here? And what happened to the grass?”
Mirrex snorted. “You happened to the grass. You made a ring of fire start up all around you that that spread out further and further and then just stopped. And you doing things like what happened to the grass is why you’re out here. You got yourself bit by that magic creature and it infected you somehow. You got all feverish and then weird magic started happening around you.
Ranxor sat himself more comfortably on the pallet and draped the blankets around his shoulders to ward off the chill.
“Weird magic? Like what?”
“Like Marness and her two daughters spending ten minutes transformed into a hen with her two chicks. I’ve never heard so much clucking and squawking. The girls thought it was a great adventure, but it scared the stuffing out of Marness, and they’re saying she hasn’t been quite right since that. Mind you, she’s always been a bit broody, so I don’t figure she’s that much different.”
“And your house doesn’t have a roof anymore. The thatching all got blown away by the storm that started up inside your house. Oh, and you turned green and scaly for a bit. We all had to back off to avoid getting swiped by your claws. But then you went back to normal and went back to sleep.”
“Huh!” said Ranxor. “That’s weird.”
“Yup,” said Mirrex, nodding in agreement. “Weird is right. It’s just as well nothing you did ever went more than about twenty feet away from you and none of it lasted very long. And there was always a break for a while between the weird magic, so we waited for one of those breaks and carried you out here before you set the village on fire, or maybe somat worse.”
Ranxor looked down at his right arm, which now had a newly-healed scar running in a jagged path from just under his shoulder down to near his wrist.
Mirrex reached down and picked up a covered bowl and a mug from behind the stump. Then he carried them out to Ranxor before quickly retreating back to his stump.
“It’s been five days since you got bit,” said Mirrex. “And we looked out for you out here since the first night. Last night you started sleeping more easy-like so we figured the fever had broken. Then we figured that you might wake up hungry so here’s some oatmeal mush and some of Doran’s morning ale.”
At the sight of the food, Ranxor’s belly began rumbling and he became aware of how famished he was. The oatmeal mush was well made and was thick and gluggy, just the way he liked it. All too soon, he was scraping the sides of the bowl to get the last remnants of the mush and he washed it down with the morning ale.
As he was eating, Ranxor had slowly become aware of an itch developing in his new scar and a sense of developing pressure deep inside of him. By the time he finished, the pressure inside of him was intense. He put the bowl and mug down on the ground and looked over at Mirrex.
“Something’s happening, I feel...”
“Aye,” said Mirrex. “You’re about due for it. They’re no longer happening every hour but maybe once every six or seven hours, so...”
Mirrex trailed off and shrugged and then shuffled off his stump and moved further back.
“You said it never goes further than twenty feet,” said Ranxor, feeling betrayed as he watched his friend back away.
“I know what I said, but just because it hasn’t, doesn’t mean it never will.”
It was possibly ten minutes from when Ranxor first started to feel the itching in his scar and the sense of pressure inside of him became unbearable. By that time his arm was throbbing so badly he almost wanted to cut it off.
Ranxor knew something was about to happen and he wished fervently that nothing harmful or dangerous would happen. As he did so, his mind flashed on the idea of birds flying in the air. Then suddenly he felt a wooshing sensation as all of that pressure rushed out of him. He looked around and couldn’t see anything different.
“Huh!” said Ranxor.
“What?” called Mirrex. “What happened?”
“Something happened,” said Ranxor. He looked around and couldn’t see anything different. “But then nothing happened.”
At that moment, a pair of small sparrows glided in on quiet wings and settled onto the scorched grass about six feet from Ranxor. They chirped once and then sat still. Then another group of three sparrows flapped in from a different direction and settled on the ground as well. Then came more and more, until there was a flock of more than fifty of the small birds surrounding Ranxor, all sitting on the area of scorched grass, all staring silently at him.
Ranxor stood still, not daring to move as the little birds all continued to stare at him.
Then suddenly whatever was happening was over. They started chirping and flapping as they all took off and the flock wheeled and circled over his head for a moment before heading for the woodlands and out of sight.
“That was a little creepy,” said Mirrex. “I couldn’t decide if they were worshipping you like a statue or thinking you might make a tasty dinner.”
“Maybe a little bit of both,” said Ranxor with a grimace. “But I was wishing it was harmless and then I thought of birds flying just before the magic went rushing out of me, so maybe I sort of guided what happened a little bit.”
Mirrex brushed off the back of his trousers and said, “Well, I better get on with my work. Maybe you should lie down and have a rest. You should be good for another six hours or so before anything happens again.”
Mirrex started walking through the grass towards the gate where the road cut through the outer ditch and fence of the village. Ranxor started walking that way too and Mirrex stopped and looked at him.
“Where are you going?” asked Mirrex.
“To my workshop in the village. I have work to do.”
“Oh, no, my friend. The people were very clear that you needed to stay out here until you have this, whatever this is, under control. Runmil will bring you some lunch. Lie down and have a rest. You still look pale and sickly to me, and the rest will do you good.”
Ranxor returned to the straw pallet and sat down on it with a thump. He sent a disgusted look in the direction of the village but then he conceded to himself that perhaps they were right. He pulled the blankets over himself and lay down again, thinking that maybe a little rest might be a good idea.
Ranxor was woken by the crunching in scorched grass as someone walked up to him. He opened his eyes to see Runmil approaching, carrying a small loaf of bread and a bowl of soup.
Ranxor sat up. “Hey ho, Runmil, lad. That’s kind of you to bring out some lunch for me.”
Runmil grinned and passed the bowl to Ranxor and then the bread.
“Mirrex said you were feeling better but that magic was still happening,” said the boy. “Is it going to keep happening forever or will it go away?”
“I don’t know,” said Ranxor. “I thought magic was something you had to learn and train and practice. I never heard about anybody just getting bit by a magic creature and then having it suddenly start happening on its own.”
Runmil looked around at the neat circle of scorched grass and then squatted down near Ranxor and watched him eat the soup and bread. Runmil asked question after question about what had happened to Ranxor and why, but Ranxor didn’t have any answers, so the boy’s curiosity had to remain unsatisfied.
One of Runmil’s questions got Ranxor thinking.
“Can you make it happen when you want, or do you have to wait until it happens on its own?”
“I don’t know, lad. That’s a good question. How about you back off to that tree stump over there and I’ll give it a try. Mirrex seemed to think it was safe being that far from me.”
Runmil took the used bowl from Ranxor and trotted over to the tree stump. He took up a post behind the stump as if it would protect him from anything that might happen and watched eagerly to see what Ranxor would do.
Ranxor thought for a moment and then looked at the scorched grass. He wondered if perhaps he could fix the grass and return it to being green and healthy.
Ranxor knelt and put his hands on the ground and concentrated, trying to recreate that sensation of the pressure building up inside him and then wooshing out. At the same time, he tried to imagine the grass being green and healthy and being healed from the scorch marks.
It took a few minutes and Ranxor could feel himself breaking out into a sweat with the effort but eventually he felt something start to boil around inside him. He tried to send that energy wooshing out through his hands and into the grass and at the same time he repeated his mental picture of healing the grass.
Then it happened. The magic sent tingles racing down his arms and out through his fingers and suddenly it was gone. Ranxor opened his eyes, which he hadn’t realised he’d closed, and looked around. Then he watched in amazement as the grass near his hands turned from black to grey, then to white, then to red, then to green, and then to purple. The changes in colour spread out in little ripples from his hands and kept spreading out until they faded about two-thirds of the way to the edge of the original scorched circle.
After a short time, the colour changes stopped and he was left with a smaller circle of bright purple, but otherwise healthy-looking grass, near the middle of the blackened circle of scorched grass but slightly off-centred. Beyond that was the lush green grass of the rest of the meadow. The edge of the circle of purple grass was not nearly as clean-cut as the edge of the scorched circle. At the edge, the bright purple faded to grey and then to black within the space of about one foot.
“Huh!” said Ranxor.
“Wow!” said Runmil. “That was spectacular. Can you do it again?”
“Not right now. I feel kind of empty at the moment.”
“But the purple grass is fabulous. I didn’t know there was such a thing as purple grass.”
Ranxor scratched his head and looked around. “I didn’t either. Maybe I’m starting to get the hang of how to do magic but it’s still not happening exactly the way I want.”
Ranxor looked back at the boy. “Perhaps you should take my bowl and head back inside. I feel like taking a walk so I’m going to go and check what’s happened to my traps in all this time.”
“Can I come with you?” asked Runmil. “I’m not allowed into the woodland on my own. And if I go back, they’ll just find something else for me to do. It’s not like I’m needed. It’s just that they want to keep me busy so I don’t get into mischief. I can be busy helping you just as easily as I can be busy mucking out the goat pens.”
Ranxor grinned and ruffled Runmil’s hair. “Come on then. I can’t imagine that the creature will come back after all this time, so we should be safe enough.”
Runmil left the empty bowl on the tree stump and the two of them walked back to the road. They waved at whoever was in the watchtower beside the inner gate and they saw someone wave back. Then they turned and walked away from the village and towards the woodland. They had to move aside at one point as a trader rattled past in his cart, heading for the village. They exchanged greetings but didn’t stop to talk.
Soon Ranxor and Runmil reached the woodlands and a moment later they turned off the road and along the path. Runmil’s cheerful chattering drowned out the quieter sounds of the woods.
Ranxor had told Runmil to watch out for the mark he’d made on a tree trunk with his knife and smiled in pleasure when Runmil excitedly pointed it out to him. Together they left the trail and made their way through the undergrowth to the string of traps. The first trap was empty, and Ranxor carefully dismantled it. The second trap contained a dead rabbit but it had been there for a while and the insects had gotten to it so neither the meat nor the skin was worth saving. Again Ranxor dismantled the trap, leaving the remains of the rabbit behind.
The third trap had caught the leg of a snarling lynx, that was no taller at its shoulder than Ranxor’s knee. It had chewed at the wire of the trap and had chewed at its leg where the wire wrapped around it but all of that had probably just made the wire pull tighter.
Ranxor asked to borrow Runmil’s jacket and then told Runmil to stand back. “I’m going to put the jacket over the lynx so it can’t attack me while I free its leg.”
Ranxor squatted down out of the reach of the snarling lynx and started talking to it in a soothing voice. He held up the jacket and prepared to cast it over the wild cat and wrap it up.
He kept talking in that soothing way and hoped the animal would stay calm. Suddenly, Ranxor felt a rush of magic leave him and the lynx stopped in mid-snarl, lay down and started a low purring sound. Blinking in surprise, Ranxor carefully lowered the jacket over the animal and then carefully used his dagger to slice the wire away from its leg. That only took a few seconds and the lynx didn’t even flinch as he worked. Ranxor quickly retrieved Runmil’s jacket and backed away.
The lynx sat up and looked around and then calmly licked the wound on its leg where the wire had cut in. It appeared to be completely unconcerned by Ranxor and Runmil, who watched it in amazement.
After a moment, Ranxor gestured at Runmil and the two of them quietly moved away and made their way to the final trap. The trap was empty and Ranxor dismantled it. As he did so, he glanced back and saw the lynx sitting on its hindquarters about ten feet away from them. It was watching Ranxor with an expression that Ranxor thought was possibly curiosity. Ranxor quietly gestured to Runmil and pointed out their observer which Runmil stared at with large eyes. The lynx walked its front feet forward until it was lying on the ground and started licking the wound on its leg.