The Shadow Lengthens
Originally posted December 1995
What a difference a week can make. Milekki paused a moment to look back upon the village of his birth. Redford now was quiet, bereft of the children that usually played in its streets, the horse-drawn carts that brought farmers and the fruits of their labors they hoped to sell, the dogs that ran about with no particular destination. Now, none travelled the streets, and Milekki would have to do all he could about that.
He adjusted his pack and continued his trek. The chickens were the first to go. Then the sheep, and the horses. By that time, the younger children and the infirm were showing signs of the plague. Plague. Milekki rolled that word around in his mind. That had been unknown in Redford for... Well, for as long as memory went back. Serra had protected them for a long while. Now the specter of disease had come upon them, and it fell to Milekki to go for help.
"=I= will go," the constable had said. "It is my duty to protect the people of this village, and the best way to do that is to get help from the Aysen Abbey, down Onella way."
"No, no, Wilmoss, you are needed here," the baker had said. "I will go. I'll need some help, so my son will come with me..."
"Dammit," one of the farmers had said, slamming his fist down on the table for emphasis. "You're just trying to slip out of town with your family, leaving us here to die. You've not shown one whit of compassion for anyone else in your life."
"But... But, I know the way. I was there a few times in my youth. Have you ever been that way?"
"No," the farmer had replied. "But I'd rather lose the constable's services for the week while he makes the journey, than send you and have you run like the coward you are."
"You take that back, Jeldis. I've always supported this town. I wouldn't run away in its time of need."
"You would be doing it right now, if you could figure out how to sneak your silver out of town without us noticing."
"Gentlemen, please. This will not work. It seems that I must go." The constable had stood. "I will leave in the morning, and may Serra preserve all of us."
But it was not to be. The constable had taken ill that very night, and was in no condition to travel. The baker and his family mysteriously disappeared that night, too. Jeldis and the other farmers had been unsurprised. "No good, he was. Let him run to the city, or wherever. Good riddance."
"But we still need someone to go," Milekki had said, standing out in the street with several other men.
"Well, I can't. I have to tend to my family," a farmer had said. There was a chorus of agreement.
Milekki had looked around at the knot of farmers. "Not one of you? Are you afraid?"
"Fear is not the point. There are things to do here."
"I think it is the point," Milekki had said. "Are you all too fearful? Never mind, I will go. I will bring back the help of the abbot. Who will come with me?"
There had been no answer. All the farmers had been too cowardly, despite their protestations to the contrary. Even though the plague scared them, the open road scared them even more. Milekki admitted that it scared him, too. He had never been more than half a day away from Redford in his life, deeper into the Great Wood to An-havva once as a child. But a consultation with the now bed-ridden constable gained him directions and a crude map. He would be able to do this. He must.
He followed the stream in the beginning, as the constable had instructed him. It would soon lead to the Lady's Path, near where it left the Great Wood and went on to Onella. That was where the Aysen Abbey was, as any child who followed Serra knew. Most were a bit fuzzy on exactly where Onella was, though. But Constable Wilmoss knew. Milekki would trust him.
In earlier days, his grandfather had told him of where the stream went. After passing Redford, it continued its way south, passing the Lady's Path and finally merging into the great river that flowed through the wood. His grandfather had told him that it flowed all the way to the sea, where the water went on forever. Milekki could hardly believe it. The largest amount of water he had seen at one time was a pond near Redford that fed into the stream, so "going on forever" stretched his imagination to its limit. He suspected that his grandfather had been pulling his leg.
His family. Milekki felt a tear come to his eye. His family had been badly hit by the plague. His parents were dead, though they were getting on in years anyway. No, they should have lived long past this summer! He still had things to learn from his father, even though he had commonly protested that Milekki had surpassed him in the blacksmithing arts. Now, he was dead. As were his grandchildren, a lovely girl and her younger brother, who was merely two summers old. Milekki wiped the tears away as he thought of his dear wife Jannis, lying in pain upon their bed. At least one of the cowardly farmers agreed to care for her while he went for help. Milekki wasn't sure if he would ever see her alive again, but she understood the necessity of his going.
"Go, with my blessing," Jannis had said, squeezing his hand weakly.
"It looks like I may see Danni and Elwin again before you do, Milekki, but..." She had coughed. "...but I will be here when you return. Never fear." Jannis had smiled a weak smile, and Milekki had smoothed out some of her damp hair.
"I... will see you again." And then he had left, not looking back. He couldn't bear to.
He pushed his walk the first day, following the waterway downstream. That night, he slept up in one of the oaks that covered the area for safety. He was unused to the experience, and he awoke at dawn feeling unrefreshed. But his resolve was firm. He had to make it to the Abbey as quickly as possible. He moved to let his gear down on a rope, when he found his pack was empty. No, not empty, he decided. There was something inside it, moving. He gingerly adjusted his position to get a better hold of the pack, and firmly grasped and opened it. A ball of fur leapt out into his face, and in the confusion of trying to get it off, he felt himself overbalance. He scrabbled for a second, feeling his support abandon him. He fell.
The impact knocked the wind out of him, but he retained a hold on the furball that had accosted him, though it squirmed mightily to escape. He at length sat up, and got a good look at the furball in his hands. It was a ferret, one of those tiny thieves that occasionally plagued the village. Ones that were jokingly called Joven's Ferrets, for their namesake was as much of a thief as they were. Milekki's family didn't find that naming funny. This one had cost him his rations and the tools he had brought along. No, wait, they were scattered along the ground. Milekki let the ferret go and worked to regather his belongings. Most of it was still there, but some of the food was gone, and so was the map. Milekki felt a cold hand grip his heart, but he thought that he would remember the way well enough from the constable's directions. Certainly well enough not to waste two days going back.
Cursing his bad luck, he ate a quick breakfast and continued along the stream. It was getting wider here, fed by other streams. Its current was getting stronger, too, such that one would be hard-pressed to swim in it. Milekki mostly ignored it, concentrating on travelling down the path that followed the stream as quickly as he could. Still, around mid-afternoon, there was the sound of a deep voice from behind him.. Milekki was pretty sure he hadn't passed any houses or other trails along the way, so this one had to be on horseback, and had gone through Redford.
"Hullo, traveller. Might we share the trail for a while?" the deep, resonant voice said slowly.
Milekki turned around and his eyes widened. The... being that stood before him was certainly not human. It stood about seven feet tall, and atop its wide body was a steer's head. "A... monster!" he shrieked and began to run the direction he had been going.
"Wait! Oh, stop!" the being said again, slightly faster than before. "I won't harm you, little one."
Milekki didn't listen. He continued to run. But he was soon snatched from the ground, and held aloft. He struggled vainly, but the being held him fast. "Let me go! I don't taste good!"
"Don't worry, little one. I don't eat humans. I want to help you," said the being from behind the blacksmith. "You won't run away again, will you?"
"All right." He set Milekki down, and the human began running again. He had not gotten a half-dozen steps when he felt himself being caught up into the being's arms. Its musky odor filled his nostrils. "Bad human."
"Let me go!"
"I will not, until we've had a chance to discuss things," said the phlegmatic being. "I will carry you towards your destination while we talk, and at the end, we can part ways, with Aysen Abbey that much closer."
"The Abbey?" asked Milekki, his eyes narrowing, even though he still trembled in fear.
"Yes, you are Milekki Ironsmith, are you not? Your mate told me of your quest. She is not well."
"I knew that, it's probably your fault!"
"I have no knowledge of the arts to make a plague, Milekki. Nor, to cure it. I will help you gain assistance from those of the Lady Serra."
"Why?" Milekki's fear was subsiding as the being's regular strides took him downstream, and he examined its face. It was that of a bull, covered with brown fur and with large horns protruding out the back. There were whitened scars along the side of the face that the blacksmith could see, forming an intricate pattern. Almost as if they were there for a purpose, thought Milekki.
"Your father is known to me. Was. I am sorry that he has passed, as it was him that I came to see," replied the being in its slow, deep, almost bovine voice.
"My father knew a... monster?"
"A monster I am not. Have you not heard of the Anaba Minotaurs? We are no more monsters than the folk of this province. Your Lady Serra befriended us of old."
Minotaurs? "But, that is just a story."
"Nay, you of this province are provincial to believe that. I have found few willing to speak with me in Redford, or before, towards the mountains. A small town named An-havva was most hostile towards me. How short are your memories."
"But, how then do you know my father?"
"Joven Ironsmith, named after the metalworker of legend, was taught by the Anaba. I learned the secrets of metalcraft with him at the hooves of my father. And he taught us the language of humans."
"It is true. Is not his craft better than the others you have seen? My departed father was a master at shaping metal, and both Joven and I gained a measure of that talent. It was a solid echo of the talent of the Joven of legend, friend of the Anaba. It is unfortunate that that Joven turned his skills to thievery. I gather that you have the talent in greater portion than your father. It is good to work iron, is it not?"
"You still doubt me? I will show you my father's tools, some I was to give to Joven, as my father wished upon his death. My father, too, departed this world recently." He set Milekki down, who did not move to escape this time. Out of his pack, the minotaur removed several of the smaller implements of the blacksmith's trade, handing some to Milekki. "These were destined for Joven, but they now pass to you. Use them proudly, as they are the best that the Anaba have made. They were used by your father's namesake, when he was among us. It is not without the sadness of some of the tribe I give you a part of Joven's Tools. But your father deserved them."
Milekki accepted the tongs and hammers and other tools silently, wondering at their manufacture. "You... speak the truth, it seems. I... remember my father speaking a little of his experiences elsewhere, but he never told of minotaurs."
"He knew your people well, I think. Talk of minotaurs would brand him a half-wit, though it was the truth he spoke." The minotaur rose back to his full height, reshouldering his pack.
"You know my name, but what is yours?" asked Milekki. "I know nothing of you."
"I am Telexidar, son of Pelidarnas, of the Anaba. I am pleased to make the acquaintance of another Ironsmith."
"I am pleased not to have met a monster."
The minotaur laughed, a low snorting sound. "Among the minotaurs there are monsters, and among the humans. But not in this glade. Shall we continue? I consider it a duty to your father to help you find this Abbey of the Lady Serra."
With the minotaur's aid, Milekki made good time in his journey. Telexidar's very presence seemed to ward off creatures such as the ferrets that plagued the blacksmith his first night out. The minotaur was much more at home in the forest than he. Milekki was more comfortable with the open fields around his home of Redford. The forest, though surrounding the village, had been cut back for farming. Sometimes, the virgin wood seemed menacing to Milekki, as if there was something strange there. Just sometimes, though.
Late in the day, they came to a wide, well-tended road. The stream passed under a small bridge and continued south.
"The Lady's Path," said the minotaur in response to Milekki's unspoken question. "I followed it as far as An-Havva, before setting out for Redford. It is safe for those such as you and I. I was told that the Autumn Willow herself sets protections upon it, although I have not heard of her before. She must be a powerful wizard."
"She's the protector of the Great Forest, revered just after Serra," said Milekki in awe. "She's not human, as far as we're told."
Telexidar snorted. "Well, I was never molested on the path, no matter the reason. We should move on to the east, and camp by the path when it gets dark."
Early the next morning, they passed the last trees of the Great Wood, and entered the plains of Aysen. The very openness of the place made Milekki uneasy. It was so different than what he had known his entire life. It was almost as if he had entered another world.
This was emphasized as they passed the occasional person on the road. Even though they seemed to be farmers like the people of Redford, they gave him nary a glance, and actively avoided looking at Telexidar. It was almost as they didn't exist.
Finally, late in the fourth day out from Redford, the buildings seemed to become more common, including some ruins that had been uninhabited for a while. "We must be getting close," said Milekki. I don't think that there is another city along this road."
"I will take your word for it, as I have never been here."
Telexidar led the way, and eventually the last rays of the sun revealed a great building off the road a ways to the north, partially screened from view by a grove of trees. "That must be it!" said Milekki.
"I am not sure that we will be able to make it tonight. We have been travelling all day, and passage through the trees and ruins at night will be treacherous."
"We must push on! The quicker we get there, the quicker we can get help!"
The minotaur sighed a great rumbling sigh. "As you wish, Milekki. It is your village that is in danger."
They passed among the darkening ruins and brush, attempting to find an easy path to the abbey. They were unsuccessful, and continued to push their way along until the sun's rays finally fled. Only the faint gleam of the moon now illuminated them. Still, Milekki pressed on, with a concerned Telexidar following.
They stopped at the sound of the resonating voice. "Hello?" called Milekki.
"Stay where you are. Who are you, and why are you wandering around Aysen Abbey?"
"Who is it that wishes to know?" rumbled the minotaur.
There was a pause, and the voice continued, "It is of no concern to you. Know that we are dangerous to the enemies of Serra. Who are you?"
"We are Milekki Ironsmith of Redford, and friend," replied Telexidar.
"Well, who is the other, and why are you where?"
"I am Telexidar, a visitor in these parts. Know that my people know Serra and Feroz from of old. We are here to ask for aid."
There was a rustle from ahead of them, and a light appeared from a lantern. They could not quite make out who carried it.
"You are from quite a distance, Telexidar. Why have the Anaba returned to these parts?"
"It is merely myself, you have nothing to fear from us," replied the minotaur. "You never had anything to fear."
The mailed Serra Paladin that had found them, Sir Altonide, then guided the unlikely pair to the abbey. It turned out that they had missed a path by a couple dozen yards, and were in the process of missing the abbey completely, heading north into the Serra Aviary. They were greeted at the gate by guards who openly stared at Telexidar.
"Hullo, people of Aysen," the minotaur said to them in a friendly manner. He didn't get an answer back.
"Do not mind them," said the paladin after they entered. "Minotaurs have been unknown in these parts for a long while."
"It is unfortunate," said Telexidar. "Humans and the Anaba can learn a lot from each other."
Altonide twirled his grey mustache. "That may be the case, but you will get nowhere around here saying that. We have forgotten Serra's friendship with the Anaba."
"But, you seem to remember it," said Milekki.
"Indeed. But I am something of a scholar. Those who live in Aysen care not for the old days any more. There are other cares."
"Like the plague?"
"A plague? Is that why you are here? Up in Redford? This is dire news. I will find the Abbot immediately." He left them in the entrance hall. Man and minotaur moved off to the side to be less conspicuous, but they still gained curious looks from those who passed by.
"Master Ironsmith? There you are. The Abbot will see you now." The paladin, still wearing his armor, led them through several corridors and up a flight of stairs, until they came to a plain wooden door. "Now, be warned, he is not well. Don't overly upset him." Altonide knocked smartly, then opened the door and entered. Milekki followed.
Inside, there were more books than he had ever seen. True, he had never learned to read more than some basic words, but he still realized what a treasure this was. Seated in a comfortable chair in the middle of the room, with a beautifully illustrated book in front of him, was a wrinkled old man dressed in green and white robes. He looked up slowly, refocussing his eyes.
"Abbot," began the paladin, "Here are the visitors. Milekki Ironsmith of Redford, and Telexidar of the Anaba." There was a slight click as the minotaur accidentally hit a horn against the door frame as he entered. "This is Hazduhr, the Abbot of Aysen Abbey."
"How are you, my children?" asked the Abbot, swaying a little to the side. "Please sit. I apologize. You, Telexidar, are not of my people."
"We still revere Serra, so we are not so different than you, Abbot."
"Yes, it is said so, in this very book, that it was an Anaba who married Serra and Feroz. I had forgotten. What is it that you are here for?"
Telexidar motioned to Milekki, who was quiet, nervous about being in the presence of such an important man. At the minotaur's prodding, he spoke softly, "Well, Abbot, Redford, that's my home, has come under a plague, and I came here to get help. Half of the village was dead or dying when I left four days ago."
"Redford? Now where is that?"
"Abbot," said Altonide, "It's near the edge of the Great Wood, a bit over a day's walk north of the Lady's Path. It is fairly isolated."
"Yes, Abbot, please help!"
Hazduhr was quiet for a moment, considering his answer. "Things are difficult now, I am afraid. In my youth, I would have not hesitated to send out a group of healers to help you, but that is impossible now. I am losing control of the church, and some are being overzealous in their quest to root out the Death Speakers, those who are losing their faith in Serra. It is true that she has been absent for these long years, but she will return in time to choose my replacement." He coughed softly. "Serra does not want us caught up in petty squabbles. But I am old, and some call me feeble."
"Abbot," broke in the paladin. "I fear that this may be a return of the horrors of the Baron Sengir, even though some say that he perished decades ago. Let me take some of the paladins there to help... and investigate. Even if the Samite Alchemists won't help us, we do know something of the healing arts."
Hazduhr sighed, and said, "Go, Altonide. Take only a few, and help this village, and return with what you can find. But tell no one of your destination or purpose. We do not need the return of the Baron to make our situation worse."
"We will leave in the morning. Thank you, Abbot." He ushered the blacksmith and minotaur out, who offered their thanks as well.
"That's all the help he can give us?" asked Milekki indignantly.
"That's what we can spare. The rift between us and the Samites is growing, and I do not know how to erase it. They would not help, if we asked, or so I think."
"But we must ask, then!"
"No, Milekki. It probably would not help, but it would hurt. We paladins know of healing."
"But can you help against a plague?" rumbled the minotaur.
"We can only try. A duty to our people. We were chosen by Serra to be their protectors. Come, we will start the return journey in the morning. I will gather our companions. Sleep well, for our journey will be swift."
Milekki did not sleep soundly that night, worrying about Jannis and the rest of the village. The vampire baron flew through his dreams, causing the land beneath him to wither and shrivel. He was awoken at daybreak, unrefreshed.
"I'm sorry, I don't think that we have a horse that can carry you," said Altonide to the minotaur.
"I can keep up with them, at least on the paths that we will be following," replied Telexidar.
"That may be so. Once we leave the trade road, there are no good roads up to Redford. Let us move." The paladin mounted his white charger, and directed his two fellow paladins to follow him. Or so Milekki assumed. They did not wear armor, but neither did Altonide. This was to keep their mission quiet. A trio of paladins would gather too much attention. Milekki hoped that they would be able to help, from atop the docile horse he had been lent.
Milekki had little memory of the next three days, other than them being filled with horses moving at their top sustainable speed. They moved until the darkness forced them to stop, and then started again in the morning as soon as it was light. Early the second morning they turned north onto the path that Milekki had followed from Redford, and the going was much slower from then on. Mid-afternoon of the third day found the four humans and minotaur entering Redford. At least what was left of it.
Redford seemed pretty much the same as the morning that Milekki left, except for the total lack of activity. The paladins went through the houses and shops, trying to find signs of life, but there were none. They only found dead bodies. All except in the room behind the blacksmithy.
Sir Altonide approached the uncomprehending Milekki, and slowly asked, "You are the blacksmith here? Your wife is named Jannis?"
The blacksmith slowly looked over the weary paladin, just as shocked over the plague's results as he was. "Yes. She's...?"
"She is barely alive, and asking for you. She's... the only one we've found alive so far."
Milekki ran back to his home, followed by the minotaur, although he was only marginally aware of it. "Jannis! Jannis!"
She coughed. "I'm... still here, Milekki. You have brought help. I knew that you would."
He grasped her hand, and she weakly returned the grip. "I'm here, and everything will be all right."
"No, I'm almost gone. Carry on, Milekki. I can see Danni and Elwin... I love you, Milekki..." Jannis' face went rigid, and her grip slowly failed. Milekki closed her eyes with his fingertips, and broke down sobbing. Although he didn't notice it, the minotaur also wiped tears away from his great bovine eyes.
Outside, Sir Altonide swivelled around, surveying the quiet village. He flung his arms wide and shouted, "Sengir! I know that you are behind this! You will be destroyed! I, Sir Altonide of Serra, promise it!"
Hanging from a nearby tree, a Sengir Bat chittered happily and, its job complete, flew off. It had good news, the Baron's experiment was a success.
"Serra", "Aysen", "Aysen Abbey", "An-havva", "Joven", "Joven's Tools" "Anaba", "Autumn Willow", "Feroz", "Serra Paladin", "Serra Aviary", "Hazduhr", "Death Speakers", "Baron Sengir", "Samite Alchemists" and "Sengir Bats" are property of Wizards of the Coast. This story should not be considered as a challenge to any trademark or copyright of WOTC. The rest of "The Shadow Lengthens" is Copyright 1995 by Timothy Bailey. All rights reserved. This story may not be distributed for profit, with the exception of the normal charges for online time.