Riding Wyntaf was a unique experience. I’m not quite sure how well Aylwyn thought it through, to be honest. In a car, the ride will essentially be as smooth as the road is, no matter how fast you go. But a horse has legs, not wheels, and that means the faster you go, the bumpier the ride gets. It’s not a passive activity where you just sit there in the saddle like it’s a driver’s seat and let your vehicle carry you; you have to move with the horse’s gait or it’ll do all sorts of very uncomfortable things to your legs.
Anyway, the upshot is, it didn’t take me and my aching thighs too long to conclude that riding Aylwyn’s horse to her full potential would require Aylwyn’s physical strength and endurance! By midday we’d made an impressive 20 miles, but I was worn out! Since coming here, I’ve been firmly convinced that this is the reason they invented carriages: all the speed of traveling by horse, but without the saddle sores.
Wyntaf, on the other hand, was acting like she could keep this up forever. I knew she did have limits to her endurance, like any living being, but I wasn’t likely to reach them before hitting my own.
I set a much gentler pace for the rest of the trip. I still made very good time the first day because, even though I wasn’t going much faster than I’d normally travel on horseback, Wyntaf could sustain that pace for hours on end.
The downside, of course, was that she had to eat and drink a lot to sustain the metabolism required for that kind of activity. I paid the stablehands extra when I got an inn room the first night, telling them to feed her generously. They looked worried by that request–anyone with experience with horses can tell you that overfeeding (or any number of other problems) can give the horse a potentially fatal case of colic–but I just pointed out that she was larger than the average horse, and had been ridden hard, and said to care for her accordingly.
Sigh. Aylwyn never had that kind of problem. When she told the grooms to give her horse extra to eat, they figured she knew what she was talking about, without a bunch of extra persuading and convincing!
I was expecting more of the same the second day, and at first, that’s what I got. Just riding along the road. But late in the morning, the road headed into the forest where Amber String Camp was located, and that’s when things got weird. Maybe 20 minutes in, Wyntaf started acting spooky, hesitating and dancing around a little, which was odd because I’d never seen her spook. She was a trained warhorse, afterall.
That got me a bit nervous. The trees weren’t too dense here, but several were large enough to hide behind; a good spot for an ambush. I couldn’t see or hear any evidence of anything wrong, but I remembered what Aylwyn had said: I could probably take Wyntaf anywhere she didn’t not want to go. And it was becoming clear as we went on that she had some sort of problem with being here.
I leaned forward and stroked her neck soothingly. “Wyntaf,” I said as gently as I could, “I need to get through here. Is something wrong?” I wasn’t sure how much she understood, but it was worth a shot. She kept walking forward, but she was still acting nervous, her movements slow and hesitant, her head tossing every few steps.
“All right,” I muttered, “you got a better idea?” I loosened my grip on the reins and gave Wyntaf her head. “Just get me to the other side.” I really hoped it would work!
So of course the first thing she did was go off the path and head deeper into the forest. That kinda surprised me; I figured whatever the problem was would be deeper in.
In a way, I was right.
I’m really not sure why she headed the way she did, but it wasn’t long before the trees got dense enough, and the low branches thick enough, that I had to dismount and walk instead of riding. And after maybe ten minutes of walking, I heard running water. Wyntaf moved towards it, and we soon came to a stream. She lowered her head for a drink.
“That was it?” I asked, a bit disappointed. “You brought us way out of the way like this because you were thirsty?”
There had to be more to it than that. I don’t care how good her senses are; this stream was too far off from where we left the path for her to have known it was there.
I heard a splash nearby, and turned to look–and then stared. Not twenty yards upstream, there was a woman bathing herself. Wait, no. Unless it was the new fashion in the kingdom for women to somehow dye their hair a bright chlorophyll green, there was almost certainly a dryad bathing herself in the stream.
She had to have known we were there; horses have never been known as particularly stealthy creatures, and when they stick their mouth down into the water and go slurp slurp slurp it’s about as noisy as you would expect. But she gave no indication that she was aware she had company. Her back was to us as she raised some water in cupped hands and poured it slowly over her skin, which was approximately the same medium-dark brown as the bark of the trees around us.
Well, I wouldn’t want to be impolite, so I called out. “Hello!”
She turned slowly, smiling at me and starting to walk downstream towards me. “Hello, traveler,” she said in a soft, sweet tone. “You seek company?”
Might be fun, but there were just too many ways that could go wrong. “Not particularly,” I said, as nonchalant as I could, considering the circumstances. “Mostly just seeking a way out of the forest. We seem to have wandered off the road a little.”
The nymph looked at me curiously as she approached. As she got closer, I could see that her skin wasn’t as dark as I had thought, not exactly; it was a fair bit lighter, but there was a swirly pattern of fine, darker lines running all over her body, highly reminiscent of wood grain. It was almost hypnotic to look at… or maybe that was just part of the whole “there’s a beautiful, naked, dripping-wet woman walking towards me” thing.
“Road?” she asked, looking uncertain. “I think you have wandered far indeed.”
Well. That’s not the least bit ominous! “What do you mean? It’s just back that way a bit,” I said, pointing. “Isn’t it?”
She stepped closer. “There are no human paths or trails within this forest.” OK, now she was getting a bit too close, and giving me a hungry look. Luckily, I had a good way of dealing with nymphs. I slipped the ring off my finger and into my pocket. When she stepped closer, I reached out my hand and touched her arm, and I felt the Twist pressing against her inherently magical nature. Apparently her supernatural allure, and her desire to make use of any male who wandered by to help fertilize her domain, were tied up in the magic, and neutralizing it made her a lot safer to be around.
She felt it too. She gasped softly and her eyes widened. “Warper! How have you come to Íludar unbidden?”
“Íludar? What are you talking about? That’s thousands of miles away, on a different continent. This is the Khorun forest, in Cleron.”
She gaped at me. “You came from Khorun? You cannot have passed the Sameness; you are not a being of magic.”
OK, what’s a Sameness? Apparently something that connects two distant forests? “No idea,” I said frankly. “My mount must have carried me.”
She looked at Wyntaf, then looked at Wyntaf, looking even more amazed. Poor girl was apparently having quite a rough day! “How does the Warper come to ride an etaria?” she asked in disbelief. I’d heard the term Warper before; that’s what the nymphs call me, apparently.
“A friend of mine lent her to me so I could get around quickly.”
“They call you nymph-friend, Warper, but I should not speak to you. You should not be here. One condemned of the Fates brings sorrow wherever they may travel.”
I blinked. “Excuse me? Who’s condemned of what now?”
“The Fates,” she repeated.
“Wait. What Fates? As in the Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos?”
“You speak of distant myths, Warper. How come you to know such ancient names?”
Oh yeah. Time flows differently here than it does back home. To me, those myths were about 3000 years old, but to this world it might well have been 20,000 years or more. “Just something I heard once,” I replied.
“Once, when the world was young, perhaps there were three. Today, there are dozens, and their wrath is upon you, for you have stolen from them.”
“Now wait just one moment,” I said. “I’ve stolen things from a lot of people, but unless one of the Fates lives in Cleron, someone’s suffering from a case of mistaken identity.”
She shook her head. “You have stolen a forbidden thing, which was taken from the Treasury of Fate in times past.”
OK, now that I had heard of. The Treasury of Fate was said to be a remarkable place, a wide-open palace in the northwesterly parts of the kingdom, filled with riches and wonders of all kinds. It had no locks, no traps, no wards and no guards, for none were needed; it was protected by reputation and that was enough: the treasure within was consecrated to the spirits of luck. To bring a gift and lay it within was counted as an offering, and frequently rewarded in some way with good fortune. But to steal, to take anything from the Treasury, would bring upon the unfortunate thief a lifetime of ill fate unless and until he returned what had been taken.
I’d never been there, but I knew about where it was. And apparently it wasn’t simply the Treasury of Fate, but the Treasury of The Fates, and apparently I’d taken something that had been stolen at some point, and the curse transferred to me? I needed more information. “I’ve stolen a lot of things,” I repeated. “But I’ve never been to the Treasury of Fate. How can I be under such a curse?”
“You took that which had been stolen,” she said again. “After its owner had succumbed to the curse.”
That was… oddly specific. “How do you even know this?” I asked.
She gave me a “don’t be stupid” look. “You stand in Íludar, with your feet wet from the waters of siloneroa. How can I not know this?”
Well that’s amazingly informative! “All right, what else do you know from these… waters? It could be argued that anyone I’ve stolen something from was cursed with bad luck; afterall, they had me show up and steal something important and valuable from them.”
The dryad shook her head. “Not cursed,” she said. “Succumbed.“
A chill went up my spine. “You mean dead.”
She nodded a little. “In the end, the curse leads to a bad ending.”
Oh, lovely. So not only has all this bad luck I’ve been having lately been not just simple bad luck but an actual curse, but it’s a death-curse. I have a freaking death-curse hanging over my head now.
There was one upside, though. “I’ve only ever stolen something from one ‘victim’ who was already dead at the time,” I mused. “A dragon, who had died of disease.”
The nymph seemed to consider this for a few moments. “Truly a terrible death, and such a thing as happens not even once in a century.”
OK, I got the point. “And when I stole it, the curse became mine. If someone else steals it, does the curse get passed on to them, then?” She nodded. “Well, that’s good,” I said. “I think I know what it is.”
She gave me a severe look. “Do not think that you can simply leave it to be stolen purposefully. The Fates will not be mocked; that would be accounted as a gift, and you and the thief would then share the curse. To be free, you must return the forbidden thing to the treasury yourself.”
Well, crap. I did not have time for this. Assuming I could get back to Khorun, Amber String Camp wasn’t too far, and I could retrieve the lute–which I had gotten from the dragon’s lair–from there. But the Treasury of Fate way way out of my way, and Aylwyn expected me back in Barley in two weeks!
Not to mention that actually taking it away wouldn’t bring me any popularity among the Bards, especially at Amber String. But if giving it as a gift would spread the curse around, what about giving it into their keeping while technically retaining ownership myself? I didn’t know much about the ways of the Fae, but somehow I didn’t think a little technicality like that would matter too much. The whole camp could be under a curse now. What we’d all thought was a priceless historical relic could in fact be a ticking time bomb!
I had to get back. “How can I return to Khorun Woods?” I asked her. “This Sameness, does it go both ways?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Then I can return? That’s the only way I can get the cursed treasure back to the treasury.”
She nodded, then reached out a hand, stroking Wyntaf’s muzzle lightly. She murmured something indistinct and musical-sounding, and the mare whinnied softly.
I was a bit surprised at that; this was the first time since I came to this world that I’ve heard anything that registers as “person speaking foreign language.” There’s some magic in effect that seems to translate things for me, but this… didn’t get translated. “What language is that?” I asked her.
“Celestial,” she said. “I know very little of it, but enough, I think, that the etaria will lead you home.” She gave me a wistful look. “It is a shame that you are cursed, Warper; I would have enjoyed sporting with you.”
Woah. Not what I need to hear right now! It’s not particularly easy carrying on a conversation with a beautiful naked girl and remaining calm and levelheaded, and then she goes and says something like that… “Thank you,” I said calmly, “but… I’m not sure I would wish to.”
She gave me an incredulous look. “You do not find me desirable?”
“It’s not that,” I said hastily. “It’s just… you know. It could be bad for my health.”
Wow. That must have been the wrong thing to say! A dark scowl came over her features. “Fool!” she spat. “You believe the ugly rumors the humans spread about? This thing they say, it happened twice in your kingdom, both times with men who had weak hearts! And now humans say ‘every nymph is to be feared, they sport with men until they die of it,’ and our numbers dwindle every year as you leave us to starve! And you are as bad as any of them!” Her eyes flashed angrily. “Begone from here!”
Umm… OK. Not what I was going for, but I guess I had best be leaving. “I’m sorry,” I said, as contritely as I could. “I meant no disrespect. I’ll go now.”
She just sort of hmphed at me, and I turned Wyntaf around and headed back the way we’d come.
Wyntaf seemed to know the way, and it wasn’t long before I could mount up again. And within about half an hour, we were coming back in sight of the road.
So my life just got more complicated, again. I was supposed to be heading to Keliar, but now I had a detour to make to Amber String Camp. And then, at some point somewhere along the line, a much bigger one, to the Treasury of Fate.
Oh, and I wondered whether the King knew that he had some sort of mystical gateway to the Fae realm open in a forest not a week’s travel from the capital, which Faen beings could pass but humans could not. And I wondered if Gerald and the Circle knew, for that matter. If they didn’t, it could have all sorts of implications. I made a note to discuss it with the Archmagus the next time I saw him.