Chapter Eight: "Any Other Brilliant Suggestions"
"Can I make my suggestion now?"
I turned my head and gave Aryn the most hostile glare I could muster, but he'd been getting them for most of the previous night and had developed the appropriate mental armour to resist my anger (roughly equivalent to dragon scales at that point). He stared back at me, unflustered, and I gave up.
"Fine!" I snapped.
"Well, the thought occurs that even if our first escape failed, we can still try again."
I blinked, genuinely surprised. "That's it?"
Aryn nodded, and I felt the anger rising again.
"Great. The great mage-sceptic thinks we should try again! Any other brilliant suggestions, anyone?"
There were no responses from my companions. We were all tied up quite securely, our backs to a pair of hefty trees. There was no way we were just walking out of this one; the four bandits who watched us with care made sure of that.
"Berek," said Tharan, suddenly. We all stared at him.
"He cannot save us if he does not know we are here," Erek commented, truthfully enough. Tharan simply smiled… and that was when it happened: there was a sudden yell from across the bandit camp. We all started stretching and rubber-necking, trying to see what the commotion was about. Our guards spared us a glance, to be sure we were still tied up, before grabbing their swords and running off into one of our many blind spots. I couldn't see what was happening, could only hear metal clanging and voices yelling and a great battle-roar echoing through the trees…
… a very familiar battle-roar. A huge grin spread across my face.
"It's Berek and Imat!" I exclaimed. Tharan nodded.
"Berek," he repeated, and suddenly I saw what he had realised. If we had walked into the bandits, then Berek, being the big lummox that he is, would certainly have done the same.
"Let's get out of here," I announced cheerily.
"How…" Daria began. Tharan cut her off by flexing his huge muscles; there was a straining, creaking noise. He growled, relaxed, and flexed again. Tendons stood out on his huge arms; blood rushed to his contorted face, turning it red. Then, with a sudden roar of triumph, his bonds snapped. We cheered quietly as he hurriedly undid our ropes, and then with numerous furtive glances over our shoulders at the battle behind we grabbed our things and ran full-pelt into the forest beyond.
Two hours later, we were lost.
Now, there are varying degrees of lost. The lowest and least serious level is "Now, was it the left or the right?" The degrees continue on up through "It's around here somewhere" and "I definitely took a wrong turning" until they reach "Am I even on the right planet here?"
"Am I on the right planet" would have been a real improvement then. See, not only were we lost, we were all responding to our situation in our own unique ways. Aryn was picking flowers and herbs and shoving them into his depleted supply, holding us up every few seconds with an impatient shout. Daria was whimpering and cowering, terrified of the way the trees were looming overhead; her fear of confined spaces was very real and very irritating.
Erek, surprisingly, wasn't tripping over a thing. Instead, trees dropped branches on him, squirrels used him as a springboard, and once a wild boar appeared to chase him through the undergrowth for a while. Breathless and bruised, he trailed after the rest of us despite our slow pace. We'd taken to ignoring the interludes. They were just part of having him around. I fumed, both at the delays and at being lost, and Tharan… well, he was the only one who actually behaved sensibly, I suppose, chivvying us all along and keeping us calm as we made our way through tangled brush. He comforted Daria, soothed me, pulled Erek down from trees and hauled Aryn away from herbs… all without speaking more than one or two words. But all the control and guidance in the world couldn't change the fact that we were utterly, spectacularly, irrevocably lost.
"If this had happened with Berek, we'd have found a secret temple," I sulked. Aryn snorted contempt; Erek and Daria were too wound up in their own problems to even hear me. I decided to carry on talking.
"Secret temple," I continued. "With treasure. Lots and lots of treasure. And scantily-clad guards with long, poison-tipped spears. Yeah."
"You wish for guards with poison-tipped spears?" Erek protested, stumbling up beside me, rubbing a shallow cut along his cheek. Gods only know where he got it from… probably a killer dormouse or a dire duck.
"Unlikely, with you around," I sulked, earning me a glare from the former slave. I ignored it and continued to whine. "We're lost. Lost, lost, lost. And since mage-boy doesn't believe in his own power, he can't help us get out of here…"
"Oh, yes I can!" Aryn snapped, shoving a hand into one of his pouches and rummaging around. "It's in here somewhere…"
We all stopped to watch him curiously, even Daria, who didn't seem too bad right then. Probably the fact that we were under some quite tall trees with plenty of nice airy space between them. To our collective surprise, Aryn pulled out a small metal disc with a pin through it. On the pin sat a needle, free to swing, and over the whole thing was a small glass cover.
"What is that?" Erek asked, voicing what we were all thinking.
"I call it a direction-finder," Aryn explained absently. "The needle always points north… which way do we need to go?"
"North-west," I reply, my annoyance fading rapidly into curiosity. "So how does that thing work, then?"
Aryn smiled. "It's made from a special mineral that is attracted to itself by an unseen force. I was experimenting with small bars of it some time ago and I discovered that, if allowed to swing freely, one end will always point north."
"I know that stuff!" Daria exclaimed. "That's drawstone. Thieves use it to pick up keys from a distance. It attracts iron as well as itself, which is pretty strong magic."
"It is not magic!" Aryn snapped, his attention distracted from the direction-finder.
"He is right, you would never produce magic that could attract iron," Erek agreed, nodding sagely. Aryn turned an interesting shade of purplish-red, and I hastily decided to referee. Again.
"Look, you know Aryn doesn't believe in magic," I pointed out. "So why don't we let him tell us how it works?" I turned and nodded to the mage, who smiled a little worriedly as all eyes turned to him.
"Well…" he began uncertainly, before breaking off. There was a pause, and then he spoke in a rush. "I've got these theories, but nobody ever listens, and I'm not sure you'll be interested…"
"I am always interested in hearing something new," Erek broke in, his dark eyes sparkling. Damn, but he's hot. And thinks I'm a boy, I reminded myself. And is interested in Daria… for a brief moment, I was tempted to murder the thief. Nobody notices a dead thief, right?
"Yeah, you can't make us curious and say nothin'," Daria insisted.
"Talk," Tharan agreed. Aryn turned to me; I gave a single nod, and his usually darkened face broke into a radiant smile.
"As you know, I don't think magic is a logical possibility," he began. "But if you discount magic, you're left with a large number of unexplained events and phenomena that are, undoubtedly, real."
"Like the drawstone?" Daria chimed in. Aryn nodded.
"Yes, like the drawstone. So I've concocted a theory of forces."
"Like armies?" Erek asked quickly. Aryn shrugged.
"In a manner of speaking," he said thoughtfully. "But these are like an entire army of very little things which push and pull. So we're held to the ground by a pulling force, and the drawstones have a pulling force at one end and a pushing force at the other."
"So why don't they pull everything?" Daria demanded. Aryn's face fell, and he shook his head.
"I don't know," he admitted.
"Hey, cheer up," said a voice, and I was astonished to find that it was mine. I walked over and put an arm around the dejected mage's shoulders, having to reach up a little to do so. "It's a better explanation than magic, really. I mean, how does magic do things, really? At least you're trying to think how your forces work."
"You should be pleased you've worked that much out," Erek grinned. "It's more than I could do."
Aryn's smile returned shyly. "My thanks," he said, bowing a little.
"For what?" I wondered.
"For not laughing at me," Aryn sighed. "That's what those so-called mages did."
"Yeah, well, what do they know?" I joked.
"I am sure you will prove worthier than those who mocked you," Erek agreed."I still think magic makes a better explanation," Daria muttered, but we didn't pay attention. Aryn's direction-finder was pointing unswervingly northwards, and with it as our guide we struck out to the north-west in far better spirits than before.