THE APPRENTICE-BOOK1-THE CALLING – CHAPTERS 21 – 22 & 23

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Shane awoke early the next morning with his blanket pulled up over his head again, and he knew the black stallion was back. He had been running all night and was still sleeping but the mules were wide awake. The morning was foggy but it was not nearly as cold as it had been the day before on the summit now behind them.

Shane rebuilt his fire from the cinders of the old one and heated up some porridge for breakfast. After he had eaten, Shane gathered some firewood to refill his supply then he saddled the sisters and loaded them up. Shane decided to let Darkstar sleep a little longer but he was prepared to ride out when the war horse awoke.

Just as Shane finished loading Vanna’s pack, Star woke up and he was ready to be going as soon as he opened his eyes. They had been headed on an angle towards the eastern side of the summit the day before but now Dark Star took them on a more gradual climb towards the western slopes of the mountain. 

He wanted to ask why the sudden change of direction, but Shane knew he would not get an answer anyway. Instead he asked Dark Star questions that he might actually get answers to. He hoped.

“Are we going back to the road or not, Star?” Was the first question and the black stallion answered it right away with a shake of his head. “Why? Is there trouble that I should know about?” Dark Star again shook his head. “Does it have anything to do with whoever owns these two mules?”

The stallion wanted to keep the matter from his new master but on the other hand, he was not going to lie to him. He nodded his head.

“If that’s true then should take them back to whoever owns them,” Shane told the stallion but on that point, the old warhorse would not give an inch.

He looked back at Shane with one big baleful eye and shook his head emphatically. As in, “No way!” and then Dark Star continued on his westward course resolutely. All of Shane’s questions and arguments fell on deaf ears from there on out until he finally gave up trying altogether and rode in silence.

The route the black stallion chose would not take them over the summit but around the western shoulder and down the northwestern face. Since the western slope was much lower than the summit they were over it before nightfall and they camped for the night in a grassy dale just above the timberline.

The next morning when Shane pulled his blanket down from over his head yet again, he was greeted by the gray dawn and a cold sky filled with boiling black clouds that were heavy with rain.

“I believe we are going to get some wet weather. I had best get out my rain gear and cover up our firewood or it’ll be a cold wet camp for us tonight, Star,” He added as he rolled out of bed and set immediately to work.

From his pack, he took out his rain slicker, an oil-treated sheepskin that slipped on over his head like a poncho. Then he unrolled his tent, and after transferring all of the firewood that he had left onto Vanna’s pack he used the tent to cover it so that it would be protected from the rain. To conserve their supply of firewood Shane ate a cold breakfast of hard biscuits, cured beef, and some wild berries he found growing there in the little glen.

The horses were packed and ready to go by the time the first rays of the hidden sun would have found them had it not been for the heavy cloud cover that kept it hidden from their sight. By noon they were down on the floor of the valley between the two towering mountains. Shane had a feeling he might be glad that he did so and he called a halt there to gather more firewood. He used his rain slicker to cover up the second load since he figured that if he got wet a nice hot fire would dry him out again but if the firewood got wet then it would stay that way and so would he.

They crossed a wide river on the far side of the valley but it was shallow and slow running. Vanna stumbled once on a slippery rock but she was able to catch herself. Thankfully, Shane saw that he was not injured, and she did not go down which could have had a tragic outcome. They all made the crossing safely.

The valley was heavily forested but not as densely as Mayrewood had been. It rolled in green waves to the east and west at the feet of the mountains. Dark Star kept to a northwesterly route that, near as Shane could tell, would take them all the way around the mountain that now lay directly in their path.

“Are we going around this mountain Star?” he asked the black stallion who answered him with a nod. “But would it not be easier to go up that way through that gap on the other side?” Shane had asked pointing out the nearby gap where the road ran through. Dark Star shook his head no.

“But it will take us days to go around this way Star!” Shane cried “We could be on the other side before nightfall if we go  up through the gap.” The stallion only shook his head insistently, NO!  And he turned two deaf ears to any further arguments.

Dark Star knew that the two armed men would have a great advantage over them in the narrow confines of Gallows Gap. He was not about to hand them that advantage by carrying the boy right into their clutches. He would force them to either come out in the open and play the game by his rules, or they would have to quit and go home. Nothing less.

Nightfall caught them in the valley, but they were high up in the northern reaches, close to the foothills. Shane unpacked the mules and relieved them of their burdens. For firewood, he used only what he could find nearby and saved what he had collected for when the gathering clouds overhead finally burst forth with rain. From the looks of them, it would be very soon.

Shane piled all of the firewood together beneath the sheltering branches of a large old sycamore tree in such a way that his rain slicker would cover it all and allow him to set up his tent. He spread a blanket over the saddles after he put hem under the tree while his backpack and saddlebags went under the tent with him.

He kept the fire burning hot because he expected it to start raining at any time and he hoped that he would be able to keep it burning if the fire was hot enough. But when the rains came just after he had finished eating dinner, that notion was quickly dispelled.

It began with some light sprinkles. Just a few tiny drops here and there. Then it started picking up as the  wind came blowing down on them form
out of the east , driving the rain straight down the throat of the narrow valley at them. Within minutes the sprinkles turned into torrents of driving rain that quickly drowned Shane’s fire and sent both man and beast running for cover. The horses huddled in the lee of the big sycamore tree and Shane dived into his tent.

The rain fell heavily all throughout the night while gusting winds threatened to blow Shane and his gear down the long rolling valley, tent and all. When the dawn came at long last, it came on the heels of a terrible thunderstorm that raged overhead for the better part of four long hours. The feeble light that managed to pierce the black cloud cover was barely enough to see the horses by. To Shane, they looked soaked and thoroughly miserable and his heart went out to them, but there was absolutely nothing he could do for them. They would not be traveling at all that day, he decided, unless the rains let up soon. They did not let up at all.

Brill and Crandle, in case you’re wondering, spent that miserable rainy day huddled together under an overhanging rock in Gallows Gap. They had no fire, and barely had any shelter from the cold east winds. Needless to say, they spent a miserable night while they kept watch over the roadway waiting for Shane and the black stallion to come along. The following day was no more cheerful.

On the second night, the storm blew itself out but not before it lashed Shane’s little oil skin tent furiously with driven rain and tossed lightning bolts all around the long valley. When Shane awoke, without a blanket over his head for a change, he could no longer hear raindrops pelting his tent. Instead, all he could hear were birds singing in the dripping wet tree branches.

Shane poked his head out through the tent flaps and was greeted nose to nose by Dark Star. Behind him, both mules voiced a kind of salute to the morning and were visibly glad to see him, ”Good morning Star! And good morning to you too, ladies.” Shane said as he crawled out of the tent to inspect any damage the storm might have done. Happily, there was not much to speak of.

Some of the firewood had gotten wet where the rain slicker had blown open and let the rain come in, but most of it was dry enough that he had a small fire going to cook breakfast on in no time. The saddles had gotten wet, and the packs which Shane had piled up underneath them were a little damp but otherwise, everything was fine. He put on water for porridge and tea and while it heated up he brushed out the horses and rubbed them down to help them dry before putting their saddles back on them.

 Shane and the horses started the long climb up the next mountain at about 3 o’clock that same afternoon and he decided to stop for the night in a draw that had everything that they needed for camping. Graze, water, and firewood that he could gather in case they had to spend another night above the timberline. Which it appeared that they probably would, for the mountain that they were climbing now was over 1,000 feet higher than the previous one.

It would take them longer to climb and it was going to be much colder up there too. Shane just hoped that they would return to the King’s Highway soon. But the black stallion went whichever direction he chose to go and no other way. Shane was resigned to the fact that he was pretty much along for the ride whether he liked it or not.

After Shane had curried all three horses,  he ate a hot dinner, curled up in his blankets, and in five minutes he was sound asleep and snoring to beat the band. Dark Star told them to stand guard then he excused himself from Ginny and Vanna’s company and ran off into the night headed east towards the highway.

Running free of all encumbrances now, the stallion’s easy ground eating pace and long-legged stride allowed him to catch up to Brill and Crandle by 9 o’clock.  The waxing moon was half full and sitting high up in the sky by then. The tall pine trees that lined the sides of the road threw dark shadows across the King’s Highway and that allowed the coal-black horse to follow very closely behind them. He was able to listen to their conversation to see what he could learn about what they planned to do.

He had been following them for quite some time but all they ever did was argue about whether they were going to stop soon to rest or not. Dark Star was just about ready to go back to camp when he heard Crandle ask Brill “Are you sue this trap is going to work, Brill?”

“Of course I’m sure chowder head.” Brill growled, “Why wouldn’t I be?” Crandle thought about that for a minute or two before he said,

“It’s just that I’ve been wondering. What if the boy goes around the Gallows Gap instead of going through it?”

“He won’t do that.” Brill assured him.

“Well, why not? I mean he must already know that somebody is after him right? Or why else would he climb out the back of Spirit Horse Canyon like he did?” Crandle wondered.

“I don’t know why but I guess you might have a point there. Still, nobody in his right mind is going to try to go around the Gallows Gap when it’s much easier just to go through it. Then when he does we get him and take what we have coming to us. Trust me Crandle we will get what we have coming to us even if it’s the last thing we ever do.” Brill vowed.

So they were going to try and ambush them inside Gallows Gap, were they? Well, he would just see about that.

”Stop!” Crandle said suddenly and put his arm out to stop Brill in his tracks. “Listen! Did you hear that, Brill?”

“Hear what, the grass growing? I don’t hear anything at all !” Brill said after he had been listening for a moment.

“You didn’t hear it then?”

“No!” Brill snapped “Hear what?”

“I could have sworn that I just heard a horse behind us.” Crandle explained.

“A horse?! Brill cried “Have you finally lost your tiny little mind completely Crandle?”

“ No, Brill I swear it! I heard what sounded like footsteps of a horse like it was following us or something!” Crandle insisted.

“Well do you see any horses following us now? Because if you do I sure wish you would point it out to me so that I can see it too.” Brill sneered.

“Maybe it was that black stallion that took off with the mules. We wouldn’t be able to see him in the dark.” Crandle offered but Brill wasn’t buying none of it.

“What?!” he yelled as his patience reached its limits. “Are you daft man? Why would that horse come all this way just to follow us down this road you buffoon?!” he roared.

“I don’t know. But….” Crandle began to say only to get cut short again by Brill.

“Shut up and come on before I tear off your leg and beat you even more senseless than you already are with it!” he screamed as he turned and stalked off down the road without waiting for his partner in crime.

As Crandle stood there staring into the inky darkness of the moon shadows a large black shape detached itself from a pool of deeper ebony and reared up on its hind legs not more than 15 feet away from him. Then Dark Star wheeled and cantered off casually back to the south. “Brill! Brill! “ Crandle hollered “Brill! The stallion!”

Brill who was well ahead of him by then yelled back, “I said I don’t want to hear about no horse so shut up!”

“But Brill… I…”

“Shut up Crandle!” Brill warned, “Or I swear I’ll feed your carcass to the buzzards myself!”

“ But he was just here,” Crandle said in a tiny voice as he watched the black stallion disappear into the darkness but nobody was listening to him. “Wait for me!” he cried as he turned and ran after Brill who was also out of sight. Seeing the black stallion again had spooked him badly. He didn’t care what Brill said that horse was definitely up to something no good. And he didn’t like it. No, not at all.

When Shane awoke early the next morning, with his blanket over his head, the black stallion was already back and he was still sleeping but the two mules were awake. It was foggy again but not nearly as cold as it had been the day before atop the summit now behind them. He rebuilt his fire so that he could heat up some porridge for his breakfast and after he had eaten, Shane gathered up a goodly supply of firewood and saddled up the sisters, but he let Dark Star sleep a while longer.

Just as Shane was finishing tying down Vanna’s pack the stallion woke up and he was ready to go too. They had been traveling on an angle towards the eastern side of the peak the day before but now the Dark Star took them off on a more gradual climb towards the western side of the mountain.  Shane wanted to ask him why the sudden change of direction but he knew he wouldn’t get an answer anyway. Instead, he asked him some questions that he hoped he might actually get some answers to.

“Are we going back to the road now or not Star?” Was his first question and the black stallion answered it right away with a shake of his head, no. “Why? Is there trouble that I should know about?” Shane asked next, but Dark Star again shook his head. No.

“Does it have anything to do with the owner of these mules?” the stallion wanted to keep the matter from his new master but he wasn’t going to lie to him either. So he nodded his head. Yes.

“Well, if that’s the case then we need to take them back to whoever owns them,” Shane told the stallion. But on that point, the old warhorse would not give an inch. He looked back at Shane with one big black eye and shook his head emphatically. NO! As in no way, NO! Dark Star continued stubbornly on his westward course and all Shane’s questions and arguments found only deaf ears until he finally gave up trying altogether and rode on, fuming in silence.

 The route that Dark Star chose would take them not over the summit but around the western shoulder and then down the other side on the northwestern face. Since the western slope was much lower than the summit of the mountain they were over it before sunset and they camped for the night in a small grassy dale just above the timberline.

The next morning when Shane pulled his blanket down from over his head he was greeted by a misty, cold gray dawn. The darkening morning sky was filled with rolling iron-gray and menacing black clouds whose flat anvil-like tops reached miles above their heads even at that great elevation.

“I would say it looks like we are going to get some wet weather.” Shane sighed wearily. “I’d better get out my rain gear and cover up our firewood or it’ll be a cold wet camp for us tonight.” He rolled quickly out of bed and set to work immediately. From his pack, he took out his rain slicker which was an oil-treated sheepskin that he slipped on over his head like a poncho. Next, he unrolled his tent, and after transferring all of the leftover firewood that he had to Vanna, Shane used it to cover the load so that it would be protected from the rain when it came.

To conserve on the wood that he did have, Shane ate a cold breakfast of hard biscuits, cured beef, and some wild berries that he had found growing there in their little valley. He washed it all down with a long drink of cold spring water and he was ready to be going. Hot tea would have to wait until later.

The horses were packed and ready to go by the time the first rays of the hidden sun found them, and they made good time. By noon they were standing on the valley floor between the two mountains. Shane called a halt so that he could gather up some more firewood and stow it on the mules. He used his rain slicker to cover up the second load since he figured that if he got wet a nice hot fire would dry him back out again but if the firewood got wet then it would stay that way and so would he.

They crossed a wide river over on the far side of the valley but it was shallow and not running too swiftly for them to cross safely. Vanna stumbled once on a slippery rock but she was able to catch herself and did not go down much to everyone’s relief. Even in such a shallow, slow-moving current as that, a fall could easily end in disaster for a loaded pack mule.

The valley was forested but not as densely as Mayrewood was. It rolled gently away in green waves to the east and west at the feet of the mountains. Dark Star kept on at a northwesterly route that, from as near as Shane could tell, would take them all the way around the mountain that lay directly in their path.

“Are we going to go around this mountain Star?” he asked the black stallion who answered him with a nod of his head yes. “But would it not be easier to go up that way through that gap there on the other side?” Shane asked as he pointed out the nearby gap where the road ran through.

The black stallion shook his head, no.

“But it will take us days to go around this way Star!” Shane cried “We could be on the other side before nightfall if we go through the gap.” Again though the stallion only shook his head no and turned two deaf ears on all further arguments Shane tried. Dark Star knew the two armed men would have a great advantage over them anyway, but especially so in the narrow confines of Gallows Gap. He was not about to give them an advantage or carry his new rider into their trap. He would force Brill and Crandle to come out in the open and play the game by his rules or they could always give up and go home. Nothing less.

 Nightfall caught them while they were still in the valley but they had gone higher up into the northern reaches. Shane unpacked the sisters and relieved them of their burdens. For firewood, he used what he could find nearby and saved what he had collected before against when the still gathering clouds finally burst. And from the looks of them, Shane could tell that would be very soon. He piled all of the firewood up beneath the sheltering branches of a large old tree in such a way that his rain slicker would cover it and allow him to set up his tent. He spread a blanket over the saddles after he put hem under the Sycamore tree, and his pack and saddlebags went in the tent with him.

 Shane kept his fire burning hot because he expected it to start raining at any time and he hoped that he would be able yo keep it burning if the fire was hot enough. But when the rains came just after he had finished his dinner, that notion was quickly forgotten. It began with just some light sprinkles. Just a few tiny drops here and there. But then it started picking up as the wind came blowing out of the east and driving the rain straight down the valley at them. Within just a few minutes the few sprinkles had turned into torrents of sheet rain that quickly drowned Shane’s bonfire and sent both man and beasts running for cover. The horses huddled over in the lee of the big sycamore tree and Shane dived into his tent.

Rain fell heavy all throughout the long cold night and the high-gusting winds threatened to blow Shane down the long rolling valley, tent and all. When dawn came at long last it came dark and dreary, and directly on the heels of a churning thunderstorm that had been gathering over their heads for the better part of the night. The feeble light that managed to pierce the black cloud cover was barely enough to see the horses by but to Shane they looked soaked, cold, and thoroughly miserable, and his heart instantly went out to them, but there was absolutely nothing he could do to make them more comfortable. He decided they would not be traveling at all that day unless the rains let up soon, but they didn’t let up at all.

Shane spent the long rainy day writing a letter to his mother and father that he planned to drop in the post in the next village they came to. In the letter, he explained a bit more about why he’d had to leave so suddenly and why he wanted to go. He assured then that he was what he was doing. He begged for them to try to understand and forgive him and then he signed it Love Shane. He spent the remainder of the day darning his stockings where his toes had worn through them. That done, he took out his copy of The Apprentices Hand Guide Volume 1, and read it until dinner time.

Just in case you were wondering,  Brill and Crandle spent that cold, damp and miserable day huddled together beneath an overhanging rock outcropping up in Gallows Gap. They had no fire and barely any shelter whatsoever from the cold Northeasterly wind so, needless to say, they had a miserable night together as they kept their vigil on the roadway waiting for Shane and the black stallion to come along. The following day was not all that cheerful for them either.

 That second night the storm blew itself out but not before it lashed Shane’s little oil skin tent furiously with wind-driven rain and tossed lightning bolts all around the long valley that ended the lives of several ancient trees. When Shane awoke, surprisingly without a blanket over his head for a change, he could hear the rain pelting the side of his tent any longer. Instead, all he could hear were the birds singing in the still dripping trees.

Shane poked his head out of the tents entrance flaps and was greeted by Dark Star and the two sisters who whinnied a good morning to him as he appeared.

” Good morning Star! Good morning ladies.” Shane said as he crawled out to inspect the storm damage. If any. Some of his stash of firewood had gotten wet where the rain slicker had blown up but the majority of it was still dry enough so he soon had a small fire going to cook breakfast on.

The saddles had gotten wet but the oil-treated leather was not affected by it. The packs Shane had piled up beneath them were a little damp, otherwise, they were fine. He put on water for porridge and tea and while it heated over the fire, then brushed out the horse’s coats and rubbed them down to help them to dry off before he put on their packs and saddles again.

 As he brushed out the stallions black coat, Shane told him “We are going to have to  make up the time that we lost yesterday Star, because if we don’t then we may very well run afoul of Murdoch on the 13th when the moon is full again and he comes out to hunt.”

An involuntary shudder ran through the black stallion at the mention of that hated name Murdoch for the wicked old serpent had taken his mother one night when he was just barely weaned.. He had swooped down upon the herd and plucked her up in his talons before any of the other horses knew what had happened. Dark Star could still hear her shrill screams of terror as  Murdoch flew off with her in his grasp.

He could not let the old dragon get his master too. On the other hand, he could not allow Brill and Crandle to get him either. In essence, they were trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. But Black Star felt like they were doing the best thing possible by avoiding the present danger and worrying about the future danger when and if it came to that. They would go on around Gallows Gap as planned but Shane was right. They would have to make up at least some of the lost time if they could.

By the time Shane finished breakfast and washed in the little stream just down the hill from the camp, the horse’s coats were dry enough for him to start saddling them and by half-past seven they had broken camp and were headed for the western slope of the mountain at a brisk pace.   

      Brill and Crandle sat on the Gallows Gap meanwhile and waited. Their patience, as well as their food supplies, were running low but Brill was positive that Shane and the black stallion would have to come to them.

“It’s simply a matter of time is all it is.” He told Crandle when he had expressed doubts about his plan.

“I don’t know about that Brill.” Crandle had said, “All I know is that I don’t trust that bloody horse one bit.”

“Which bloody horse? That black stallion you mean?”

“Yes him and no other.” Crandle told him “I am telling you, Brill, that horse is up to no good.”

“What!? What are you talking about, he’s up to no good?” Brill sneered.

“I mean that the boy is not going to come this way because that horse knows our plans. He knows that we’re up here and that we’re waiting for them so he will probably tell the boy to go around the long way or something.” Crandle explained.

Brill nearly choked on the bite of cheese that he was eating when he heard that. “What!?!” he thundered “Have you finally gone completely insane Crandle? How on God’s green earth could that stupid horse possibly know our plans? Did you tell him? Or did a little birdie fly down from the sky and whisper in his bloody ear?! And how, pray tell is a stupid horse going to tell the boy anything it knows anyway when it cannot talk?!”

“Jeez, Brill you don’t have to scream at me. I’m not deaf you know.” Crandle said

“Yes, I do!” Brill assured him at full volume “Because you’re stupid and nothing ever soaks into your thick skull unless I scream at you! It’s just a stupid black horse and that’s all there is to it Crandle!”

“But I think he’s one of those enchanted horses or something like that, Brill. Maybe he belongs to a  great sorcerer. You saw that staff that the boy was carrying didn’t you?” Crandle said trying to get his partner to see the light of reason.

“Yeah I saw it, so what? That boy is no wizard, he’s too young to be one yet.” Brill said relenting just a little bit as far as the volume of his voice was concerned Crandle did have a point. There was no mistaking that the staff the boy had been carrying was in fact that of a sorcerer. But staff or no staff, he had a hard time believing that that stupid black stallion was anything but a stupid black stallion. A dumb animal and nothing more.

“A horses s just a horse and no one can talk to a horse.”

“Of course.” Crandle agreed “Unless of course, it’s a talking horse that has been enchanted.”

“You are just plain stuck on stupid Crandle. Tell me, Were you dropped on your head a lot when you were a baby, or do you come by your stupidity honestly?” Brill snarled, “Get it through your thick head before I pound it in there with a tree branch! That boy is nothing more than a poor sheep herder’s son. You saw his ratty old clothes and I know you smelled the stink of lanolin on him. I don’t know where he got such a fine saddle or that stallion and I don’t care. The boy is just a boy, and that stupid horse is just a stupid horse and that’s all there is to it!” he declared with finality.

 “But he heard us talking about our plans to ambush the boy up here in the gap, Brill and he heard us saying how we were going to rob and kill him!” Crandle insisted, ignoring the thinly veiled threat in Brill’s tone of voice. He was far more scared of that bewitched horse now than he ever was of Brill.

“Are you going to start in on me with all that nonsense again Crandle? I thought I’d already set you straight on that matter.” Brill said with a dangerous gleam in his eye.

“But Brill I’m telling you it’s the truth!” Crandle insisted “That black stallion was following us on the road I saw him with my own two eyes! I swear it on my dear sainted mother’s soul!”

“your mother is not even dead you moron.” Brill laughed derisively, “But if I hear even one more word about enchanted horses come out of your mouth, I swear by your dear sainted mother’s soul that I will put some new creases in your skull along with a generous quantity of lumps and bruises. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yeah Brill, you made yourself perfectly clear alright,” Crandle said giving in to the unveiled threats of violence he knew Brill was capable of should he get mad enough. Even so, Crandle was watching for a chance to get himself away from Brill for good. Maybe he’d go back home to Levenshire and see his dear sainted mother again. The sooner the better.

Shane awoke on the morning of August the 10th In the pre-dawn darkness just before sunrise. He was awakened by Dark Star who nudged him with his muzzle until the snoring young man sat up and let the blanket fall away from his face.

“What, what is it Star? Why did you wake me up so early?” Shane asked.

The black stallion’s answer was an agitated whinny as he pawed impatiently at the ground. “You want to get going early this morning I take it?” Shane guessed and Dark Stars’ answer was to nod his head. Quite so. “All right just give me a minute or two to wake up then I’ll have a quick breakfast and we’ll hit the trail again,” Shane told him groggily as he tried to rub the sleep from his brain and his tired eyes.

After a quick breakfast of cold biscuits and cured bacon, Shane saddled the horses, and while the rosy glow of the sunrise was still hanging in the sky they set out for the western pass on the trail that the black stallion had chosen to take. The going was steep and treacherous and painfully slow as they climbed up into thinner and thinner air. Even Dark Star was showing the strain of the climb by midafternoon so Shane let them stop a number of times throughout the day to rest.

The little party of weary travelers reached the summit an hour before dusk and started down the northwest slope. The descent was much gentler and nowhere near as rocky. They could have gone further down the mountain in the waning light but Shane called a halt in a small meadow that had good grass and water for the horses. Dark Star didn’t seem inclined to argue. The sisters were both dog-tired and they all needed to rest.

There was no timber at that elevation for Shane to gather firewood from but he still had some left from the supply that he had saved from the rain. He burned up most of it that night.

BEGIN CHAPTER 22

Brill and Crandle were camped out where they could watch the road to the south and would be able to see Shane coming from over a mile away. They would be able to get ready for their ambush in plenty of time.

Of course, Shane never showed up because he was twelve miles away on the other side of the mountain. “You see Brill I told you he wasn’t going to come this way,” Crandle told his cranky partner as they watched the sun sink below the horizon together.

“He will come. Mark my words.” Brill growled menacingly.

“ No, he won’t Brill,” Crandle insisted. “I’m telling you, he went around the other way because that black stallion knows we’re waiting for them here and he won’t let him come this way.”

“And I am telling you for the last time that saying one more word about that stupid horse could be very hazardous to your health,” Brill warned. To his credit, Crandle took him at his word. Which was probably for the best.

“I’m hungry” he groaned instead “Don’t we have any food left at all?”

“No! We don’t, okay? Now shut your bloody fly trap!” Brill snapped at him. They passed the rest of the night in complete silence that was broken only by Brill muttering “Bloody, stupid horse!” occasionally, as he snapped some twigs and threw the pieces into the fire and cursed each one of them with a vengeance.

On the opposite side of the mountain, Shane was already curled up beneath his heavy woolen blankets and sleeping like a baby. Much to Dark Star’s chagrin he was snoring loud enough to wake the dead. The two mules were all for piling up bunches of grass on top of him until he stopped, but Dark Star would only let them pull his blankets up over his head. That done, they quietly moved down the mountain, a goodly distance away from him where they could sleep in peace and still keep an eye or two on him while he slept.

The next morning Shane stayed in his blankets a little longer than he normally would have to allow the horses to rest a little while longer after their long hard climb of the day before.

He ate a leisurely breakfast, washed in the cold water of the tiny brook that flowed beside his campsite, and then sat and watched the sun rising over the eastern range as he sipped at a cup of hot tea. He could not help but think about his parents and how they were doing, and what they were doing. He felt the same deep pangs of longing for home in his heart that he got from time to time, but he was far more excited by what lay ahead of him in Darvonshire. The prospect of him serving an apprenticeship with a wizard was pulling him on toward the future more than he was drawn back by the past.

Shane knew, as well as anyone in the civilized world did, that an opportunity such as this was very rare and did not come along twice in anyone’s lifetime. If it ever even came along the first time.

As he sipped his tea Shane could remember many sunny days not all that long ago when he and Tayvian had played at being wizards and turned one another into ogres, dragons, and trolls. Or they would concoct “magic potions,” and dare the other one to drink it on pain of being called a chicken. Or worse.

He chuckled to himself at the memory of one such “Magic potion” that had kept Tayvian busy in the family outhouse for two whole days. “Ah, the good old days,” he sighed with a smile.

Shane was still lost in his thoughts when Dark Star came quietly up behind him and stuck his cold wet nose in his ear giving him the equine version of a Wet Willie. Needless to say, that snapped the boy right out of his nostalgic journey down memory lane and brought him back to reality.

“Hey!” he yelled as he jumped away, spilling the rest of his tea. For a second there he was out of place until he spun around to see who his cold wet assailant was and saw only the black stallion looking at him as if to say, ‘What? What did I do?” as Shane shook his head to clear the clouds away.

“Good grief, Star!” he exclaimed as he wiped his face on his sleeve. “where have you had that nose, in the creek?” he asked. Dark Star answered him with a nod that he in fact had just stuck his nose in the creek first. “That figures,” Shane said.

“So what’s wrong Star? Did you want something or did you just feel the need to stick your cold wet nose in my ear?”

Dark Star tossed his magnificent head, turned his face toward the rising sun, and pawed at the ground impatiently. He was ready to be gone and he didn’t understand why Shane was lingering in camp so late this morning.

“Are you ready to be on our way Star? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” Shane asked as he tried, unsuccessfully, to wipe the tea from his shirt with his hand.

Dark Star’s answer was a nod and an impatient whinny.

“I know but I figured that I would give you and the mules a little extra time to rest after that long climb you had yesterday. The way I figure it Star, no matter how much we hurry now, Morloch can easily fly far enough to find us if he wants to anyway. Right?”

Dark Star nodded his head in agreement. In the mountains, they were definitely at a disadvantage to a dragon who could fly from peak to peak in minutes.

“But the way I figure it, when Morloch comes out on the eve of the full moon he will probably head south and hunt in Mayrewood like he usually does. So if we get past his lair, wherever that might be, before he comes out I don’t think he’ll see us. Especially if we lay low way down in the trees.” Shane explained, and Star was inclined to agree. But what he already knew, what he couldn’t tell Shane, was that while that might not, in fact, be such a good idea it might actually work. The problem with that was that they were still to the south of Thunder Mountain where Morloch was said to have his hidden lair. Unless they got moving, and quickly, they would still be on the south side of that lair when the moon was full. He pawed at the ground again a bit more forcefully than before and with a snort, he tossed his coal-black mane impatiently.

“Okay okay!’ Shane said getting the hint “I can take a hint you know. You don’t have to drop a boulder on me.” Shane said as he rose up and set about the job of breaking camp and saddling the horses. He curried and loaded them quickly and before the hour was gone so were they.

“I don’t think they’re going to come this way, Brill.” Crandle was saying as he gnawed at the bones of a hare that they had snared and spitted over the fire earlier that evening.

“Why don’t you just shut up before it’s too late, Crandle?” Brill warned with a growl that plainly suggested that might be a good idea.

Crandle however was way beyond the point of caring just then so he ignored Brill’s bluster for the first time in a long time. “They are not going to come this way!” he insisted.

“Don’t try to tell me that that stupid horse heard us talking and told on us to the boy again, Crandle, I’m warning you,” Brill growled again.

“I’m telling you anyway, Brill. Whether you want to hear it or not, I saw that black stallion on the road and he was right behind us! I’m not saying that the horse can talk or anything but I’ve heard many tales of enchanted birds and other animals that belong to wizards. They talk to the wizards is what some people say.”

“Really? Well, that may very well be, but as I’ve already pointed out to you a dozen times now, that boy is not a wizard!” By this time the growl had turned into a snarl.

“But that doesn’t mean that the horse isn’t one, or that it’s not enchanted.”

“No, it doesn’t mean that at all Crandle,” Brill said quietly after thinking about it for a moment. “You know what it does mean?” he asked.

“No what does it mean, Brill?” Crandle wondered.

“It means that I am going to thrash you within an inch of your worthless life for not telling me all of this sooner!” Brill roared as he leaped to his feet and dove across the cold fire pit at his surprised partner and tackled him. Both men flew off of the rock on which Crandle was sitting with his back to the pass and the trail leading through it.

“Aargh!” Crandle cried as Brill’s prodigious weight slammed into him and sent his rabbit bones flying one way and him flying the other. Brill weighed in at just over 16 stone, and Crandle weighed in at 18 stone so between the two of them it looked more like two medieval sumo wrestlers struggling over the last Twinkie than any kind of serious fight.

At the moment, however, Brill was mad enough to murder his partner but he couldn’t get any advantage over him as they rolled around in the sparse dry grass on top of the ridge. Then Brill thought he saw his chance to get on top of the grunting Crandle by rolling him over so he threw his weight into it along with his shoulder and threw Crandle and himself right off of the bluff.                                                                                                                                                 

The two men yelled helplessly as gravity stepped in, took over, and everything went south in a heartbeat. Fortunately, although the bluff was steep, it was not so steep that they fell straight down onto the King’s Highway. Even so, the slope was rocky and covered with heavy brush that was all dried out. It crackled and broke beneath their weight like the brittle bones of dry skeletons whose bony fingers jabbed at their exposed flesh mercilessly.

“Ow!” Crandle cried out as the sharp ends of those twigs dug through his clothing to scrape up his tender flesh.

“AHHH!” Brill cried out as his knee found a large rock to smash itself into.

“OUCH!” Crandle hollered as his head found a nice large rock of its own to beat itself up against on its way past.

“Pffftt! Auch Pfft!” Brill choked out as he landed face down in a big puffball and it exploded a load of fine yellow spoors all over his eyes, his nose, and his mouth, blinding and choking him all at the same time.

About halfway down the hillside, they had come to rest on the edge of a small hummock of bare, wet earth.

“Ohhh!” Crandle groaned and Brill was inclined to agree with as he moaned and groaned along in unison. Fortunately for Brill, he had been lucky to land on top of Crandle rather than the other way around. His eyes were still full or the yellow spoors from the puffball so he couldn’t see anything at all and he mistakenly surmised that they were at the bottom of the bluff. Crandle was still scatter-brained from his meeting with the rock so he really didn’t have any idea who or where he was just then.

Brill wiped his eyes clear of yellow powder and he could see that they were still a good way up on the side of the bluff. He could see that the tiny hummock that they had landed on was nothing more than a big knob of dirt that was jutting out from the side of the hill. And he could also see that it was slowly crumbling and giving way under their combined weight.

“Don’t move!” he warned Crandle who was wondering which one of the two Brills he was seeing had said that.

“What?” he asked confused “I don’t believe I know one of you gentlemen, do you have a twin brother Brill?”

“Shut up you moron!” Brill spat, as he tried disentangle himself from Crandle. “And don’t you move either or you’ll send us both to the bottom of this cliff for sure!” He added.

“Oh, okay Brill I won’t move at all,” Crandle whispered suddenly afraid that if he talked too loud that it might cause them to fall too. “Is this okay, Brill?” he asked.

“I didn’t say be quiet you idiot. I said don’t move because this part of this hillside is about to… AHHHHHHHHH!”

He was about to say “slide” but he never got the chance. The reason that the little hummock that they were laying on was giving way beneath them was that it was semi-hollowed out. For the past few years, it had been the home of a very industrious little group that had laid claim to it and they had dug a labyrinth of tiny tunnels as the colony had grown larger and larger over the years. Tunnels that now honeycombed the entire knob beneath them. No creature had ever dared to try to challenge them or dared to disturb them. Until now that is.

As many of the tiny tunnels caved in and were buried, many of the inhabitants of the colony were covered in the caved-in tunnels while many others were laid open and exposed to the light of day. Including the queen’s chambers, and the royal nursery. Had it been a bees nest that they had landed on then they might have been better off because drones don’t have stingers so they cannot sting you. But these nurses were not unarmed or helpless and they along with all the rest of the colonists were mad as…well…they were mad enough. The huge red fire ants attacked Bril and Crandle by spreading out in a circle from the nest and they were all hell bent upon punishing anything they found. That was of course turned out to be Crandle and then immediately after him they started storming up Brill’s pants leg in diversion strength and they were looking for a fight.

Crandle discovered the ants first when they started biting him all over his back and shoulders. Their painful bite set off a tiny fire alarm in his brain with each and every sting.

He screamed as he saw the legions of the huge red ants marching across his chest with a grim and determined purpose. He tried to sit up and brush off the ants, but with Brill on top of him he was pinned down on top of the ants and you’ can believe they were making the most of it. “Hold still you blamed fool!” Brill yelled but Crandle couldn’t hear him over his own shrill screams.

The next thing to go wrong that day was inevitable, but Crandle’s thrashing about speeded up the process. Believe it or not, that actually proved to be a good thing for the two men because had it not happened,  they would have had some truly serious fire ant problems. And, clearly, they had enough of them as it was.

Crandle rolled over towards the edge and the shift of the two men’s weight caused the entire knob to collapse and sent them all tumbling helter skelter down the hill. The fire ants did not go very far at all with the exceptions of the ones that were inside of Brill’s and Crandle’s clothes. The ones that were on them mostly got knocked off in the wild tumble down the hillside.

“Ouch! That was my sore elbow!” Crandle cried as he barked his funny bone on a stone.

“Arrgh!” Brill agreed as his other knee found itself a convenient rock to bash itself against in passing.”

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” they both hollered as they tumbled head over heels down the steep bluffs rocky face.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Their yells came to an abrupt halt with a loud OOMPH! When both of them flew off of a short drop at the bottom of the bluff and they landed in a tangled heap of jumbled arms and legs in the mud at the bottom of Gallows Gap. All of the dirt and stones that they had knocked loose in their descent came down right behind them and nearly buried them both in a landslide of their own making. 
One fair-sized rock that had come out of the fire ants nest that they had just destroyed with their antics, came rolling down the bluff. For all the world it looked like a misshapen gray bowling ball rolling down a tilted bowling alley lane as it picked up speed. and rolled right off the lip of the ledge that Brill and Crandle had fallen off of. It flipped up into the air and came down squarely on top of Brill’s head.

The stone wasn’t big enough to really kill him too much but it was enough, plus it had momentum, and gravity on its side. Brill was trying to get up onto his hands and knees when it got him and knocked him out cold. He dropped back down landing flat on his face in the thickening mud of the King’s Highway.

Which was actually lucky for him, but he didn’t know it.

Crandle was still conscious but not by much if the truth is known. For he was still a little bit hazy from his own bop on the noggin. Even so, he was awake enough to hear a stranger’s voice suddenly speaking to him.

“I say there brothers, are you fellows all right? We saw you fall” the anxious voice was telling him.

“Yes, indeed we did. That was quite a long way to fall. too” said a second voice with a strange accent to it “Are you fellows okay then?”

Crandle’s eyes snapped open to find that he was looking up at four men. But they were two sets of twins that were all dressed exactly alike in brown robes and all four men were riding twin donkeys. Crandle rubbed at his eyes and cleared his vision somewhat but when he opened his mouth to say that he was all right a sudden overwhelming reminder that his shirt was still full of very angry fire ants changed his reply to a shrill high pitched shriek that rattled boulders, and shook stones loose all along the canyon as it echoed back and forth in the narrow confines of the high rock walls.

“Aieeeeee!” he screamed as he leaped to his feet startling the two strangers and their donkeys. Then Crandle started jumping up and down and started beating at himself like he was on fire. Which he kind of was, in a manner of speaking that is. Anyone who’s ever been bitten by fire ant knows exactly what I’m talking about.

“I think this poor lost soul has taken leave of his senses, Brother George.” The man on the right said as they watched him trying to get out of his pullover shirt and rip it off of his body at the same time.

“I think you’re right, Brother Leo.” The other man, the one with the strange accent said. Then he pointed out Brill who was still lying face down in the mud.

“Methinks perhaps we best help this one here before he verily drowns in the mud.”

“I do believe you are right, Brother George.” Brother Leo agreed as he dismounted from his donkey. With help from his fellow friar, they pulled Brill’s face up out of the mud. Then they turned him over and gently laid him on his back.

Crandle in the meantime was running down the muddy trail in a hopeless attempt to outrun his tormenters who for their part still clung tenaciously to his back, neck, and arms.

“What in God’s name happened to this one here, Brother?” Brother Leo asked as he stared down at the black and yellow face of Brill who still had a bunch of the bright yellow spoors from the puffball all over his face. Where it wasn’t covered with mud that is.

“Forsooth, I do not know.” Brother George confessed as he made the sign of the cross in front of himself. Just in case the man had any evil spirits on or about his person. One could never be too careful in this business.

“Perhaps we should…” Brother Leo was saying when Brill regained consciousness. At precisely the same time that he came to the realization that he had something in his pants that was biting the bejesus out of his most tender parts. He was fortunate in the sense that many of them had fallen out of his pants in his tumble down the hillside. Some of them had left while Brill was out cold because they no longer took him for an enemy and they had gone off in search for one. So there was not quite as many fire ants in Brill’s pants as there had been before. But…Then again, evenone fire ant down ones pants is way too many if you ask me. Or if you ask Brill for that matter.

His eyes popped open wide in horror, and he startled the two monks very badly. But when he shrieked like a banshee and leaped to his feet he scared the heck out of both of them and their donkeys. Both animals turned and bolted back down the trail. As Brothers Leo and George watched, Brill began beating madly at his legs and thighs like they were on fire. Crandle in the meantime had begun to roll around in the mud in an attempt to drown his torturers in it if not crush them. All the while he was screaming “Get them off! Get them off!” at the top of his lungs.

Brill on the other hand was trying to jump out of his pants and rip them off at the same time and not doing very well at either endeavor. His cries of “Ahhhhhhhhhgh!” and “Aieeeeeeeee!” reverberated off of the walls of the narrow gap.

“Verily methinks they are possessed of demons, Brother Leo.” Brother George said as he made the sign of the cross again in front of himself.

“Yes, I think you may be right about that, Brother George.” Brother Leo said as he tried to watch both men at the same time. “They very much remind me of the man from whom Jesus cast out the demons that called themselves Legion.” He said as he looked at the two men thoughtfully.

“Aye verily they do,” Brother George agreed. “The Lord has put these poor lost souls before us as a test so that we should cast out these men’s demons for them, Brother Leo,” he stated, and Brother Leo wholeheartedly agreed with him. Neither one of them had the foggiest notion of how to exorcise a demon but they believed that if faith can move mountains so surely it can remove demons from possessed men too. Just like the Bible says it can.

Both monks began chanting prayers to invoke heavenly reinforcements and protection and making the sign of the cross at the two possessed men. Brother Leo had chosen to exorcise Crandle while Brother George was left with Brill. Crandle had finally stopped screaming and lay writhing on his back in the mud.

Brill on the other hand was in a virtually mindless frenzy. He had managed to get his pants halfway down and had tried to pull one leg out but his boots were too big to fit through the leg holes so they had gotten hung up inside his pant leg. Now he was hopping around in his buckler, sword, and dirty underpants with his britches halfway down and hung up on his boot halfway inside out. Naturally, he was still beating at himself and screaming all the while, as well.

“Mine does not seem to be responding well to treatment, Brother Leo.” Brother George observed. “I think we are going to need some Holy water to defeat these demon spawn.

“Truly so, but we have no holy water, Brother Leo.” Brother George reminded him.

“Ah, yes, of course! You’re right, Brother George. I guess I must have forgotten in all the excitement.” Brother Leo said taking a quick survey of the area. “There’s no water to be had here, and we cannot spare any of what little water that we have left. We don’t know how much further it is until we get to the next springs.” He pointed out.

“Aye, ’tis the truth, Brother Leo. Hm. Perhaps we could bless the water that’s already in this mud hither and use it since it is an emergency,” Brother George offered hopefully.

“Aye I don’t see why we can not, Brother George for we know that all things work together for the glory of God” Brother Leo reminded him.

“Verily so brother thy words are truth. I am reminded of the blind beggar man whom Jesus healed with mud.” Brother George said as he spat into the mud at his feet.                                                                 

The monks, who were both novitiates, began chanting special prayers and invoke special blessings over the mud at their feet Brill in the meantime was still hopping all around trying to get away from the fire ants and get out of his fire ants filled pants at the same time.

“Stir the spittle in real good, Brother George.” Brother Leo advised so Brother George stirred it in well with his fingers. When they were satisfied that the mud had been properly blessed, both monks scooped up large handfuls of the holy mud and began pelting Brill with it. And none too gently either I might add.

A big gooey lump of the holy mud beaned Brill right upside the head, and that was when Brill first realized that he was under attack. “Hey!” he cried out as he turned to face his attackers, and just as he did a handful of holy mud flung by Brother Leo with his heartiest blessings behind it 
(not to mention a world-class pitching arm) hit him squarely between the eyes both making him see stars and blinding him completely at the same time.

That was the proverbial straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back for Brill. He was not really one for swearing and using foul language generally. Even a crook must have some principles I suppose, but the holy mud pie in the face coming as it did on top of everything else that he had already suffered? Well, that was it for him. Brill began spouting cuss words that would have made a sailor blush and plug his ears for shame.

“There! You see, Brother George? See? I told you! It’s working already!” Brother Leo exclaimed gleefully as he bent down and scooped up another handful of the blessed holy mud.

“Aye forsooth, Brother Leo” Brother George agreed “The devil is angered now that we’ve brought out the holy weapons of God.” He said as he flung another mud pie at Brill’s head with a great deal of religious gusto.
 Brill had just opened his mouth to take the Lords name in vain for the fourth or fifth time when Brother George’s second shot connected with his nose and mouth and cut him off mid-swear. He was spitting and spluttering holy mud when his sword’s buckler, which had loose got turned around on his waist so that the sword was now hanging down directly in front of him.

“Bravo! That was a most excellent shot, Brother George.” Brother Leo said, congratulating Brother George for silencing the Devil’s blasphemous tongue in its tracks. As they watched, the possessed man was trying to hop about, get his leg free from his pants, slap himself below the waist, and clear the holy mud out of his mouth all at the same time. They began to really get into the spirit then, and they pelted him mercilessly with holy mud while at the same time chanting a litany of prayers and invoking God’s help.

Naturally, the more Brill cursed at God the more the two monks pelted him with their holy mud clots and chanted their prayers at him because they were certain that the demons would soon surrender to them. Brill cursed them all the more until finally, in a blind rage, he ripped his boots off of his feet and yanked his britches off.  After he brushed away the few remaining fire ants that were still gnawing merrily away at him, Brill got back to his feet and drew out his sword. He looked at the monks and gave a great cry of bellowing rage that thundered down the Gap. “By God, I’m going to cut you both in two right where you stand!” he yelled. But no sooner had the last word passed his lips then another high screaming holy mud ball came zeroing in on the target and splattered itself right in Brill’s eyes. again. YOU SON OF A (BLEEP!) he roared in a bloody rage WHY YOU DIRTY ROTTEN (BLEEP! BLEEPING BLEEP!!) he shouted as he rushed blindly at the monks slashing about him with his broad sword as he went at them and screaming. “YOU BLOODY (BLEEEEEPS!)

The very sight of the demon-possessed man standing there in the road in his dirty underwear, and covered in mud (both holy and unholy) was rather funny. But, that same man running at you while the keen edge of his broad sword cuts the air with an audible swish that sounds much too close for comfort? Well, that’s not very funny at all. Brill charged blindly past them the first time but he did not hit either one of the monks with his sword. Then he stopped and he wiped away the mud from his eyes so he could see is assailants better.

“I’ll carve your carcasses up and feed them to the wolves from my own bloody hands!” he roared and that was the proverbial last straw for the monks. This demon obviously didn’t respond too well to holy water be it muddy or not. The murderous red gleam in his eyes coupled with the gleaming blade in his fists was unmistakably saying “RUN!”

Since the possessed man and his demons were between them and their donkeys and since good old common sense says that getting away from a madman with a sword is far easier than getting past one, and in such a case a donkey would be much too slow anyway, they wisely decided to head south instead and did so with great haste. Brother George ran right over the top of poor Crandle stepping on his stomach in the deal. His boot left a single muddy footprint on Crandle’s shirt.

Brill chased after them for a minute with every intent he could muster to kill them both if he caught them. And he told them so in no uncertain terms as he pursued them hot on their heels. A couple of times he almost caught Brother Leo with a swipe of his broadsword but Brother Leo took it as a sign from the divine that he needed to pick up the pace a bit. And believe me, dear readers when you’re running for your life nothing can motivate you more than the swoosh! Of a sharp steel blade that’s just a couple of inches from separating your head from your shoulders.

As most of us surely know however, the person that’s being pursued by a murderous psychopath with a sword is always far more motivated than the psychopath that’s chasing him. Plus Brill was an overweight, out of shape slob, whereas the monks were both lean, hard workers. So, of course, they got away from him. But they did so on foot and empty-handed. Neither man dared go back and take the chance of falling into the demon man’s possession too. Or even worse still fall under his blade. So they went on towards Northam on foot saying prayers the whole way for the demon riddled men.

Brill meanwhile staggered back towards his partner who was still lying in the mud in the middle of the road after he had flung a sufficient number of curses after the two fleeing monks. His legs and thighs and buttocks all stung and burned all over from the bites of the fire ants, but he noticed that the mud seemed to make some of them feel better so he stopped and smeared black mud on the rest of them that weren’t already covered before he went to see if Crandle was still alive or not.

“If God has any feelings left for me at all he won’t be,” Brill growled to himself as he started back up the hill towards the gap where his partner was still laying face down in the mud.

When he finally got back up to the top of the mountain,(for he had chased the monks a long ways downhill.) Crandle, much to his chagrin, was still very much alive and he had already helped himself to the pack on the brothers third donkey which was a sumpter pack. Which means that it was full of food. He had a leg of cold mutton in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other. He offered Brill the wine as he stomped up sword still in  hand but Brill snatched the leg of mutton away from him instead and bit off a large hunk of it.

“I done real good didn’t I Brill?” Crandle asked holding out the bottle of wine towards his glowering partner. “If it hadn’t been for me those to would have slipped right passed us. But now look Brill, we have three donkeys that we can ride on now! Plus we have all this food and wine now so we can go catch up to the boy and that smart-aleck horse of his. We’ll be able to sell the stallion, the golden saddle, and these three donkeys as well!” Crandle gushed out all at once.

Brill took another bite of the mutton leg and for a minute Crandle was afraid that he was going to start hacking away at him with his sword but finally Brill sheathed the sword. He took the proffered bottle of wine from Crandle’s hand and took a mighty draught from it.

“You did well for once in your life, Crandle.” He said as he wiped his mouth with his muddy shirt sleeve. Crandle breathed a deep sigh of relief and laughed nervously. Brill joined him and soon the two robbers were laughing like old friends again. Crandle reached out to take the leg of mutton back from his “Old friend” though and Brill whacked him on the back of the hand with the wine bottle. “Get your own!” he growled.

As they sat and ate, after Brill had put his muddy pants back on of course, they made their plans while they partook generously of the brother’s sacramental wine. “All we have to do now,” Brill said “Is take this road north around Mount Thunder where they can’t see us coming, and then come back and catch them coming up over the top. Then we take whatever we want and we leave no witnesses behind to go running to the Sheriff  and tell on us.”

“Why don’t we just go straight after them Brill?” Crandle wondered.

“Because, numbskull,” Brill said “ if, as you say, that stallion is enchanted then he will know that we will be coming after him because he’s heard all of our plans so far. But he doesn’t know anything about this new plan, and he doesn’t know where or when we are going to come after them now. If he sees us first we’ll never be able to catch them but from an ambush, we will.”

“Oh, I see,” Crandle said slowly “But there’s still one thing that bothers me Brill, isn’t Mount Thunder where that dragon used to live?”

“Oh pshaw! You fool that stupid dragon has been dead for more than 20 years now so forget about it” Brill told him.

“Are you sure he’s dead Brill? Cause I don’t want to meet up with no dragons up there. I’d rather let the boy go,”

“Don’t worry about it Crandle I guarantee you that the dragon has not been seen for at least 20 years so he is either dead, or he decided to pack up his treasure hoard and move to a safer climate,” Brill assured Crandle.

“Well okay, Brill, if you’re sure of it I guess it’s okay then.” Crandle allowed.

“Sure I’m sure of it Crandle. Have I ever steered you wrong before?” Brill asked

“Well, there was that time that you said that you…”Crandle began, but Brill cut him off short.                     

“Oh, shut up!” he growled “and eat your mutton beforeeat it for you!”

Shane and the horses made good time going down the more gently sloped southern flank of the mountain. By two o’clock that afternoon they were across the narrow valley that separated it from the roots of Mount Thunder, Soon they were climbing back up toward the sky again.

Mount Thunder’s twin peaks were made of two massive rock formations that even a mountain goat would think twice about trying to climb. But, at about 15,500 feet a narrow pass separated them and it was this pass that Dark Star was leading them all to. It was plain to see, however, that there was no way they would ever reach the timberline by nightfall much less the summit. It was still about an hour before dark when Shane pulled up on the black stallion’s reins. They were in a high mountain meadow that had a tiny rill of ice-cold water running through it.

“Let’s stop here for the night, Star,” He said to the horse “We’re not very likely to come to another meadow as fine as this one before the sun sets on us. The way I figure it we should reach the summit by tomorrow night. We can camp out among those rocks and hide just as well from Morloch there as anywhere where else I think.”

Dark Star wasn’t sure he agreed with that theory but he nodded his head in compliance. The boy was right about them not being able to reach such a suitable campsite again before nightfall came and besides that, the purple and red clover tops that he saw growing along the stream were calling to him like the sweetly luring song of a siren.

Shane dismounted and pulled the gold worked saddle and his pack off the stallion. Next, he unburdened the two sisters and then since he still had plenty of daylight left he curried all three of the animal’s coats and gave Vanna a good sound scratching between her ears, which of course made Ginny decide that her ears were itchy too so she insinuated herself into the next in line to be scratched between her ears. Dark Star tried to pretend to be aloof to such nonsense but then a sudden maddening itch took hold of him right in between his velvety black ears and so he used his stallions prerogative to cut in line.

“All right you guys I only have two hands you know!” Shane laughed as he tried to scratch all three big shaggy heads at the same time.

That night he read to them while they grazed contentedly on the clover tops, from the Apprentices Handguide volume 1, chapter 3. That chapter dealt with what would be expected of a sorcerer’s apprentice. It merely said that he would be required to do a certain number of appointed tasks for his teacher the wizard.

“This sounds like it will be great fun, Star.” He told the stallion who he noticed gave him a funny look before he went back to grazing.

“What? Don’t you think so?” Shane asked but he got no answer. “Well I do” the boy went on “I’ll bet he’ll have me doing stuff like mixing magic potions and casting magic spells on people to change them into bullfrogs, or something like that.”

Dark Star had a much better idea of what a sorcerers apprentice actually did most of the time and he just nickered softly to himself and shook his head. “Oh, be quiet. What do you know anyway? You’re just a stupid old horse.” Shane said as he stuck his nose back into the hand guide. He failed to notice the two equine ears that pricked up or the big hairy eyeball that the black stallion was giving him that reflected the bright gibbous disk of the nearly full moon in a deep black pool.

“Did he just say what I think he just said, Ginny?” Vanna asked her sister who understood a little bit of human speech.

“Yes, Vanna I think he did,” Ginny said around a mouthful of clover. “I’m pretty sure he did anyway.” She added.

“Ah, that’s what I thought, Vanna replied, solemnly.

Shane stayed up later than usual that night because he got into reading chapter three of the hand guide, and because he knew that tomorrow night he would have to pitch a dry, cold camp up near the summit of Mount Thunder. There would most certainly be no water up there, nor would there be any firewood. Even if there was any wood to be had they could not light a fire on top of a mountain when Morloch would be out hunting that night. The nearly full disk of the moon rode high in the heavens by the time he finally rolled himself up into his blankets. Much to Dark Star’s delight, and that of the mules, he pulled them up over his head himself this time.

That night Shane dreamed of his home and some of the people that he had known all of his life. There was of course Tayvian whom he chased in sun-dappled high meadows and they fished for speckled trout together at Hag creek. Next, he dreamed about the Lynn twins, Amber and Carrie. He was with both of them on a picnic in a shady glen in the forest. They were laughing and telling funny stories as their three horses stood nearby staring at them in the strangest way.

Shane could not tell if it was Amber Lynn or Carrie Lynn that was telling him a joke about a squirrel and an enchanted acorn but it was a pretty funny story and he was laughing merrily when all of a sudden he was lifted up off of the quilt upon which the twins had spread their picni. The next thing he knew he was flying. He could see the Lynn twins getting smaller and smaller as he floated gently away on gentle currents of warm air. He drifted far away above the golden leaves of the treetops. Then he floated out over his father’s high meadow, and down towards Kilcairn.

Shane could see birds that were startled as he flew past them and on he flew until he found himself floating directly over the tiny hamlet where he had grown up and the big well in the center of the square where everyone got their water. He looked down and he could see a beautiful black stallion and two rather nice, but plain-looking she mules standing around the well. They were both looking solemnly up at him and shaking their shaggy heads slowly..

Anyone who has ever had a dream that was based in reality knows that comprehension comes very slowly to the dreamer but when it does finally come, it rushes in on you sort of like the first few drops of water that fall on your head before an entire bathtub full of water comes crashing down on you through a soggy ceiling

Like for instance when you’re dreaming that you are eating a giant marshmallow and you wake up to find that you’ve been chewing on your pillow and half of it is missing. Or when you are dreaming that you are kissing the most beautiful girl or guy of your dreams and you slowly begin to realize that he or she is being awfully liberal with their tongue. That’s when you wake up and find that the guy, or girl, of your dreams, is, in reality, a shaggy old sheepdog that has been licking your chops while you made fishy lips at him in your sleep.

That was basically how it began to dawn on Shane that he had a very similar dream one time before back in Mayrewood and that it just might be happening again. He tried desperately to wake himself up as his body began to lose altitude and gain momentum, and he began falling inexorably toward the cistern. He flailed his arms and legs vainly in an attempt to flap them and hopefully gain some altitude but nothing he did was any help. He only fell faster and faster towards the pool. Shane tried to claw his way up out of the grip of slumber but its prodigious weight pressed down on him like a mountain of York pudding that refused to let him go. The pool of icy water below just kept getting closer and closer.

The sudden shock of the plunge into ice-cold water hit him like a blow to the entire body and mind as he fell into the well. Shane’s eyes snapped open in the near-blind darkness of night to find himself floundering about in the little stream that ran through the high meadow they had made camp in. He knew instantly what had taken place in the dark of the night as the icy water of the high mountain stream saturated his clothes and chilled him to the core instantly. “You’re not EVEN funny, Star!” he yelled but all he could hear were three high whinnying horses laughing while the rolling thunder of their hoofbeats faded away into the distance. “Stupid horse” he sputtered as he rose and out of the center of the pool and slogged back to camp.

Dawn was not more than an hour away by the time Shane got out of his freeing wet clothes and got the fire going again to where it was burning good and hot. He used some forked sticks to build himself a drying rack beside the fire for his clothes, then he made some hot porridge and tea for breakfast while his clothes steamed on the other side of the fire.

Brill and Crandle in the meantime, had ridden their newly acquired pair of donkeys all that day and on through the brightly moonlit night by switching off their mounts with the sumpter donkey every few hours and letting the one carrying the much lighter food pack rest. They were both so tired that they were dozing off in the saddle. Crandle even fell off of his mount by doing so one time. By the time Shane was stomping his wet self out of the icy water pool that Dark Star dropped him into, the two would be bad guys reached the pass at the lower summit between the twin peaks of Mount Thunder. They dismounted and unloaded the donkeys, then Crandle set up a dry camp while Brill hiked down through the pass towards the southern slope to see what he could see on the other side of the mountain

In the darkness of night, even the light from the flame of a single match can be seen for a distance of over a mile. Down below them, Shane had built up his campfire again to dry out his wet clothing and though it was still more than 4 miles away, Brill could see it plain as day down in the wide meadow below him.

“There you are you little brat!” he said to the distant dot that had to be Shane. He rubbed his big calloused hands together in greedy anticipation of all the booty he and Crandle would be taking possession of on the morrow and all the gold they would be able to sell it for over in Farthingshire. They would fence the loot where they were not known and would not be very likely to be thrown into the Sheriff’s dungeon and hung for horse thieves before they could get their money and vanish into the sea of humanity and no one the wiser.

“Well, well, well. It looks like old Brill has outsmarted you and your stupid horse in the end doesn’t it Mister Smarty Pants.” He said out loud as he took one good last look down at Shane’s bonfire and then hurried his way back to his own camp for some cold York pudding before he laid down to sleep for the better part of the day.

He would have built a fire to heat up their breakfast but they were well above the timberline. Since neither man was inclined to go back down the mountain to get firewood they sat there in the violet glow of the dawns early light and ate their pudding cold while Brill told Crandle what he had seen on the other side of the mountain.

“He’ll probably be up here by early evening so we can sleep all day and then we’ll be nice and rested as will our donkeys while the boy and his horse will be exhausted from the long climb up to here. They’ll most likely want to camp up here in the gap tonight by my figuring.” he told Crandle who was listening in silence as he gulped down his share of the cold mutton pudding.”Once he’s set up his camp and he’s nice  and comfy then we’ll drop in on his worship and pay him our respects!” Brill cried as he drew out his giant broad sword and planted its wide tip deep into the soft soil beside him.

“Yeah, yeah! We’ll pay our respects real good, won’t we Brill?” Crandle said through a mouthful of York pudding.

“Don’t talk to me with your yap full of food! Have some manners, you slob!” Brill growled.

“I’m sorry Brill.” Crandle mumbled from behind his hand.

“Look how red the sky is this morning,” Brill said, changing the subject. He had been mollified by Crandle’s apology. “It looks like we might get some more rain today.”

“Mmhm!” Crandle agreed, remembering to keep his mouth closed this time.

“Not up here though” Brill went on “Why there’s hardly even a cloud in the sky as far as you can see.”

“Mmhm”

“It’s probably just going to go off towards Farthingshire way.” Brill decided

“Mmhm” Crandle agreed as he shoveled in more of the cold York pudding.

After they had eaten and the sun had risen enough to allow them to see what they were doing better, they moved their campsite over to the eastern side of the pass. There they would be in the shadow of the peak most of the day and tucked well out of sight just in case anyone should happen along. Such as someone out looking for two crazy men and three missing donkeys.

Brill knew it wouldn’t take a Bloodhound to find them. A near-sighted, cross-eyed pigeon with glaucoma could just as easily follow the fresh trail made by the three loaded donkeys. They would lead the Sheriff straight to the hooves that made them if the monks went to the local Constabulary and lodged a formal complaint.

Shane also watched the sunrise, and like Brill, he saw a portent of possible rain in the very near future. And, just like Brill, he decided it would probably fall well away to the east of them. Dark Star and the sisters returned from their morning romp just before the first rays of the sun could light up the meadow where they had left Shane to drip dry in solitude while he contemplated Equine justice, his misdeeds, and the inevitable equine consequences thereof.

Shane of course had no inkling of this whatsoever, so he didn’t do that. He did have a rather long list of choice words he recited to the wind as they ran off, however, and the recital had only just ended when they came back.

As it is written in the Apprentice’s Hand Guide Volume 1- Chapter 13: To err is Human, to revenge, Equine. Unfortunately for Shane, he had not quite gotten to that chapter yet.

They came back at the break of dawn. All three of them came in a line as magnificent as thunder rolling through the still mountain air. They ran through the cold stream, their hooves throwing billions of tiny crystal droplets of the crystal clear mountain water into the air where it caught the first rays of the sun and refracted it into trillions of miniature starbursts.

For Shane, the majestic beauty of the moment was short-lived as millions of icy cold water droplets came cascading down upon his bare head and shoulders, drenching his back. “Auughh!” he cried as he tried to cover himself with no great measure of success. “Geez! Did you have to do that!? I was just getting dry again after somebody threw me in the creek. Again!” he said through clenched teeth as he wiped himself dry again with his already saturated homespun towel.

Dark Star and the sisters who were following him at his heels ran up out of the creek bed and ran circles around the camp a couple of times before they came to a halt facing Shane across the roaring bonfire. Shane could see the lather of sweat and drops of water on their dark coats and tails and he could see the flames dancing in their big dark eyes like imps full of mischief and laughter.

“I suppose you guys think dropping me in the creek was really funny don’t you?” Shane asked rhetorically, as he wrung the last drops from his towel then hung it back up to dry by the fire. The big black stallion tossed his head and his mane and snorted, indicating that he did indeed think it was pretty funny that he had been dunked in the creek again. When Star translated what Shane had said for them, the mules let Shane know they thought so too and they too tossed their heads while neighing and braying in earnest agreement.

“Oh great. Now they’re ganging up on me.” Shane sighed. “I suppose you also think I’m going to rub you, three miscreants, down and curry comb your flea-bitten hides for you, don’t you,” he said.

Star turned his head slightly towards the two sisters and nickered something to them in equestrus and when he turned to face Shane again all three big shaggy heads were nodding back at him in unison.

“Yeah? I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you,” Shane laughed as he took the kettle for his tea off of the fire and poured some into his cup. “I think the groom may have caught a rare and unexpected case of pneumonia this morning.”

Dark Star shook his head to let Shane know that the groom doesn’t get any sick days off around these parts but Shane ignored him while he stirred the lumps out of his porridge.

“Nope,” he said after a brief silence, “I think your personal groom might be too sick to do any grooming today,” He said as he put a generous dollop of honey butter in his hot cereal and stirred it. “Nope.”

“I guess you three vandals will just have to…hey! No, wait, wait, stop! No, you can’t! Hey! put my clothes down right now!” Shane cried as he realized that the horses had snagged his drying clothes off the rack and were carrying them back over to the little pool to drop them back in again. “Wait! STOP!! All right all right! I’ll do it! Just bring my clothes back, jeez!” Shane said as he got clothes away from them and hung them back up.

“Can I at least eat breakfast first your royal heinies?” he asked them as he took the wet clothes out of their teeth.

Dark Star turned to the sisters and nickered to them in equestrus and then all three heads nodded in unison again. “Oh great! It’s just my luck to get pushed around by a troupe of  traveling horse comedians.” Shane mused to himself as he hung up his clothes again and added more wood to the fire.

While Shane finished eating, Star and the sisters ate a bit of breakfast as well. Shane ate quickly so that he could tend to the horses. Despite all of his joking around with them, he took very good care of the animals. Soon enough he was rubbing them down, then going over them with the curry comb. Once that was done he took the time to gather up a little extra firewood so that he would have enough to last through that night when they would make camp on the summit.

He split the load between Ginny and Vanna, then he saddled Dark Star and they left the little meadow below them as they set off on the long arduous climb to the pass high above them. By that time, Brill and Crandle were rolled up in their newly acquired bedding and sleeping soundly. The three donkeys were picketed to a large rock nearby. All three of them seemed very edgy and nervous for some reason but the two outlaws took no notice of it. They slept like two bugs in a rug.

Nor did they notice that more and more clouds were rolling in as the day wore on. Towering silver and black cumulus clouds who’s tops soared up to the heavens came marching across the sky in increasingly larger numbers and size. At first, they were billowy and snowy white but then as the southern front of moisture met up in the upper atmosphere with a shifting blue northern jet stream carrying along with it an unseasonable cold front, the cottony white clouds began to darken as the wind picked up from the south causing the sun to go dark and the temperature to drop significantly.

Shane even had to stop and dig out one of his heavy woolen cloaks. “Man oh, man! Are we going to get some rain or what?” he asked Star as he remounted and they resumed their trek upward.

Star snorted a terse reply and kept climbing toward the peak. He noticed the mules were strangely quiet and more subdued than normal even for mules, but he paid no mind to it. His mind was more than 200 leagues away just then and could not be reached for comment

Good old common horse sense or you can call it intuition if you prefer, is nothing more than the realization of what the universe is trying desperately to tell you. In so many words it’s about reading comprehension. It’s the ability to read the handwriting on the wall.

First, you have to be able to see it though.

Shane thought the rain clouds were going to let loose at any minute but the sky only grew darker and more menacing but it withheld the impending downpour. While on the side of Mount Thunder it grew steadily colder and the wind picked up more speed.

Because they were sheltered in the lee of a massive rock formation, Brill and Crandle didn’t notice the changes in the weather. Being all rolled up like caterpillars in the thick woolen cocoons of warm bedding they had “inherited” from Brothers George and Leo, they would have slept through the end of the world. Both men were completely spent from their long sleepless journey around, then up to the summit of Mount Thunder. They probably wouldn’t have noticed it if a troupe of ogres had set up camp next to them and roasted their three terribly nervous donkeys for dinner, much less notice any changes in the weather.  


The bitingly cold wind was at their backs thus making the climb a little easier. Shane wanted to reach the top before they made camp for the night hoping that he might be able to find some type of shelter for them to ride out the storm in, Shane kept the stallion moving toward the top. As long as they were still moving with the wind it didn’t seem nearly as cold as it did whenever they stopped to rest.

“I think if we can get up to the peak before this storm breaks loose, maybe we can find a cave or a sheltered spot to hole up in. away from the brunt of it” He was shouting to be heard over the wind that was now howling through the trees as they reached the timberline. “Or maybe it won’t rain as much up there as it does down here.” He added, hopefully. Shane could tell that the stallion was listening by the way his ears shifted when he spoke to him but he made no kind of reply as he led the two mules onward and upward.

Shane called a brief halt for lunch just past 1 o’clock in the afternoon allowing the horses to rest and graze. They would find very little grass growing on the rocky, boulder-strewn peaks of Mount Thunder. 

“You know something, Star?” Shane said to the stallion after dismounting and stretching his legs for a moment. “I think this storm is mostly going to pass us by from the way it’s acting. It should have already broken loose by now.”

The horse snorted and nodded his head in agreement. It very well should have broken loose already. Now, the longer it held it back the storm, the more intense it was going to be when it finally did break. It did not require any animal instinct to judge the weather. That too is simply plain old fashioned horse sense. They were in for a terrible storm very shortly and they all knew it.


Brill and Crandle finally woke up again at half-past four that afternoon due in large part to their hunger pangs. By that time the storm clouds were so thick and dark that for all they could tell it could be 8 am or 8 pm. Both of them stretched lazily and stared up at the boiling mass of cloud cover not more than 2500 feet over their heads.

“Uh oh, Brill. Something tells me we’re in for a real gully washer tonight.” Crandle said, noticing the chill wind for the first time.

“Oh, well uh, golly gee, Crandle. Do you really think so, duh?” Brill sneered as he rolled out of his blankets and went to rummage through the sumpter pack for a bone to gnaw on.

“Brrr!” he said as the cold wind hit him from behind. “I hope the good friars packed some extra warm clothes because it is going to be cold tonight.” He said as he reached the picket line where the donkeys were tied up. By that time the poor animals were nearly in a state of blind panic. Brill wrote it off as being due to the ferocity of the impending storm. But, they had another reason to be nervous.

“What is the matter with those stupid donkeys? They are acting like something is trying to eat them.” Crandle said as he watched Brill rummaging through the packs looking for warm clothing, and something to eat.

“How should I know? They’re just stupid donkeys, what do they know? They’re likely spooked by the storm. Brill shouted back over the rushing of the wind.

The only things Brill was able to find were a few spare undergarments and two extra heavy robes.

“I guess beggars can’t be choosers,” he said, throwing one of the robes to Crandle before he slipped the other one on over his head.

“You know, if you shaved the top of your head, Brill you would look just like Friar Tuck from that story about Robin Hood and his merry men,” Crandle said with a chuckle as he watched, Brill pull the robe down over his head and straightening it out over his fat body.

“Oh, yeah? You really think so do you?” Brill asked. “That’s good. We can use that to our advantage when we go to rob that boy and get our mules back from him.”

“What do you mean, Brill?” Crandle wanted to know as he stood up on his blankets and pulled his own robe over his head.

“What I mean you nitwit is is that in these robes we will be able to walk right up to the boy and he will never even realize that he is in trouble until it’s too late,” Brill said laughing.

“Yeah sure, Brill but what about that stallion of his?”

Brill growled now dangerously low in his throat.

“I mean what if he recognizes us? He saw our faces in the stable, remember?”

“Of course I remember, fool.” Brill snapped in reply.

“All we have to do is this.” He said as he flipped the cowl of his hood over his head until it covered nearly all of his face. “In the dark, that stupid horse won’t be able to tell us from, Adam.”

“Yeah, from Adam.” Crandle said laughing.’ “Hey, Brill?”

“What is it now?” brill asked as he took some honey cakes from the sumpter pack and tossed a few of them to Crandle.

“Who is, Adam?”

“You are going to meet him very soon if you don’t shut up that’s who.”  Brill snarled before he stomped away, and went down the pass to check up on Shane’s progress.

“How am I ever going to know who he is if you don’t tell me?” Crandle called after him. Fortunately for Crandle, the wind whipped the curses away and flung them down the North face of Mount Thunder as Brill swore to God, the Devil, Poseidon, Mars, Apollo, the moon, stars, and Uranus that he was going to strangle Crandle with his own tongue if it was the last thing he ever did.

Brill took great care not to expose himself against the skyline as he approached the south side of the pass. If Crandle was right about that stupid horse, it would see him immediately. He might just alert the boy to the danger before they could get the drop on him. He kept to the big rocks as he neared the southern slope, where his brown robe would make him nearly invisible against the background.

He didn’t have to go very far though before he spied his quarry. They were very close now, not more than a quarter of a mile down the slope and moving upwards at a fast pace ahead of the howling wind. By brill’s estimate, they should make the pass in about an hour.

“Yes. I have you now don’t I master Shane? You, your, horse, and that golden saddle,” Brill chuckled to himself. He watched their slow progress for a few more minutes before he turned his back to the bitterly cold wind and hurried back to camp where he intended to have another one of those honey cakes and a bottle of wine to wash it down with. “I gotcha now, I gotcha now,” he sang gleefully as he practically skipped back over the pass to tell Crandle the good news.

The pigeon was in the trap and ready for plucking.