They were running through the forest as they had so many times before. Korine and Arteris never were in one place for too long because they were usually driven out by people who would not accept them. They had to leave their village of Partha because of their love and had been on the run ever since. This time was different, though. Korine was pregnant and very soon to give birth.
The two men chasing them were riding horses and had spiked clubs. On their clothing were gruesome arrangements of bones. These must be the Terrons, Arteris thought. Arteris tried to hurry his wife as much as he could, but she was too heavy with child. She did not move fast at all.
Korine could see another warrior coming after them for another pass. Why did they always have to be hunted or rejected?, she wondered. She tried to move away, but her foot caught under a root of one of the tall trees. She fell forward into the rocks and grass.
Arteris stood in front of her trying to protect her from the two men who wished to strike them both down and kill them. All Arteris had for protection was a walking staff they had been using. He could only seem to block the blows, but he was bruised and bloodied with every pass. Eventually the men would wear down his defense.
Dar and Tao had been gathering supplies from the forest. The forest always amazed Tao because it had so many gifts and surprises to it. Some of them he knew, and some of them were shown to him by Dar. Tao liked the fruits and berries, the flint rocks, and some of the plants he found could be used for medicines.
Ruh was walking near them. The tiger would come and go as he pleased. It was always Ruh's way. Ruh decided to go investigate more of the underbrush of the forest.
Just then, Dar heard a woman's scream. He looked up and tried to find the sound. Dar mentally asked Ruh if he could see anything. Ruh let Dar see through his eyes that a pregnant woman was on the ground with a man in front of her trying to defend her from two Terrons.
Dar ran to help her with Tao running behind him.
When they had come to the part of the forest where Arteris and Korine were, Dar drew out his staff to challenge the Terrons.
"This seems to be an uneven fight, don't you think?"
"Beastmaster," spat one of the Terrons, "this has nothing to do with you."
"Oh, but it does. You can't go hurting innocent people."
Dar took his long staff and used it to knock a Terron off his horse. When the man tried to get up, he hit him in the head with the knotted end of the staff.
The other Terron, seeing the Beastmaster, went over to try to kill this much better prey. The Terron tried to ride by Dar and attack him with his club. Dar anticipated the move, and used the flat end of his staff to knock this one off the horse.
"You Terrons really need to learn how to ride horses," teased Dar.
"Shut up and fight, Beastmaster!"
Dar disconnected his staff into two parts and started hit the men with each end. One fell down, but when he got up, Dar kicked him squarely in the jaw.
The Terrons looked to one another and nodded that it was time to retreat. Before Dar could get another chance to inflict injury, they ran away from the Beastmaster and the two they had been hunting for sport.
After the Terrons went away Dar turned to the man and offered his hand. "My name is Dar, and this is my friend, Tao."
"Thank you for your help. I am Arteris, and this is my wife Korine. She is pregnant, and we need the help of a midwife or a shaman. Do you know where we can find one?"
"Dar, she twisted her ankle when she fell over the root," Tao pointed. "Even if we could find a midwife, she wouldn't be able to walk there."
"You can stay with us, and we can try to fix Korine's ankle. I am sure we can try to find a midwife for her," Dar offered.
"That would be most appreciated," Arteris said.
"Here, take this. It's willow bark, and it will help with the pain," Tao offered Korine.
"Dar, we will have to make something so we can bring her back to the sanctuary. I can lace some sticks together for a travois. We can lay Korine on it and pull it behind us."
"I don't want it to hurt my wife," Arteris warned.
"It is the best way we can get her to safety," Tao said and Dar agreed with him.
When Tao had fashioned the sticks together, they were ready to carry Korine on them. Arteris took off his shirt and put it over the sticks to give her some comfort.
They traveled on to the sanctuary. Korine said very little. The willow bark Tao had given her helped ease the pain, but most of it was still there. She tried to sleep to block away the pain. Maybe when she awoke it would be gone.
Tao tried to look at the sleeping woman. She was a study of opposites. Korine was deformed on one side of her body, yet the other side appeared as a normal woman. On her deformed side, Tao noticed that her leg seemed to be shorter and her hand was withered and gnarled like a claw. The bones on that side of her face were too large causing her mouth to be open and her eye to be hidden. He could see bare patches of her scalp where hair was missing.
Tao swallowed hard and tried not to stare, for it was rude. Terrons had showed him true ugliness. While this woman might be hard to look upon, there was much more danger in the world that hid itself behind a beautiful face.
Tao then spied a glance at Korine's husband Arteris. He looked familiar, yet Tao did not know why. Arteris was tall and strong. He had short dark hair and warm eyes with wrinkles at the corners that had been earned through many smiles.
The couple in their appearances seemed so different. There must have been something deep that bound them together. Love was not always rational, but Tao knew it was a powerful force.
When they had gotten Korine to the sanctuary, Tao started his medicine. Korine had a twisted ankle with cuts and bruises that were surely inflicted by the Terrons. Tao had learned a few tricks in his travels that could hopefully help her.
Arteris looked on anxiously as Tao treated Korine's wounds.
"You can relax. I trust him with my life," Dar assured him. "Why don't you come with me to gather fire wood? You will be of more use to her that way than to stay here and worry."
Arteris nodded his agreement and walked with Dar to find fire wood.
After they had gathered some sticks Dar asked, "Why were you running from the Terrons?"
"Korine and I are different. We always have been. Our own village wouldn't accept us, so we left. We haven't had a home since then. We roam from place to place trying to find somewhere to call home."
"But why? Is it because of something you had done?"
"Yes. I loved her. Korine was the village outcast because she was born deformed. Shortly after she was born many bad things started to happen. Animals died, and crops were poisoned. The old superstitious ones blamed it all of Partha's troubles on her. She was permitted to live, but just barely. I know her family beat her."
"Because she was born deformed?" Dar asked incredulously.
"Yes. You can see when you look at her that she isn't like the rest of us." Arteris sighed and said, "The stupid are easily scared by what they do not understand."
"How were you able to meet her?"
"I had gone fishing day when I was still a child. I was alone and walking to the edge of the water. I heard a twig snap and there she was," Arteris remembered with a smile. "I think she was as surprised to see me as I her. She was about to bathe in the water."
"What did you do?"
"I stayed. At first I wasn't sure why. Maybe it was only curiosity, but I could never stay away. Then I began to know the person inside. Do you know that Korine has the most beautiful singing voice?"
Dar smiled back at the comment.
"I became a very good fisherman that summer," Arteris winked.
Dar and Arteris were done collecting wood for the fire and were on their way back to the sanctuary. Arteris suddenly felt very thirsty and walked over to the river to get a drink from the flowing waters. As he was about to put the water to his lips, he was caught up in a purple typhoon of magic and taken away.
Dar watched in surprise. "Sorceress!" he growled.
Before Dar would build rage against the Sorceress, he heard a woman's scream coming from the sanctuary. Korine! Dar made great haste back to the sanctuary so he could try to help her.
The Sorceress had a habit of watching Dar. He intrigued her and she wanted the secret of his power. When she saw Dar with this new companion, she could not believe her eyes. Sharak had returned to human form! When he bent to get a drink of water, she took her opportunity to bring him to her. He stood before her now examining his surroundings and she could barely contain her excitement.
"Do I know you?" Arteris softly spoke.
"Don't you remember me?" the Sorceress guardedly said.
"I'm not sure we ever met. Who is Sharak?"
"He is... He was a friend."
Arteris looked at the blonde woman standing impassively before him. "Are you a sorceress?"
"I am. Tell me who you are."
"I...I... I am only a simple fisherman."
"I saw you running from the Terrons, and then the Beastmaster came to your aid. Are you special? Maybe I need to keep you for my own, hmm?"
Arteris looked at her and tried to swallow his fear.
The Sorceress looked at him up and down. She had so wanted to believe that this man was her love Sharak come back to her. This man could be him. Every detail reminded her of the lover she once knew, the lover who was cursed to live as an immortal eagle. If it was not Sharak, she could still use his appearance to her advantage. The Sorceress smiled to herself at the plan that was beginning to form.
Dar rushed back to the sanctuary as fast as he could. He kept hearing Korine's screams of pain. He did not know if it was an attack of Terrons in his home or the pain of birth. Either way, the sound gave him no reassurance.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw only Korine and Tao. Thankfully, there were no Terrons here. They hadn't defiled his home, and he hoped they never would. His moment of relief was short when he realized that Korine had begun her labor to bring forth her baby.
"Dar!" Tao acknowledged. The stressed Eiron gave his friend a look of panic. "I am no mid-wife. I know much about healing and medicines, but I have never helped with a baby!"
"You must! You're the only one who can."
"DAAAAARR!" she screamed, panting in pain. "Where... is...Arteris?"
"He, he... stopped by the river." Dar shot Tao a look of his own distress.
Tao motioned Dar to help make Korine more comfortable. With quick thinking he pulled her against him and sat behind her holding her hands. "You can lean against me. When you... aah!... feel...pain...squeeze my hands."
"Korine, I need to...uh... see if the baby is coming." Tao blushed as he moved the material of her skirt.
Still concerned she asked again "Beastmaster, will Arteris return soon? He has to be here. This is our child!"
Feeling full of guilt, he told the woman, "Korine, he was taken by the Sorceress.."
Tao gasped, "The Sorceress?"
Korine screamed from anger and pain, "NOOO!" and angrily thrashed her head against the Beastmaster's chest.
"Tell me your name," the Sorceress commanded softly.
"I am called Arteris. I came from the village of Partha."
She looked at him, seeming to read his thoughts. "You were a prince of your village, weren't you? But you're not there. Why is this?"
"Y...y..yes. How did you know that?" He puzzled.
She waved her hand over the pool of water in the amethyst. Images from his life rushed by as a sweeping river.
"If you can see all this, do I really need to explain? Please, send me back! My wife, Korine, is injured and about to have our baby. Will you help me?"
"Oh, your baby! Let us see." She waved her hands again over the large amethyst basin and the image of Korine with Dar and Tao appeared. Korine was in the throes of birthing pain. She lay against Dar, firmly squeezing his hands. Tao was before her trying to coax the baby out of its hiding place.
Arteris looked achingly at the images. He needed to be with his beloved. All his position and titles had never meant anything to him. All that was important to him in this world was his Korine and their new child.
"The baby will probably be healthy. It gives her quite a fight to come out," the Sorceress observed.
"Please, I beg of you. Send me back! I must be with her. Korine is... she is the reason I wake in the morning, the woman who makes me want to be a man of honor. Your Sharak, did he never do this for you?" the fisherman guessed.
"You know nothing of Sharak!"
"No, no... I don't. Was he a man of honor?"
Hiding her face, the Sorceress replied, "Yes, but he followed me. For what? For love? He was a fool."
"Oh, never. If he loved you, it must have been worth it for him. Where is he now?"
"He lives a cursed life because of me," she stared angrily at him.
"He surely must have chosen his own way. Let me choose mine. Send me back to the one I love. If you don't do it to help me, please do it for my wife or for my child, or maybe... for your Sharak."
Arteris stood before her begging with his eyes. The Sorceress looked back at him, her heart aching. He was the very appearance of her Sharak in flesh. If she just had the thought of a spell, he would be hers. The Sharak she knew would never approve, though, and she knew it. She could never bear the thought of losing the love of the real Sharak.
Lifting up her chin with determination, she addressed the expecting young father before her. "I will let you return, Arteris, but mind you well that everything comes with a price. There will be a time very soon that I will call on you for a favor. You will comply to what I ask, no matter what, when or where. Do you understand?"
"Oh, yes, anything! Thank you, Sorceress!"
"Do not forget. There will be a time when I will call on you again."
She waved her hand and he was gone. The Sorceress walked into the depths of her aerie as Arteris stumbled back to the Beastmaster's sanctuary.
He was disoriented, but Arteris knew he was near the Beastmaster's home. He listened and heard his Korine, crying out in pain. He rushed in the direction of the sound and came the small clearing. He took a moment feel the impact of the scene before him. Korine was there against the Beastmaster with his healer friend Tao helping the baby.
Dar looked up. "Arteris!"
Korine, breathing heavily, turned to look at her husband. "Dar said a sorceress...took you." She tensed as another contraction overpowered her.
"My love, do you think sorcery could keep me apart from you? Never!" He smiled, rushing to her and kissing her hand. He stroked her face. "It will only be a little longer. Be strong!"
Tao watched for the child and gave a whoop of triumph after the next contraction. The baby's head could be seen. "Keep pushing. Your baby is coming!"
Arteris smiled lovingly at his wife. "I know you can do it," he encouraged.
She nodded and looked to Tao.
"When you have your next contraction, push with all your strength," the Eiron commanded.
Very soon her contraction came again, and Dar knew well the pain of it. He wondered if he would ever use his hands again. That thought quickly vanished from his mind as the sound of a baby's first cry filled the forest. Korine slumped against Dar and Arteris sighed and looked at her in relief.
Tao held up the baby like a delicate prize. "It's a boy. A healthy baby boy!" He handed the child to the proud parents whose faces were glowing.
Tao smiled his lop-sided smile and commented to Dar. "At least this one is not a chameleon child who will vanish when he is set down!"
Korine, Arteris and their new son stayed with Dar and Tao in the sanctuary for a few days. The family needed to build strength for travel. It was during that time that Dar heard Korine singing a lullaby to her child. He smiled to himself. This must be the voice he first loved, the Beastmaster thought to himself.
An evening about three days after the child's birth, the new friends sat around the camp fire. Tao's Eiron curiosity finally could not be controlled. "What will you name the baby," he asked.
Arteris paused and looked to his wife Korine. She nodded, and then he turned to the men and said "Jason."
"Well, that is a nice name," remarked Tao, giving Dar a look like a proud uncle.
"It means 'healer' in an ancient language," he said.
"We thank you for your hospitality, gentlemen," Korine said. "If not for you, our child would not be safe. We are eternally in your debt."
"What will you do now?" Dar queried.
"We will continue our journey and hope to find a place to call our own. Maybe there is a village that will accept us, or maybe we will always have to live alone. It will not matter greatly. Korine and I will always have each other."
"I wish you a safe journey," Tao said.
"Thank you," replied Arteris. "And now I think my wife and I should sleep."
Arteris covered Korine and their new son Jason with a blanket, and lay himself down beside his new family. He fell into a truly restful sleep, one of the first in ages.
The next morning came and the new family was on their way. As they packed their meager belongings, Tao gave them a few gifts.
"Dar and I have some nuts and berries so you can eat on your journey."
"Thank you, Dar. Thank you, Tao." Korine smiled to her new friends.
"Oh, oh, that's not all." The Eiron said excitedly bringing out another gift to show them.
"What is this?" Korine suspiciously eyed the round disc of woven tree leaves.
"It is a toy for your child. You can throw it through the air and it will fly. See?" Tao demonstrated by tossing the disc over to Arteris.
"Hmm, fascinating. Thank you, Tao," the young father laughingly said.
"Safe journey, friends. Ruh will help guide you safely out of the forest," Dar said as he shook their hands.
"Thank you. Good-bye!" The couple waved as they turned to go.
Suddenly a woman stepped out of shimmering air to stand before the new family.
"Sorceress!" Dar rushed to stand protectively in front of his new friends.
"Beastmaster, be still," she said waving her hands. Dar stood frozen in a spell. Tao, knowing the spells of the Sorceress hesitated to speak.
"I came to give you a present, my dear." The Sorceress stood before Korine.
"You took my Arteris," Korine said cautiously.
"Yes, and I can do it again, but I gave him back. Now for you, I give you this gift. Be happy with the one you love because life and love are both fleeting."
The Sorceress raised her hands and clapped. The very air molecules around Korine seemed to rearrange themselves, and then as suddenly as it came, it was still. She looked up and down and could not believe her eyes. She had been made whole! No more did she have a gnarled claw for a hand, or would she have an uneven walk for one leg being so shorter than the other. She touched her face. Yes, she was whole as she had never before been.
The Sorceress laughed, proud of her work, and disappeared back into the air. When she left, her spell on Dar was broken and he was free to move.
Dar stared. "Korine! You're, you're..."
"As beautiful as you ever were," Arteris finished, kissing his wife.
"Well, imagine that," Tao mused.
The new family and friends again said their good-byes with smiles and laughter. Finally they left to follow Ruh through the forest.
Near the edge of the forest, Arteris heard the disembodied voice of the Sorceress. "Remember, Fisherman. You owe me a favor. I will call on you again and you will be ready, any time, any where. Do not forget."
His spine tingled as he looked at his family. No, he would not forget.