The four travelers resumed their journey and Terris began his. He had spent his entire life in the area around that small town. Such a small town that it had no other name but home. The increasingly unfamiliar woods surrounding them caused his belly to tighten and roil. He was afraid he might lose what little was left in there.
The young man, Gareth his name was, walked behind him, bow in hand, arrow nocked though not drawn. Terris knew because he kept a wary eye behind him every chance he got, and the more he looked, the worse he felt. The hairs on the back of Terris’s neck tingled, he knew that any minute he might feel an arrow penetrate his back.
He heard the twang of the bow and zing of an arrow swishing by, and fell to his knees, covering his head with his hands, frantic, sure he was about to be skewered.
“Hmph,” Gareth, his disdain audible, stepped around him and strode a short way through the cold drizzle that had been falling all day. He fetched back a small burrower. Terris knew without doubt that the man would just as willingly have brought him down.
He heaved a sigh of relief and stood up, falling back into step on the wooded path behind the girl-woman, Lisle. His feet landed softly on the rust-red pine needles covering the floor of the forest. Massive trees grew up all around. Huge, rough barked trunks soared into the air to end in deep-green needled branches high overhead. Slate grey sky peeked here and there through the dense, verdant canopy that dripped with moisture.
The Guardian spent much of that day in the air. He saw occasional glimpses of her, wings extended, soaring over the tree tops, always heading North.
The green flitter hovered beside Lisle’s shoulder then settled into what seemed to be her accustomed traveling seat. She held onto the girl’s tunic lightly with miniature hands. Terris winced. He wished he’d never seen the little crawlies. He remembered how magical they had seemed to him as a child. Now seeing the tiny flier just made him shiver.
In time, the group stopped for the night. Lisle approached and stood in front of Terris. “Y..You can c..c..cook?”
Terris shuffled his feet, looking away from those penetrating brown eyes. “Cook?” His voice came out higher than he liked. Dropping his chin, he grumbled. “I can cook.”
The girl-woman nodded and turned away.
Well, thought Terris, if I’m to cook that means I’ll not be cooked. Feeling a little better he put down his pack and went to look for firewood. He didn’t go far. There was fallen wood at hand and the man was watching. Terris didn’t want to give him any reason to come after him. Not with that steely look in his eye.
As he gathered broken branches, a thought came to him that further cheered him. If I’m the one as is doin’ the cookin’, not only’ll I not be et by that Guardian but I’ll probly be able to get somethin’ ta et for myself.
Despite the dampness of the wood, Terris was able to get a good fire going. He was pleased with himself, fire skills learned as a blacksmith served him well here. He found the pot and some grain among the things dropped by the others. From his own pack he pulled a small bag of salt and a bag of cooking herbs he had gathered at home and dried himself.
Terris was a mediocre blacksmith, but he loved to cook. Not that it mattered none. My boys woulda’ et a chunk a wood if I put it in front a them.
Gareth placed the burrower next to him and Terris fell to preparing the meal with a feeling almost like enthusiasm.
As he worked, Terris remembered the many nights he’d gone to sleep as a child, hunger cramping his belly. The fear of it gripped him now, but it looked as though he’d eat. At least tonight. Then a less appetizing thought occurred to him. Probly juss fattenin’ me up for the Guardian. Terris ducked his head, shoulders pulling in and climbing up around his ears as he hunched down and stirred the pot over the fire.
Camp that night was cold and wet. But there was plenty of good, warm supper cooked over a crackling fire, and Terris was content in that if not in his damp bedding.
The days of travel passed. Terris was sore, muscles unused to travel complaining. He felt every day of his forty odd summers. It seemed a long trip already and who knew how much longer it might go on. Daily, the tall, young man, Gareth walked with bow ready behind him. The constant tension of it made Terris jumpy and irritable.
They traveled through dense forest. Even if he could have escaped, he would have had no idea how to get back home, much less survive till he got there. He was no hunter. He could use a knife well enough. Not a bow though. He had had no time for the practice it would have required.
Feet trudging methodically forward, his thoughts meandered back to his life in the village. He was surprised that he felt no real connection there, not even with his sons. His parents were gone, as was his wife. He felt a twinge of guilt as a sense of relief filled him. He’d no longer have to support them all at a trade he disliked.
He had made a scant living smithing, crude work he learned from a man who came to town and stayed a short while with his family when Terris was a young man. Back then, he had immediately seen the possibilities of learning such a trade. But the time had been too short to learn anything but the most basic of metal work, and Terris was not naturally talented in the art. Still it fed him, his parents and wife while they were alive, and his sons.
Now, it didn’t matter what kind of smithing he did, it did him no good. The strength in his arms and shoulders didn’t help much traveling except carrying wood. It certainly didn’t help him to keep up the pace they set all day long. I’m doin’ better now though, he thought, and they don’t make me carry more’n my share.
He felt his shirt grabbed from behind.
“Trouble!” Gareth’s voice was low and guttural. “Lisle, Guardian, ‘ware.”
Terris was pushed roughly to the side. He pulled out his knife and looked around wildly. He saw a man step onto the trail ahead and fall, Gareth’s arrow in his chest. He looked for the Guardian. She was just ahead. No one would dare fight a Guardian, he thought. I’ll juss’ go on up there. Terris stole quietly up beside the Guardian and crouched behind it’s bulk. The Guardian stood, rigid and alert. Terris wondered that it did nothing aggressive, but decided that this was still the safest place to be.
The girl-woman, Lisle, stood at the Guardian’s head, whirling her sling. The green flitter hovered above her head, then shot off into the wood. Terris looked about and saw Lisle's target, a roughly dressed man, bow drawn to shoot. The man aimed at the Guardian and stepped out from beside the dark, dripping trunk of a tree. He went down hard as a rock from Lisle’s sling slammed into him, his arrow, suddenly released, tangling in the bow string as he fell. Where was Gareth?
“For the Fallen!”
The wild shout jerked Terris’s head about. Another man ran at the Guardian, crazed eyes wide in a skeletal face. He grasped a long, deadly looking knife in two hands, held high over his head, ready for a powerful, downward thrust. Terris crouched ready to run. The Guardian did nothing.
Why isn’t she protecting herself?
Frantic, terrified, Terris launched himself at the man catching him at the knees with his broad shoulders and grabbing for the knife now threatening his back. Terris knocked the man backward and grappled for the blade.
The man was big, strong and fought desperately. He flipped over, pinning Terris beneath him, using his weight to force the knife downward toward Terris’s chest. The man had a fanatical gleam in his eye like nothing Terris had ever seen. Terris grasped and pushed, straining, blind terror lending strength to the powerful muscles of his arms and hands. He forced the knife up and back, pushing the man off him with a sudden, upward thrust of his legs. Terris rolled over on top of the man, knife at the man’s throat. He had him. They both knew it. A look of grim resolve eased the rictus of tension on his assailant’s face. The man’s eyes slowly closed. Hands over Terris’s on the knife the man calmly forced the knife downward hard into his own throat.
Terris leaped back off the man, horrified. He’d never seen anything like that. Backing away he came up against a tree and slumped to the ground, shaken and trembling, staring at his blood-covered hands.
“Gareth!” The cry was high, almost a scream. Lisle raced back along the trail.
Terris looked up, stunned eyes tracking her. She threw herself to the ground beside Gareth who sat, canted at an angle, leaning one shoulder against the rusty, furrow barked base of a tree. He stared down at where an arrow protruded from his side, a bright red stain spread on his tunic. His eyes were wide with surprise and disbelief.
In case you missed a post, or if you've just tuned in to Lisle's story,
here are links to previously posted chapters to save you scrolling all the way through.
Introduction Prologue Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13
Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21