It felt to as if the arms of the trees were swooping down on him, and their roots writhing, eager to trip his fleeting steps. There was malice in the air; that same malice being sucked into his lungs, as the darkening sky seemed to pour into the forest canopy itself.
With no torch, the darkness of the first sunset soon became almost total in the thicket of wood and leaves. hands clumsily searched in front of him, groping onto the nearest piece of bark for stability. The trees twisted and groaned at his touch, and not for the first time this day. quickly removed his hand, wary of trickery.
Ahead in the near distance a small spot of glowing orange revealed itself from behind the thickness of the leaves as a torch was lit. This far away from the city and so remotely perched, it could have only been a messenger hut, usually housed by a lone runner or two. headed for it, desperate to ask for a torch of his own. Not wanting to scare the inhabitant of the hut, tried to circle round to the front of the slope on which the light was coming from. He took careful steps in the darkness, eager not to fall into a hole or worse, but all his carefulness was for nothing as the ground suddenly dropped from beneath his feet.
The air around him snapped loudly, as if the thick trees were being bent like twigs. A blast of hot hair scolded along spine, and sent him skyward. Faster than the young warrior could feel he was tumbling through the forest canopy and crashing on the floor. Instinct made him scramble to his feet, but he could see no enemy. Quickly he ran to the incline leading to the glowing torch fire. Looking behind he watched as the forest was sucked into a chasm like a cloth pulled through a tube. The night air tingled, the temperature plummeting until breath sparkled before him.
“Who goes there?” A voice called from behind
spun with eyes wide searching in the dark. At the top of the incline was a man who stood tall like a warrior, he was robed, but clearly carried a sword – he didn’t step any closer. “My name is , I seek passage north,” the young warrior said.
“Where have you come from?”
Even at distance and in the dark could feel the man’s eyes pouring over his details. “I’ve come from the city. Can I ask, did you just see what happened to forest...?”
“The forest’s gone to shit. Something has upset the gods. Only a mad man would travel by night, and with no provisions. Come inside and meet my lads, we’ve all been expecting you.”
The man turned and walked back towards the fire. cautiously followed, partially glad that the total darkness made it impossible to discern what had truly happened in the woods just then – although he was still in awe of the power of it. Trees that had stood for hundreds of years were snapped like twigs, the very earth kicked up and rolled beyond recognition. It worried him, but he had to control it, or else what was the point of continuing...?
Once he reached the fire, could see that what he thought was a messenger hut was a very well camouflaged camp, made of a series of six closely arranged huts circling a fire that sat below the other side of the incline and out of sight to anyone approaching from the south. The man beckoned for to follow him inside the largest hut. Inside the young warrior found himself in a warm and spacious dwelling that commanded the most light from the nearby camp fire.
The man removed his robe as he sat down. He appeared every bit the fighter, his chest and arms scarred in several places, his skin marked with eagles and serpents, his head completely shaved except for a single braid over his left ear. sat before him and they were soon joined by a four other men, clearly also warriors of some distinction. “I’m the guard captain of this post, my name is , and these are my men.”
nodded firmly to each of them. They looked a hardy bunch, all sporting the same shaved head and singular braid. He could only assume it was the sudden impact of seeing the forest sucked away that had undermined his cautions, as he realised he now sat surrounded by armed and dangerous men. “Thank you for letting me stop here, . As I said, I’ve travelled from the city, I’m heading north and I have further still to go.”
smiled, “We know. Atl...” he nodded to a wiry and travel stained man, “ set out from the city last night, he arrived a few hours ago with an important message from the High Priest, . We were told to look out for a lone traveller, young and heading north.”
never took his eyes away from as the hut fell silent except for the crackle of the nearby fire. “And what were your orders once you found this person?”
leaned forward, peering coldly into eyes. “We were instructed to give you shelter, and provide any food or drink you may need.”
was very conscious of the positioning of the 4 other warriors in the room, “I’ll take what food I can and be on my way.” stood up, causing the warriors to close in around him. “Ah, sorry, and I’ll have one of your torches too. It’s pretty dark outside.”
stood at the same height as the young warrior and met him face to face, “I’ve been stationed in these woods for years, and I have never known the gods to be so angry. They’re destroying their own forest, looking for you. It wouldn’t be safe for you to travel with things like this happening. So I urge you to stay, and then at first light we can assess how to progress.”
“, I will be leaving tonight. And I urge you not to get in my way.”
Sweat glistened over forehead and his eyes bulged with intensity, “Sorry boy, orders are orders.”
Including , was surrounded by five men. He would have to kill them all, or else risk being followed further into the woods. The men seemed of a different kind to those in palace. Left in the woods to hunt and kill enemies, these warriors had a feral hunger about them.
The fire outside continued to crackle and spit, as the wind fed its flames. could sense a sword being raised behind him, and just in the corner of his eye he could see the thin runner notching an arrow to his bow. clasped his hands around the hilt of his sword as his shoulders moved about under his robe, quietly limbering up. palms grew hot as he clenched his fists tightly, and his heart, which had barely had a moments rest since the morning started pumping again.
Blood was only one pulse away from being spilled across the ground of the hut, but the tension was broken by the ragged entrance of another messenger. He was a boy, younger even than , although the anguish on his face masked the fact. He was slick with greasy sweat that glimmered as he staggered past the fire and fell before . “I... bring message...”
“From who? You fool,” snapped.
The boys breath sounded harsh and devoid of moisture, “From Lord ... care of Princess ... Previous orders, care of the High Priest now revoked... All... lone travellers heading north to be given, food, shelter, advice... safe passage, protection and any weapons required.”
, dragged the boy up to face, “And what guarantee do you place against this order?”
“...my life, as ordered by the Princess herself.”
dropped the boy to ground, and waited over him, watching him spread over the floor in exhaustion. “Message received. , give him water.”
untied his skin of water and sat the boy up to take a sip. “If he’s come from the city, then he probably set out just after me. This traveller must be somebody special,” said absently.
smirked, “He certainly looks special...” turning to , he was quick to remove any sense of light heartedness from his countenance. “Two of the cities fastest runners have come to me in the same day, because of you. First I’m supposed to hold you, kill you if necessary. Now I’m supposed to assist you and give you weaponry. What do you have to say about that?”
had no sensible comment. It intrigued him equally that had arranged to neutralise plans to stop him. But whether he could trust her intentions was a different matter entirely. Either way, he was not about to let an opportunity pass. found his eyes falling to the hilt of sword, the handle of which was incredibly well made. “Well, I guess orders are orders,” said.
and his five warriors had sped through the woods like an arrow through air. The gods were with them, and not a single obstacle stood in their way. Not one of Eagles questioned his order as he summoned them for quick departure. They trusted his judgment in the hunt, and in the pursuit of battle.
His party had made good progress from the city by late afternoon. The lead scout, had them after picking up trail heading on the obvious path north. Even still it would not have been possible to catch him by nightfall had it not been for the help of the gods.
The six men came across a stream had crossed earlier, and they stopped to drink briskly and refill their water skins. As they drank from the stream the water shone a golden glow. was the first to feel its impact, as he felt an unending spark ticking through his muscles. His stamina was not just recovered, but improved as he felt his lungs had grown to inhale the world. He could smell deeper and hear further than ever before. He had never known such power, not even in the height of battle. His men quickly knelt to offer prayer to , the god of water and caves, acknowledging his blessing.
Empowered by the river god, and his men set forward, eating away the distance, running without even stopping to check tracks. Their noses guided them to the scent of has he headed further north. The beasts of the forest escaped their charging path, and the very trees twisted out of their way. Their road could not have been clearer.
So it was that they arrived at the end of the trail as the night began to creep over the land. A hidden gathering of huts lay before them in the night with a single camp fire. They could smell the men inside, each one carrying a musky scent of their own. There were six in there, including , and by what their ears told them, a newly arrived messenger. With their new found strength the task at hand would be made simple.
led the way, his warriors fanning out to encircle the camp. The giant crouched down low, stalking his way forward in shadow, quietly enough for the crackling camp fire to mask his approach. His men were placed in position to charge through the main hut and bring it down, making those trapped inside easy targets as they struggled to escape. His second in command, , was positioned just behind him to kill anyone who may get free.
gave the signal, and the attack begun. The battle cry destroyed the night time quiet as four Eagles smashed into the hut, bringing it down. came forward, his sword untied and raised above his head. The first out was a boy, young and ragged looking. cut him down, smashing the edge of the blade through his skull. Before he could advance, the fallen roof of the hut was thrown upward, the men underneath rolling clear. Eagles swung back in, and a vicious mêlée began.
stepped back from the skirmish, looking for his quarry, when from nowhere his ears ordered him to turn left. leapt from over the camp fire with a two handed swing for head. The giant warrior parried it easily enough, before replying. They exchanged attacks by the fire light, while the other men fought in darkness. Each cross of swords in the night was met with a scream of pain as someone was wounded. loved every moment of it.
“The gods have blessed me, cousin,” he bellowed as he stabbed his sword for gut, “They do not want you to succeed!” slipped the attack, spinning to launch a kick to chin. took the blow, it was impressive, and maybe would have floored him if not for the strength given to him by the gods. The giant warrior responded with a left hand punch that caught forehead. soon had the boy on the back foot as he swung his sword tirelessly. could not match his ferocity as he nearly suffered decapitation at the tip of blade; kissing the side of his neck. Not willing to give credit, had to reluctantly concede to himself that the boy was resilient. But his strength could only last so long.
Knocking aside defence with a massive upward thrust the boy finally seemed out of options – and was sure he had him. But just a hairs width form contact the young warrior rolled clear. “I don’t have the time to kill you,” sneered as he turned and ran from the fighting, and into the woods.
went to give chase when from the left he was tackled to the ground. The man who held him was not one of his own, but his head was shaven in the style of the shorn ones - the elites of battle. Regardless, jutted the hilt of his sword into the man’s temples until his grip released. He went to stand, but found himself still trapped. Looking behind he found the warrior holding his legs. sought to free himself of the burden, kicking harshly at his face, “Idiot, let me go!”
From behind a battered face the man replied, “Those are not my orders...”
Furious, stomped at the fool until he was sure he heard his neck snap. As he stood he could still smell near, but he couldn’t see him. The rest of his men came from out the woods, bloodied and grinning. “Report!” ordered.
“We killed three, you got the leader; two missing,” the lead scout said.
“Shit! Hopefully caught them. is still...” Simultaneously their ears perked up as an arrow flew from the darkness of the forest. dived to ground as the arrow buried into the side of head.
A thin man burst from behind the bushes chased by . The second in command hurled his sword with deadly accuracy, cleaving a chunk from the fleeing mans neck. The others wasted no time and followed into the darkness of the woods. The hunt was on, and the prey was wounded. rushed to the front of the party, his eagerness to kill leading him forward.
He went to turn around a broad and vine drenched tree when a hot blow struck across his stomach. His momentum carried him further into the impact as whatever it was that struck him slid roughly out. To his surprise he was winded and collapsed a few steps after. His legs felt wet, as liquid oozed down them. As his men came up behind him, he could just about see the shape of back as he ran sword in hand, disappearing into the forest. He tried to order his men after the boy, but his words were muffled in bloody foam. The smell of his own insides overpowered him, and his ears were deaf to everything but the rapid pulsing of his mortal fluid. He tried to stand, but he felt his stomach give way as his bowels were ejected from the wound gaping across abdomen.