Chapter twenty two
OVER THE MOUNTAIN AND THROUGH THE WOODS
Merigan paused for a moment to wipe the sweat off her brow. They had been climbing steadily upward since they had started out this morning. In fact, they had been for the last four days. The slope was steep and working their way up was becoming quite a chore. The land was jagged here, the mountains rising to sharp peaks, the slopes covered with huge pine trees, larger than any she had ever seen in her life, their branches crisscrossing the sky above their heads, the brown needles a carpet beneath their feet. The air was cooler up here, indeed, glancing up the slopes of the nearby mountains they could see they were approaching a height where the trees failed altogether, and not far beyond that, the peaks of the mountains draped with a blanket of snow.
Even so, the hard climb left them both uncomfortably warm. They had been traveling all day without a break and it was now, she glanced up at the sun, or tried to, though the exact location of it above them was hard to judge through the canopy of trees, and it was now… well, she wasn’t sure exactly what time it was but it was surely after noon. She was hungry too, not to mention hot and tired.
Instead of replying she flopped down on the ground and opened her pack.
Willbrand stood besides her looking out at the sharp peaks and valleys of the land surrounding them as she rummaged through her pack. They were high up in the mountains now. Out from under the pine needles above their heads the sky was almost cloudless, the sun shining brightly on the slopes around them. From up here, they could see for miles in all directions not blocked by a higher peak. And all Willbrand could see was wilderness. They hadn’t seen the faintest sign of civilization since they had left the trail.
Neither one of them made any pretense anymore of knowing where they were going. There was no more argument as to which direction would lead them to Zalan. Neither of them had any clue. They were undeniably and indisputably lost.
Though Willbrand appeared outwardly unconcerned about that he was in fact deeply troubled. They were lost in a trackless wilderness with no clue as to which direction civilization lie, and though the many icy cold streams and brooks that ran gurgling down the mountains left them with little concern for thirst, the food situation was another matter entirely. As a cadet Willbrand had spent some time training in the woods but it had only been for a few days and he had been well supplied, as well as aware of the fact that he had been but an hours march from the comfort of the castle in Crotasia. It had hardly prepared him for this. He didn’t even have a bow with which to hunt.
He eased himself down beside Merigan. His outward unconcern with their predicament, of course, was just a façade for her sake. Merigan had not panicked, of course, and he really didn’t think she would. She had been through too much for her to lose her composure over something like this. Even so, he could tell she was at least as worried about their situation as he was, and he suspected that she was trying to put up a brave front for him as well. They each needed the other to bolster their resolve.
His thoughts were interrupted as his young companion handed him some bread and cheese. He readily accepted it and immediately started to wolf it down. His declaration that he was hungry had hardly been an understatement. They had been told the trip to Zalan would only take a couple of days, and had bought supplies to meet that need. As their two day trip had stretched to three and beyond they realized they would have to ration themselves to make their supplies last as long as possible. As a result they had been eating only one meal a day for the last two days. It didn’t seem like nearly enough to Willbrand and the thought of food seemed to occupy a much larger percentage of his mind than he would like of late. More than once he had been ready to suggest they cheat a bit on their decision and have a little something more to eat. He had said nothing, however. Mergian was bearing their self imposed conditions without complaint and as long as she did, he was resolved to do so as well.
As he was eating he couldn’t help but notice how hunger made things taste so much better. The hard crusted bread and bland flavored cheese from the eastern lands of the kingdom were the standard fare for travelers and had made up the bulk of Willbrand’s diet since he had been on the road. These particular foodstuffs had not been selected because of their taste, of that Willbrand could attest from the first bite he had taken. The bread was hard and crumbly and tasted almost stale to him even when it was fresh, and the cheese was so bland as to be almost tasteless, especially compared to the much sharper and, though Willbrand didn’t know it, more exotic taste of the cheese native to the Crotasian region of the kingdom. No, the provisions hadn’t been selected for their taste, but for the fact that the bread would stay fresh for weeks and the cheese, well, the cheese pretty much forever, or so it seemed, even if thrown uncovered in the bottom of a pack while taking a stroll through the desert. Willbrand had grown weary of the taste after only a few days travel but now, well, right now it tasted as good as the home cooked roast duck with all the trimming his mother used to make back in Crotasia for special occasions.
They were lost yes, but things weren’t that bad. They still had food, and there was plenty of water available. It would take them a long time to starve, and he was sure they’d find someplace long before that. Or at least, that’s what he told himself. In addition to that, they had seen no sign of pursuit since their little run in with… whoever it was that was chasing them. He was quite certain that even if the man was still alive, he was no longer on their trail. Perhaps it was better this way. Perhaps disappearing into the wilderness for a few days was exactly what they needed.
Besides, what else could they do? There was no point in panicking. He didn’t think that running down the mountainside screaming that they were going to die would be particularly productive.
Merigan was sitting quietly beside him and it suddenly occurred to him that her hands were empty and she was not partaking of the sumptuous feast before them.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” he questioned after wiping the crumbs off his face.
Merigan looked down the slope in front of them.
“I’m not hungry,” she said slowly.
He just looked at her for a moment. Frankly he didn’t see how that could be possible. She had eaten no more than he the last few days, maybe even less, and he was famished.
“C’mon eat,” he prodded. “We have to keep up our strength.”
She said nothing, just gave a sort of half hearted shrug.
He gave her a look.
“All right. That’s the last of it,” she admitted.
It took a moment for that to sink in. Then he looked down at what remained in his hands. A small chunk of cheese, a much too small chunk of cheese, as a matter of fact, and a handful of bread. That was it? That was all they had left?
Suddenly the option of running down the mountainside screaming didn’t seem so far fetched.
The words ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ started to form on his lips but, seeing the seriousness on her face, that was as far as they got.
He thrust out his hands to her.
“Here, you take the rest.”
He had to admit he was a bit chagrined at her. He knew she was trying to be noble but she should have told him just how perilously low their food supplies were.
“It’s all right, you eat…” she began but the narrowing of his eyes and the stern look on his face told her that in this he would not be dissuaded. She reached out and took the food he proffered.
“You should have said something,” he proclaimed rather petulantly.
“I’m sorry,” she replied.
He said nothing for a moment, then his face softened and he reached out and patted her arm. She gave him a rueful smile at that. He couldn’t be mad at her, especially since the real reason he was upset wasn’t because she had withheld this information but instead because he thought that being noble was supposed to be his job.
He sat there beside her with a watchful eye on her until every crumb of what they had left was gone.
“So what do we do now?” Merigan questioned when she had finished.
Good question. What could they do now, except to continue wandering around aimlessly?
He stood up, staring at the mountains around them. No direction seemed any different from any other except for varying degrees of inclination. There was nothing for as far as the eye could see that gave him any hint that civilization might lie in that direction.
His eyes turned north, up the mountainside, the direction they had been traveling for the last four days. The trees ahead of them were becoming sparse, though no smaller in stature than their brethren below. Still, there were few enough of them now that he could see quite far ahead through the spaces between. The slope climbed above them, appearing steeper yet, until the trees failed altogether. Beyond that the land was barren except for a light sprinkling of snow farther up, and beyond that, the pinnacle of the mountain pointing like a jagged finger at the heavens.
“It doesn’t look like our idea of going up is working out all that well,” he commented.
Merigan’s gaze lifted to look at the incline above them as well. She couldn’t recall much about Zalan. She had only been there a couple of times and the last time had been many years ago. The architecture there was different from anywhere else in Mandaria, all sharp angles and corners, most of the building carved out of cliff faces themselves, lending the place an almost otherworldly appearance. She remembered tall spires and minarets reaching up into the sky among the mountain peaks. She certainly didn’t see anything like that around here. No, they had missed it somehow, they had passed Zalan. She was just now beginning to realize what a vast area they had wandered into. Zalan was up here in the mountains somewhere, but without any more clues, they could wander for weeks, or longer, and not find it.
“Perhaps we should head west,” she said slowly, uncertainly.
“West? Why west?”
“The ocean is to the west,” she replied. “If we can reach it we can follow the coast back to Winsor.”
“We’re trying to get to Zalan,” Willbrand pointed out.
“Winsor would be better than here, wouldn’t you say?” she countered.
He had to admit she had a point. However, that course of action had its disadvantages as well.
“How far do you think we are from the coast?” he asked.
Merigan just shrugged.
Neither of them had any idea how far they had traveled. The coast could be a days walk away or a month. Zalan had to be a lot closer than Winsor at this point. Course that knowledge didn’t help them much when they had no idea in which direction it lay. Winsor might be farther away but at least they knew how to get back there, even if it wasn’t the fastest route.
His gut instinct told him heading back to Winsor was not a good idea. They had already been traveling four days away from Winsor, and the route Merigan was suggesting was roundabout and would undoubtedly take longer in the return. In addition to that who knows what might be awaiting them in Winsor, should they return. Would their pursuer be waiting there for them?
He didn’t know. That was the problem. There were no clear facts on which to base this decision. Anything they did would have to be a guess, and he wasn’t all that happy with guessing.
Merigan sat silently on the ground beside him, waiting patiently for his decision.
He sighed to himself. He wanted to get to Zalan, obviously, but he had to face the fact that pushing stubbornly onward just so they didn’t have to admit they were wrong was folly. The choices were really simple, continue to wander around hoping for the best or head west knowing that at least in that direction they would eventually find there way back to civilization.
“All right, west it is,” he stated.
The decision made, Mergian stood up beside him and they started off once again and one advantage of their decision made itself immediately evident. By turning west they were now following the slope instead of climbing up it. This made the going considerably easier and they made quite good time for most of the rest of the day. As the sun began to sink toward the horizon, however, their luck changed again as a long series of ravines opened up in the mountainside, as if some huge ancient creature had raked its claws down the face of the mountain. These crevices were difficult to traverse, the sides steep and the bottom filled with thorny brambles or icy cold streams, the white foamy water as it rushed down the slope having the nasty habit of concealing slippery stones beneath.
They had just climbed out of the fourth of these, though to Willbrand it seemed like many more, when without a word they both halted. Willbrand could see that Merigan was exhausted and he didn’t feel much better himself. His stomach was rumbling again, but he tried not to think about that. The sun had passed beyond the mountaintops to the west and they were now deep in shadow. They both agreed that they had had quite enough for one day.
They picked their way down the slope, heading toward a huge stand of pine trees that promised some shelter from the elements for the night. There they halted and laid their bedrolls among the pine needles blanketing the ground under the largest of the trees. Merigan slumped onto her bedroll immediately, curling up into a ball. The pine needles provided a cushion beneath, and as long as you weren’t lying directly on the needles made sleeping quite comfortable, and they had had no problems with that at least in the last few days. In fact, it made things difficult, for Willbrand insisted on keeping a watch, but the comfort of the bed made it very difficult for either of them to stay awake for very long. Both of them had been guilty of falling asleep on their watch more than once already. Nothing had disturbed them, however, and Willbrand was almost certain they had left their pursuit far behind.
Willbrand stretched his tired limbs and took one last look around before lying down himself. The mountains marched on in their endless formation in all directions, just as they had all day long. They were still high up on the slopes, and the mountainside plunged almost straight downward for a very long way to the south of them. Willbrand could see a glimmer of blue down in the valley far below of a river that wandered the bottom of it. He had to admit, the view was impressive.
Right now, however, the view that would impress him most would be the view of a rooftop peeking out from among the trees, or at least…
The thought froze in his head as he stared off to the west, farther down along the valley, just as he had myriad times during the day, each time hoping to see some sign that they weren’t quite as lost as he believed them to be, and each time seeing nothing but the tree covered slopes. By now he was quite convinced that civilization had no intention of cooperating with him.
So he was quite surprised by what he now saw.
“Merigan. Come take a look at this.”
She got to her feet, slowly and with reluctance. It was obvious she would have been much happier remaining where she was. Even so, it was clear from the look on his face and the tone of his voice that he had seen something of significance, or at least she hoped so for his sake!
“What is it?” she asked wearily.
She was next to him now and instead of answering he just pointed. At first she didn’t see anything at all except what she had seen all day long, trees and mountains, but then her heart beat a just a little faster in her chest when she saw what he was pointing out. There, far down in the valley to the west, a thin line of smoke rose up against the background of the trees.
“You sure it was this way?”
They had made their way down the slope, threading their way through the trees. At first it had been easy, the line of smoke being in plain sight. But then they had plunged down into a steep ravine, and when they emerged on the other side the trees in front of them obscured their view ahead. They had continued on as best they could, ever alert to any glimpse of the smoke they might see through the forest in front of them, but they had seen it no more. In addition to that the light was now rapidly fading. Even if the smoke came into view it was doubtful they’d be able to see it in the waxing darkness. Willbrand was sure they were going in the right general direction, but would that be enough? The trees were thick around them, and they could pass very close to their objective and not see it, and the growing darkness wasn’t helping either. Neither could he see the stars through the thick canopy over there heads. The only clue he had that they were going in the same direction was the slope of the hill, but that didn’t help all that much. With so little to go on, was it foolish to continue?
Probably, but he didn’t want to stop. There was no telling how long that fire would burn. For all he knew it could be out already, but he was certain it would be out by tomorrow morning if they stopped. They had to find it now or there was a good chance they never would.
Besides, he had had enough of this roughing it. They had no more food, and he was hot and tired. He didn’t want to spend one more night out here if he didn’t have to.
“I think so,” he replied honestly.
Merigan did not reply, though she had to admit that response hardly inspired confidence. Her thoughts were running along a similar vein as Willbrand’s. The thin line of smoke in the distance had lifted her spirits but now they were plunging again. She looked around them and all she could see was the dark forms of tree trunks. She had no idea which direction they were going in or where the campfire now lay.
If it was a campfire. They didn’t even know that for sure. She daren’t hope the smoke had emanated from a chimney. That would be too much to ask. A campfire was the most likely source, unless it was from some natural cause. She didn’t think that was likely, however. The only thing she could think of that could start a fire naturally was lightning and they hadn’t had any rain in over a week, much less a storm.
Still, what was the harm in wandering around in the dark? They were already lost. They couldn’t get more lost.
Even so, though she was just as anxious to find civilization as Willbrand was, she wasn’t all that thrilled with doing this. For one thing, the chance of injury was increased. It was almost pitch black now under the trees. They could barely see a few feet in front of them. It would be easy to come upon an obstacle unawares, or worse yet, a deep ravine or a cliff. And who knew what was out here, lurking in the darkness…
Maybe that was foolish. If there was something out here lurking it could get to them just as well if they were camped as moving. They hadn’t dared to light a fire for worries of pursuit.
In the middle of the wilderness animals almost always surrounded them, though they were rarely aware of them. Even so, nothing had disturbed them in all the time they had been out here. They had seen a bear once, two days ago, but it had been browsing and had paid no attention to them. Merigan had been through a lot in her life, she had seen her share of danger, had been in many life threatening situations. In addition to that, of course, she had her powers to call on as well. Even so, she was still just a fifteen year old girl, with a fifteen year old girl’s imagination and fears, and she had to admit it was scary wandering around in the dark while lost in a forest.
She was about to suggest they stop when the trees suddenly fell away in front of them. They stopped, looking around slowly. They stood at the edge of a wide boulder strewn clearing. The ground was steep here, falling away in front of them from right to left, and a wide swath of trees seemed to have been cleared from the slope. It was just the tiniest bit lighter here. The moon had risen, though it was still hidden by the mountains to the east. Still, it cast a faint glow. They lifted their heads and for the first time tonight saw that the sky was clear above them, and filled with stars. For the first time, also, they felt a faint breeze on their faces as the wind, unimpeded here by the forest, blew cold and crisp down from the mountaintops.
The first thing they did, of course, was look for any sign of fire or smoke, but after staring for many minutes they realized to their disappointment that there was no sign of the smoke they had seen earlier. Either it was gone altogether, or, more hopefully, they just couldn’t see it in the dark. Merigan’s spirits had improved when they entered the clearing. She felt much better having some light, faint though it might be, but this was tempered by the disappointment of not seeing the source of the smoke.
Willbrand, however, pointed ahead.
“We are not far from it,” he announced.
“How do you know that?” Merigan questioned.
“See those two hills over there, the one’s that look like a camel’s back? I saw that before when we first spotted the smoke. I don’t think it was far from them.”
Merigan’s spirits lifted once more and they started forward again. Almost immediately they realized that the clearing in front of them was strewn with more than just boulders. All around them were the remains of trees as well. Large stumps shot up from the ground, rising just a few feet before being cut off. The remains of the trees lay on the ground beside the stumps, apparently snapped off like twigs. Willbrand guessed that an avalanche had shattered the whole side of the mountain here. They picked their way across but the broken terrain was difficult to traverse. Large boulders and the remains of the huge trees constantly blocked their way, and had to be either tediously climbed over or they had to go out of their way to find a path around. Footing was treacherous, and the chance of injury great. Because of this progress was exasperatingly slow, and they had made it little more than half way across before they had to stop to rest on the top of an especially large trunk of a fallen tree. There they sat, side by side, looking out into the darkness around them.
“Do you think we’ll be able to find it?” Merigan questioned after a while.
Willbrand stared off into the dark.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “I was hoping we’d see some sign of it by now. Maybe we just need to get closer though. We’ll head down nearer to those hills. If we don’t see it then, we’ll find some place and make camp.”
Merigan nodded in agreement and they fell silent. The air was colder now. The breeze coming down from the mountains was chill. While expending all that energy climbing over boulders and trees they hadn’t really felt it, but now he saw Merigan shiver beside him.
He reached out and slipped his arm around her, and she leaned into him, resting her head on his shoulder. He had to admit it felt good to have her there, next to him. He hadn’t had much chance to reflect on his feelings for Merigan. That sort of thing fell into the background when you were being chased by someone wanting to kill you, or lost in the wilderness without any food. Yet even so she was never far from his thoughts. It was plain that something was growing between them, though exactly what it was he couldn’t say quite yet, whether it was love or just a camaraderie that came from being thrown together in a situation as desperate as this. All he knew was he was it felt good to have her here by his side, damn good. Sitting here under the stars, he could almost forget their predicament, could imagine himself instead in the forest in Crotasia, just outside the castle at night. The stars here were no different from there. It was easy to imagine he was close to home, that Merigan was just a simple girl from Crotasia, and that all their troubles didn’t exist, or were just a bad dream.
Of course, imagining it didn’t make it true. They were both far from home, if either of them could even call anyplace home anymore. Even if they escaped from their current dilemma they still wouldn’t be safe. They were heretics, and would be hunted for the rest of their lives.
The rest of their lives. It was hard for him to imagine that. He didn’t want to live like this his whole life, constantly on the run. Somehow, some way, he had to believe there would be and end to this. Maybe if they got the book back to the others, maybe then someone could do something.
Even with the book though, what could they really do? What could the few of them do against the King?
He sighed silently. This was just another thing in the back of his mind, along with his feelings for Merigan. There wasn’t anything he could do about any of that right now. Just take things one step at a time, that was best. Whether the King was after them or not would be irrelevant if they starved out here in the woods.
A light fell on them and they both turned to look upslope, seeing that the moon had finally risen above the peaks. It wasn’t even half full, yet after the darkness of a moment ago it seemed to shine like a beacon suspended in the air. The whole side of the mountain was now bathed by its silvery glow.
“Well, at least we can see where we’re going now,” Willbrand commented.
He turned to look at her. They had only been sitting for a few minutes, and had hardly had time to catch their breath, yet he didn’t want to linger. There was no shelter here from the elements, and Willbrand glanced warily at the slopes around them. If an avalanche had done this, who was to say there would not be another?
“Ready to go?” he asked.
She nodded, wanting to get this ordeal over with just as much as he. The sooner they got to the other side the sooner they could rest, whether they found the fire or not.
As they stood up again she glanced up the slope at the silvery moon one more time. The trees lined the slopes around them now like dark shadows reaching into the sky. The moonlight filled the clearing, but underneath the trees, all was blackness.
Or so it seemed at first.
The sharp intake of his companion's breath caused Willbrand to turn and look at her, seeing her staring up the slope, back the way they had come. He turned automatically to look that way as well, even before her hand came up to point. He saw there the same slope she did, the same moon hanging above the mountaintop, the same silvery lit clearing, and the same shadowy figure near the trees where they had emerged from the forest.
Willbrand’s hand wrapped around his sword as he felt his heart suddenly thud in his chest. The figure was far away and still partially in shadow, but it had the unmistakable look of a human. Had their pursuer somehow found them after all?
Even as he looked the figure turned and disappeared beneath the trees once more.
“Let’s get out of here,” he heard Merigan whisper beside him.
They turned and continued on their way down the slope, the fatigue suddenly dropping away as if it had never been. Even with the light, they couldn’t run. The ground was too broken up for that. Of course, Willbrand took some comfort from that fact that their pursuer would be at the same disadvantage.
If it was their pursuer. There was no guarantee that the man they had just seen was the same man that had followed them from Donolen. They had met no one in their travels, but that didn’t mean there weren’t other men here, hunters or miners or trappers. Hadn’t they come this way because they had seen a fire? Perhaps this man was some innocent traveler and it was his campfire they had seen. Perhaps they were running away from someone who could save them.
He didn’t know, but something else was bothering him. The man had only been visible for a moment, then had turned and disappeared into the trees. Willbrand had only seen him move for a short distance but there had been something… wrong about it. He hadn’t moved like a normal person would move. There had been something odd about it, like the man had a limp or something. It had been an odd loping gate.
He wasn’t sure what to make of that, of if it meant anything at all. He couldn’t help remember, however, how they had last seen the man tumbling down a very steep slope, a tumble that could quite easily have damaged the man’s leg enough to cause him to limp. He had a feeling that, should they be caught, it was not something that would put the man in a good mood.
Willbrand kept looking back. He didn’t see anything, but with all the boulders and tree stumps littering the clearing, it would be easy to miss someone behind them. Finally, after long minutes, they reached the other side and plunged once more into the darkness. There they paused once again, sheltered under the trees, looking back for any sign of pursuit.
For a moment Willbrand saw nothing, but then he spotted movement. Out in the clearing a dark shape came into view momentarily, then just as quickly disappeared. To his great surprise, it was followed a moment later by a second figure.
“There’s more than one of them,” he hissed.
Doubt immediately assailed him. Their pursuer had been alone, of that he was certain. If there was more than one, it could very well mean that whoever was behind them was not the man that was chasing them at all. Once more he thought that perhaps they were fleeing for no reason, and whoever was behind them was just some innocent passerby.
Or, perhaps, their follower had picked up an accomplice.
If only it were daylight. He had only gotten a glimpse of those behind. In the light he might be able to tell if it was the man they had encountered earlier. The bald head and crimson cloak would give him away from quite a distance. In the dark they just couldn’t tell until he got closer, and if it was he, he was already too close for comfort.
On the other hand they had come here to find people. The fire had been around here somewhere, so it was natural they would find people here as well, wasn’t it? That was the whole idea, after all. Were they running away from their savior?
Flee or announce themselves? Willbrand stood there, uncertain of what to do.
Merigan was filled with doubt as well. She also hadn’t failed to notice the odd gait the man had used when he had vanished in the forest, and again when they had seen him just a moment ago. She, however, had noticed an additional detail. The second man they had seen had also been moving in the same odd manner.
Slowly she willed herself to relax, and then reached out with her mind.
She wasn’t a telepath. She couldn’t read minds. Nor could she tell their intentions, or their emotions. She could touch them, detect their presence, but that was about all. And after a moment she did. There were four of them!
She was about to blurt that out, but then hesitated. There was something not quite right…
She wasn’t sure how she did what she did. She didn’t know why she could detect someone’s presence, but she had to assume it was related to her power to cast illusions. She had wondered this aloud on occasion and Saramis had suggested that it was all related to her ability to touch other minds. The illusions she cast were not conjured up in the air, he explained, they were placed by her in the other person’s mind. If she could reach into their mind to cast her illusion, she could reach into their mind to detect their presence. She wasn’t sure if that was quite right but it made the most sense of any of the theories she had been offered. The thing was, the ability wasn’t limited to people. She could sense animals as well, or at least, certain kinds of animals. Beasts with fur she could detect, but nothing else. Birds, scaly creatures, insects, she was as blind to these as an ordinary person. Saramis had told her this was because furry creatures were closest in the animal kingdom to humans, and that similarity was what let her detect them. Yet even so there was a difference. She could tell right away if she was feeling a human mind or an animal. The impression she got was distinctly different. After all these years she could tell instantly if she was touching the mind of a human or a beast, yet now… now she was getting an impression that seemed neither man nor beast, that she had never felt before.
“They’re… not human,” she murmured.
“There are four of them. They’re not human. They don’t have human minds,” she reiterated.
Willbrand wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“You mean they’re animals?” he questioned eventually.
“No,” she replied. “Or maybe yes. I’m not sure. An animal mind and a human mind are distinctly different. I can tell them apart immediately. But these, I’ve never felt anything like them before. Not quite human, but not animal either. I don’t know what they are.”
Well, that kind of threw a monkey wrench in his reasoning. Either friend or foe he hadn’t been sure who was following them but he had assumed they were at least human. In a way, however, he saw immediately that it made things simpler. The possibility that it was a friendly hunter or anyone who might help them was obviously no longer an option.
Whatever they were, they had come out of the woods at just about the spot he and Merigan had emerged, which let him to the conclusion they were being stalked. Perhaps whatever it was that was behind them was just curious, but more likely the scales had just been tipped quite heavily to the side of hostile.
“Let’s get out of here,” he announced.
Merigan was in no mood to argue.
They forged ahead. Under the trees once more the light from the moon was almost completely cut off. Again they could barely make out where they were going, or what lie ahead. Willbrand’s pace slowly increased until Merigan was practically running to keep up. It was obvious that her companion thought whatever was behind them was a threat, and she did not disagree. When they had first seen the figure behind them her fear had been the same as his, that the man who was pursuing them had found them. That was apparently not the case yet she didn’t know if they were any better off because of that or not. For all they knew, the creatures behind them could be worse than any human they might blunder into, much worse.
Willbrand looked back and, seeing her falling behind, grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her forward. She could see that in his other hand he held his sword. The ground went steeply downhill here. Willbrand was almost running himself now, and it was difficult for Merigan to keep her footing. The ground was hard to see, and she stumbled more than once as he pulled her forward. There were no longer boulders and fallen trees to contend with, but the brush was denser here than it had been on the other side of the clearing, and there was no trail. It was impossible to see the underbrush surrounding them until they were plowing right through it, the branches tearing at their unprotected arms and worse yet, occasionally at their faces.
Willbrand winced as another branch ripped the flesh on his arm. Not only was the underbrush causing injury, but the crunch of it underfoot or slapping against them gave away to any pursuer exactly where they were. Willbrand listened carefully. It was impossible to move silently through the underbrush in the dark, or at least it was for him and Merigan. He hoped that those following them suffered from the same handicap.
He heard no sound of pursuit. Those creatures behind them were either too far away or too stealthy. He hoped it was the former.
The ground rose up in front of them, and Willbrand almost tripped over the sudden change in elevation. The trees had thinned a little, and some of the moonlight seemed to be seeping in. Either that or his eyes were adjusting to the darkness, for he could make out the way ahead just a little bit better now. The land didn’t rise for long. After a short distance it leveled out, then plunged downward even more steeply than before. Willbrand was thankful for what little light there was. The land dropped suddenly, and if it were as dark as before he had a feeling he and Merigan would be tumbling down the slope at this point.
Suddenly the air was rent by a cacophony of sounds, startling the both of them. Their pursers had been following silently but now, for some reason, they apparently felt the need to give voice. If Willbrand or Merigan had still harbored the thought that those behind them were human the sounds dispelled that idea once and for all, for the sounds were the howling and barking of… well, it sounded very much like dogs to Willbrand, and if Willbrand hadn’t seen the humanlike forms behind them earlier, that would be exactly what he thought. Worse than that though, from the sound of it, their pursuers were not very far behind.
“Where are we going?” Merigan questioned.
Willbrand didn’t answer, mainly because he wasn’t sure himself. By now he was certain the creatures behind them were not after them with the intent of inviting them to tea. From the noise he heard it sounded like they were being pursued by a pack of rabid dogs. If they were attacked here, in the middle of the forest, they wouldn’t stand a chance. They had to find some kind of defendable position.
He stopped short, for the ground abruptly fell away in front of him. Willbrand looked around rather desperately. Things seemed to be going from bad to worse. He could not think of a worse place to fight, with nowhere to retreat to. They had to get out of this spot as quickly as possible.
Standing at the edge of the chasm he could see for quite a distance around them at least, and something to his right immediately caught his attention.
“There!” he exclaimed, pointing. But there was no need for Merigan had seen it too. The slope below and to their right leveled out to a wide ledge, and perched upon it, only a short distance away and plain to see, stood a stockade fence surrounding perhaps half a dozen buildings, a fire blazing in the middle of the complex.
Willbrand didn’t waste time on anymore talk, but immediately plunged back into the underbrush, heading for the outpost as best he could, Merigan in tow. They were higher up than their objective, and though it was not far away, Willbrand wasn’t sure of the way down, if one could be found at all. He couldn’t see far ahead, couldn’t tell if he was heading for a trail down to the outpost or a dead end.
He was running now, though he wasn’t quite sure at this point how long he had been. The branches reaching out like hands to drag at them he now ignored, for the sounds of howling and barking were much closer. In addition to that, for the first time, he could hear the snapping of brush underfoot and the cracking to twigs behind them. Their pursuers were almost upon them.
A branch smacked against Mergian’s face, opening a gash in her forehead and nearly hitting her in the eye. She was too breathless to cry out. The ground was steep here but negotiable. Though they could no longer see the outpost they could glimpse the light from its fire. She could see they were getting close.
Something crashed through the brush to her right. She turned just as a shadowy form leap out of the darkness. Willbrand saw it too. He swung his sword, but was unaware if it connected or not before something big and hairy slammed into him. He went tumbling to the ground, and then continued to fall. The ground was steeply downhill here, and now he found both he and his adversary could find no footing. They rolled down the hill, entangled. Willbrand saw yellow eyes staring at him above sharp fangs snapped at his face. He felt claws tearing at his side. A dank foul odor filled his lungs. His sword still clutched in his hand he tried to stab at the beast, but the sword was not meant for such close in fighting and he could not get a killing blow. Suddenly the ground dropped away below them altogether and he found himself falling through space. He twisted round, his arm forcing back the clawed hand that was driving at his neck.
They hit the ground then, with the beast underneath him. It made a guttural barking cry as it hit, the hard ground beneath and the weight of Willbrand on top of it. Willbrand instantly tore from its grasp, pulling himself to his feet. The creature did not respond, just lay still on the ground.
Merigan was pulling herself to her feet beside him. When the creature had attacked Willbrand’s hand had been pulled from hers, knocking her off balance and sending her tumbling down the hill as well. Fortunately the fall hadn’t been far and she was unhurt even without the cushion of a beast beneath her. Better still, they now found themselves in a level area cleared of trees, and before them, just a short distance away; they could see the wooden wall of the stockade.
Merigan turned and looked back up the slope. She could see movement there, a lot of it, and the howling sounds filled the woods above them.
“Hurry!” Willbrand exclaimed.
Then they were running, ignoring the aches and pains caused by the branches that had torn their skin and the fall, racing toward the stockade as fast as they could. Willbrand glanced back and saw the creatures behind them burst out into the clearing as well. There were more than four of them now. A lot more.
In spite of that Willbrand slowed, seeing that Merigan was falling behind. In a race such as this she didn’t have his speed. Even so, looking back ahead again, it seemed they had a large enough lead to safely reach the stockade first.
The wall was many arm lengths in height, far to high to climb of course. Willbrand scrutinized it as they approached and soon spotted a gate on the left side. Running directly toward it, he could also see figures looking down at them from above the stockade. He could only see their heads, and in the dark could not make out much, but it was obvious that they had drawn the attention of those within.
Finally they reached the gate. They both stopped, Merigan resting her hands on her knees, taking deep breathes to try to replenish her oxygen supply. Willbrand looked up. He could see people looking down at him quite clearly now, from right above their heads, just looking at him curiously. To his chagrin, however, the gate did not move.
Willbrand banged on it, looking up at those above him.
“Open the gate!” he shouted. “Hurry!”
No one above him made any move, nor gave any indication they even heard him. Furthermore he heard no sound of movement from within, no sound that anyone was attempting to open the gate for them.
The howls filled the air all around them now. He turned and saw a dozen of the creatures racing straight at them. If they didn’t open the gate very quickly…
“Please let us in!” Merigan cried out.
The faces above them remained unmoved, in fact, their seemed to be an almost apathetic look to them, or so Willbrand thought. Where they just going to stand there and let him and Merigan die?
Finally he heard a rattling sound from inside. A moment later the gate was shoved open, just enough for them to squeeze through. This they both did with alacrity. A moment later the gate was slammed shut and quickly barred, a second before something slammed hard against it, not once, but half a dozen times.
Willbrand and Merigan stood before the gate, they could see now in the light of the fire that blazed in the middle of the complex that they were surrounded by perhaps a dozen men, with more on the ramparts above, all of them staring at the newcomers with open curiosity.
Willbrand didn’t care. He slumped slowly to the ground, exhausted. He didn’t know who these people were and it didn’t matter. All he knew was that they had done it; against all odds they had escaped from the creatures outside and had found civilization again.
They were safe.