I did not move for what felt like hours, yet only minutes, struggling to piece together what was happening. Deep down I still hoped this was one of Telestis's jokes. Yet, in my breaking heart, I knew it was not.
My father held evil in his darkened heart, I knew this, but I never thought his heart was so blackened he would take the lives of his wife and children.
The execution, as all executions, would come at dawn, which was still a good hour or so before the crack of light broke through the horizon. Leaving me time to follow the path up the mountainside.
With the chill of the coming dawn I knew I could not stay at the wall any longer. My heart heavy with a deep sorrow I had never felt before. I got to my feet, dragging the sack onto my back, ignoring the straps cutting into my shoulders, before heading along the path leading up the side of the rocky mountain. To begin a journey which terrified me to my very soul.
I glanced back at the hole beneath the city wall. The temptation to head back through it, back into the city, almost overwhelming. I had to force myself to dismiss the idea, not wanting to cause more grief to those I love. Not wanting to break their hearts as mine now broke.
I had to be strong, to find the courage to do what they wanted me to do. To get over the mountains, walk the lands. To find the Libertas mountains. A place many slaves believed held freedom for those who sought it.
I headed along the path, ascending the mountain, all the time struggling with my tortured mind. Unable to stop the dread digging deep inside me.
The journey was easy, at first, getting over half way before the real climbing began.
I had climbed before, many times. My brothers teaching me how to spot a good foot hole, a deep enough finger grip. Now able to climb up mountains with relative ease. My low body weight and stubborn agility giving me the skills to do so.
Pushing on I soon reached a levelling plateau where I stopped to catch my breath. I turned toward the city, now able to see over the eight metre high wall. The sight of the execution platform grabbing at my heart with frozen fingers.
I knew I should keep going, not wanting to watch what I knew was to come. The dilemma of whether to watch causing such a battle between my heart and mind. To see the slaughter of my family. Of those I loved. To watch an execution mother could not hide from me. My heart still hoping Telestis was playing a joke on me.
Crouching there I watched the stillness inside the city breaking. Figures moving about with a purpose. The start of a new day dawning, beginning with the ritual of punishment. A punishment on those I love.
Time passed. Five minutes, maybe even ten, I struggled to tell. More figures running around the city. Obedient ants performing given tasks, preparing for the upcoming punishment on the platform I could see from where I crouched. The crowds around the platform soon begun to grow. Slaves watched over by heavily armed Gourians. Gourians prepared to use their weapons without remorse.
I did not want to watch what was to come, only I had to. Deep inside hoping this was all a bad dream, a nightmare I would wake from at any moment.
The crack of dawn soon spilt through the darkness of the sky. Daylight emerging over the horizon. Punishment only moments away. Mere minutes before the deaths of those I love. The crowd continued to grow. Their mumbling voices riding the gentle breeze to where I crouched. Yet I heard no cheers, nor venomous shouts for the deaths of those to be punished. An almost surreal atmosphere which seemed so strange.
It was soon too late for me to run, transfixed on four hooded figures led onto the platform. Each stepping across the blood soaked wood. Four figures? I knew three of. Not really thinking of who the fourth may well be.
I looked on in disbelief, my thoughts swimming in a sea of hurt, watching the Gourians lead the four figures forward. Yet there was something different in the behaviour of the Gourians. Something which niggled at my mind.
I watched the figures. The first one, I knew to be mother. Her slim build, straight back and familiar clothing. A proud lady who would never lower her head in shame.
The next two figures were Telestis and Adrius. Their well built, muscular frames showing beneath their clothing. Even though I could not see their faces I knew it was them. My family, who were about to be slaughtered. All for caring.
The fourth figure shuffled across the gritty wooden platform. A smaller, child-sized figure no taller than myself, from what I could see. Another victim to be slaughtered for reasons I did not know.
I watched my father step to the front of the platform, lording over the watching crowd. The scrolls of punishment unravelled in his hands. I could not hear his words from where I crouched, yet it was words I had heard spoken each day. Words already recorded in my mind.
My heart sank watching the Gourians push all four figures into their final positions. Their heads strapped onto the bloodstained wooden blocks. Their lives seconds from ending. Yet there was something strange about the crowd. Something different. Something I could not quite work out.
A single Gourian stepped forward. A heavy, cumbersome sword clutched in both hands. Arms raised above his head. He brought the blade down with a determined force. Fast and hard. Slicing through mother’s neck with a clean ease. The skin, muscle and bone no match for the sharp, weighted blade.
I watched my mother’s head, still in its hood, roll along the platform before falling to the sand below. Waiting for the crowds to swarm on it before throwing it around as if it were simply a ball. Yet no one did. No one approached it.
Then it was my brothers turn. Their lives taken in the blink of an eye. Killed with the same sword wielded by the Gourian.
The last figure, I had no idea who, was slaughtered seconds later. All four lives taken in mere seconds. Mere seconds which would live with me for ever.
I sobbed, loudly. Tears rolled down my cheeks. My stomach churned before I vomited at my feet. What little food I had in my stomach now sprayed over the rocky plateau I crouched on. The need to move on now pushing through my mind.
If my brothers were right, which I knew they always were, the Gourians would be searching the city for me. It would not be long before they realised I was no longer there. Once that happened they would begin searching outside the wall and beyond.
I got to my feet. My stomach cramped as I vomited again. My eyes stung with salted tears flowing freely, rolling down my cheeks, dripping off my chin. My determination to fulfil mother’s wishes overpowering the urge to simply give up on my own broken heart.
I headed away from the edge of the plateau, continuing the trek over the mountain. All I ever loved now gone. I had no idea how I was going to do it, or if I could, but I was more determined to fulfil mother’s wishes. Whatever happened I was going to fight on until my last breath.
With the sun rising, a new day dawning, I set off on a journey I knew nothing of. Now a lonely swan crossing the lands in search of hope. In search of freedom.
I walked away from the city wall, heading further up the mountain, unable to stop my tears falling. My grief stricken mind now clouded with confusion. Each step I took taking me away from a life I no longer had. Those I love gone. Their deaths embedded in my mind.
Without really noticing I came upon the peak of the mountain, overlooking the vast land beyond. Where I paused to catch my breath, and my thoughts. Unable to rid my mind of what I had just witnessed.
Using the compass Telestis had given me I found North. Positioning the map to give me a rough idea of what lay around me.
A scattering of villages lay North. More villages to the South. My brother’s warnings to avoid populated areas flashed through my mind. Which left only one option. To head East, across a stretch of open land, leading into the vast greenery of a forest. According to the map it was Mageonia forest.
I sat on the mountainside for a few minutes, watching dot like specks shuffling about near the villages to the North. Farmers herding cattle, ploughing land. None close to where I would walk once I reached the foot of the mountain.
With clouded thoughts I rummaged through the contents of the sack my brothers had packed for me – Ample food, water, clothing and a knife I recognised as Adrius's. I slid the knife from its sheath, looking at its twenty centimetre double edged blade. The stubby handle clutched in my hand. A thick twine Adrius had wrapped around it giving it a better grip.
Staring at the razor sharp blade I wondered whether it would be easier to simply end my life now. A deep sorrow clawing at my shattered heart.
'Don't you dare, young lady' I heard mother’s words echoing in my thoughts. Her stern, yet gentle tone flashing a warmth through my soul. I knew mother would not want me to end my life, neither would my brothers – I missed them so much already – They had helped me escape certain death and I was not going to let them down by taking my own life.
I turned the knife in my hand, sobbing hard as I hastily cut at my hair once more. Slicing lengths off until I was left with short, wild, unkempt hair.
Once done I searched through the sack again, pulling out a small leather casing which I recognised. The case contained, what Adrius called, vanishing paste. I could not help but smile, hearing his words in my mind, 'It won't make you vanish, it'll just help hide you from sight amongst the trees of the forests.'
My thoughts filled with images of my brothers and I when they took me for my first ever hunting trip. I think I was no more than seven years of age, maybe even six. Adrius had told me of the paste, the vanishing paste, and what it did. I recalled back then, in my naivety, I honestly thought I would disappear for ever once he stroked the paste onto my face with his fingers.
Once Adrius finished covering my face he and Telestis pretended they could not see me, I had vanished. Jokingly searching for me as I stood there shouting their names.
'I can hear her,' Adrius had said.
'So can I,' Telestis had said, 'but I can't see her.'
'She must be somewhere' they both held back a laughter I knew would come.
I found this hilarious, laughing almost hysterically as I chased my brothers around the forest to try and get them to see me. I knew I was not invisible, even if they did pretend I was as they ran from my outstretched hands. All ending in a pile on the forest floor, crying with laughter. The bond between my brothers and myself never fading. Never.
Now, as I sat on the mountain holding the case of paste in my hand, clumps of my hair on the rock around me, I could not stop myself from crying. My heart breaking over and over again.
I eventually prepared myself to move on, only a flash of a shadow caught my eye. A movement at the foot of the mountain nearer the village of Venet. A flicker of something which vanished as quickly as it came. Soon dismissed as I descended the rocky-side.
Once at the foot of the mountain I paused, looking across the open land before heading East towards Mageonia forest. I just hoped the Gourians would be still be too busy searching for me inside the city.
I walked across the land, my mind filling with thoughts of those I had left behind. Those I knew I would never see again. My pace soon turned into a jog, quickly becoming a sprint. Running faster and faster in a feeble attempt to try and outrun the horrors flashing through my mind.
As I ran I knew, for the first time in my life, I truly hated my father. This thought scared me the most as no matter how many times he had punished me. No matter how many times he had forced me into the small, cramped cupboard beneath the stairs leading from the kitchen, I had always loved him. No matter what he did to me, or my family, I had never hated him. Until now.
With tears streaming down my dawn-chilled cheek I detested my father so badly I wished it was he who had died, not my mother and brothers. For the first time in my life I felt like I wanted to kill my own father. To see him suffer the way he had made others suffer.
In my mind, as I neared the edging trees of Mageonia forest, I vowed that I would see my father one last time and would make him pay for what he had done.
Once I reached the edging trees of the forest I stumbled to a stop. My body ached, my stomach churning nothing but barking coughs.
I looked around the trees, seeing an eeriness in the shadows of the enveloping darkness. The early morning sun hours from rising enough to push through the thickening canopy of the forest.
Lining the compass on the map I kept my path East. North would take me too close to the village of Venet, a place I had visited several times, with my father and brothers. I feared I would be recognised if I strayed too close to those working the fields.
Packing away the map my eyes fell on the compass in my open palm. Enjoying a rush of comforting ease spreading through my mind. The compass, Telestis's compass, now one my most important and most treasure possession. A link to those I love, those I would never see again.
Once ready I set off walking. Taking careful steps through the forest, alert to my surroundings.
I had spent time hunting with my brothers. Days and nights outside the city walls. Both teaching me how to survive on what ever the lands offered – I had enjoyed those times so much – taking in everything they told me, watching everything they did. I did not know at the time but, it now seemed, they were preparing me for this day.
They often told me they loved teaching me, praising me as a good student, willing to listen, eager to learn. I had learned so much from them. How to survive, how to find food and water and how to avoid those who may be tracking me. Now I was going to have to put into practice all I had learnt.
Without noticing I had dragged the knife out from my boot, clutching it in my tightly clenched hand. The feel of the twine wrapped tightly around the handle bringing thoughts of Adrius flashing through my mind. Happy memories of times with him, and Telestis, bringing a smile to my trembling lips.
I recalled when they taught me how to catch a fish. Both laughing as I cringed whilst slicing the razor-sharp blade through the scaly-oil belly of the my catch. All soon falling into fits of laughter. They were not mocking me, I knew that, I knew they loved me and would not do such a thing. We simple laughed happily in the company of each other.
Then there was the first time we hunted rabbits, lining the thin wires – they called them snares – with moist rabbit dropping before placing them over rabbit holes, staking the snares deep into the ground so the rabbit, once trapped, could not run.
They told me it was kinder for the rabbit if the snares were placed over the entrance of the burrow. That way it would pull around their necks and kill them. If the snare was away from the hole then the rabbit may just catch its foot. Causing it to panic. They explained some rabbits would bite through their own foot to escape the snare, leaving the animal maimed. This would make them easy prey for other animals searching for food.
I had listened intensely. Watching with interest, taking it all in. In awe of my brothers knowledge. So glad they were teaching me what they knew.
Now, walking through the forest, memories flashing through my mind, my chest crushed with sorrow. My heart pounded hard against my rub-cage. The urge to cry almost overwhelming. Only I knew it was not what Telestis nor Adrius would have wanted. They had told me to run, to find those who live free high in the north mountains. To join those who were rumoured to offer freedom to those who could find it.
I knew I had nothing else now. My family gone. Yes, my father was still alive but, with my heart shattered, I would have preferred it if he was dead too.
For me, as I walked through the forest, I felt something I had never felt before.
I felt so alone.
The forest seemed to go on forever. The thin patches of canopy high overhead allowing fragments of the warming sun through. The fragmented warmth doing little to break through the rising chill.
By the time I had reached the Eastern edge of Mageonia forest my body ached, badly. Scratches covering my flesh. Some deep enough to have drawn blood. Yet I felt nothing of the pains.
I stepped from the edging trees, relishing the sun’s warmth now it had risen. I guessed it was close to noon, having walked for hours. Taking only quick stops to take on water and a little food. A dry cracker biscuit, a clump of bread. Afraid to stop for too long.
I walked across the short stretch of land. Thoughts of my mother and brothers, their faces clear to see, brought more tears rolling down my cheeks. Their voices echoed gently in my mind, telling me to keep going. To keep running and never look back. Mother’s soft, loving tones telling me to get to the Northern mountains. To rid the tyranny controlling mankind.
My heart, now as fragile as a thin glass vase, shattered more with each heartbeat.
The thought of my father soon dragged anger through my blood. I knew he was strict, punishing people with brutality for simple disobedience. Having given the orders for the arrest of many within the city walls, and beyond. But I never thought he would turn on his own family.
I recalled the last severe beating I had taken from father. His heavy hammer-like fists pounded my cowering body. Kicks striking where my raised hands could not protect. My life only saved by Telestis stopping father from inflicting more punishment. My brother risking his life to protect mine.
Was that part of why father had ordered the arrests? A rising guilt now punishing my soul.
Before I knew it, lost in my thoughts, I had reached the edging trees of Pestinio forest. The brush of lower branches dragging me from struggling mind.
I briefly stopped to check over the map once more, pin-pointing the forest I was now in, shaded green on the drawing. The grey colouring of a mountain sitting just East off the trees. I guessed to be at least another three hours, if I was lucky,
But there was something else on the map I had not noticed before. A small red cross no bigger than the leg of an ant, drawn within the grey line of the mountain. A deliberate mark. There had to be something there. But what?
Intrigue caught my mind. The mark had been put there for a reason. A reason I was going to find out.
I was moments from moving on again when something caught my eye. A flash of a shadow passing between the large trunks along the edge of Mageonia Forest. Was someone following me? Had the Gourians already found my path? Surely not. Maybe it was an animal, watching me with its own fear.
I wasted no more time, heading into the forest, hopefully heading toward the mountain, toward what ever the red mark represented. I tried to keep alert to the surroundings, my mind constantly struggling with the harrowing thoughts of those I had lost. Reliving their brutal deaths over and over again. Images torturing my mind. Tearing at my soul.
I pushed back the nightmares, bringing happier memories into my mind. The times Telestis and Adrius had taken me into forest, teaching me how to hunt. Crossing open land on horseback. Horses my father owned, more horse than he needed. A show of wealth and power to other Tourians who may visit.
They had taught me how to survive off the land, telling me forests were abundant with small wildlife. Rabbits, foxes, badgers and other creatures.
During my first few trips into forests Telestis had teased me with stories of how some forests were filled with the spirits of those who had died within the trees. Lost souls slaughtered by Gourians.
With a twitching smile, and a look of mischief I saw in his eyes, he told me if ever a person saw one of the spirits they would die soon after.
I stayed close to my brothers, terrified of seeing such spirits. Fearing death which it may bring. After a while I realised my brothers were joking with me. Both laughing with my realisation. Soon chasing me around the trees, pretending to be the spirits. The chase ended with rolling laughter from each of us.
They warned me of hunting certain animals. Those which looked harmless but could cause serious injuries. The badger, Telestis had told me, will put up a fight if cornered. It was not worth the cuts, scratches and the chance of losing an eye to try and catch the black and white creatures.
'It's best sticking with rabbits, little one,' Telestis warned me with his usual, calming smile. ‘Less likely to turn on you.’
Now, as I crossed the lands, I knew I would need to trap some form of animal before too long. My pack contained a few days worth of food and water which meant I could hold off hunting, for now.
I moved on, stopping once or twice, but not for long. The thought of the flashing shadows I had seen forcing me on. Was it animals? It had to be. What else could it be?
With tired, aching legs I finally reached the foot of the mountain, looking up the rocky-side. Seeing nothing which could warrant the tiny red cross on the map.
Moving quickly I climbed the rocky side, dragging myself up the more stubborn sections. I eventually found myself on a ledge. A large, overgrown, prickly bush pushed against the curve of the rock. Covering a darkness beyond. A darkness I suspected to be the mouth of a cave. Was this what the small red-cross on the map indicated?
I pushed through the prickly bush, ignoring the thorns scraping at my flesh, poking through my skin. All the time a rising fear developing in my mind. The idea of of stepping into the darkness alone terrified me to the bone. For the first time I realised I was about to spend my first ever night all alone, outside the city walls.
Inside the city, in my home, in bed. I felt safe. Even when I woke with night terrors I knew I would be welcomed into my mother’s room. Into her comforting arms, where she would keep the dangers away.
I even felt safe when out hunting with my brothers, knowing they would protect me. I once overheard my brothers telling her they would give their lives to save mine. I knew they would have done so in a heartbeat.
This gave me security and happiness when I spent nights outside the city walls, safe in the knowledge Telestis and Adrius were there to protect me.
But now, looking into the darkness of the cave, I felt so scared. So terrified of what may be inside. Frightened of what the night may bring.
I held back my tears, wishing my brothers were with me, knowing they would never be able to protect me any more.
With a deep breath, telling myself not to be silly, the knife gripped tightly in my grasp, I stepped into the darkness of the cave.
The chill of the enveloping darkness clawed at my body. My heart pounding so hard I feared it would burst from my chest. Each thumping beat drumming in my ears, into my mind.
The light outside filtered through the bush, managing to touch a little into the cave. With widened eyes I searched through the darkness. Looking for movement, be that animal or person.
I caught sight of a torch hooked on the wall to my right. Quickly grabbing for it. Striking the flint into the arid kindling packed into the top of the solid wooden handle. A flame erupted with a warming welcome, lighting up parts of the cave. Offering more to see.
The rocky walls no more than ten metre across. The ceiling towering out of sight. A good sign, I thought, knowing the smoke would rise well away from the fire.
Dropping my sack on the floor I picked a spot to build a fire, scuffing the debris away with the my boot. The fire soon built, quickly alight. My brothers had taught me well.
A few minutes later I had some food resting on hot rocks around the gentle, warming flames. Slices of meat, deer I think, together with some bread and berries. A metal can, which I found inside the cave, half filled with water. Bringing it to the boil before pouring it over a thick slice of lemon sitting inside a cup. The bitter taste of the hot lemon drink warming me from within.
More of the cave became visible with the growing flames, catching sight of what looked like a pile of clothes tucked into the corner.
I jumped to my feet, knife in hand, fearing the pile may well be a person, a body perhaps. Now staring at it, watching for movement. Listening for breathing. Yet it lay motionless.
With a pounding heart I stepped toward the pile. Knife in one hand, torch in the other. I poked it with the tip of the knife, expecting sudden movement. Yet nothing happened.
I poked it again, just to be sure, startled enough to step back when it shifted slightly, before unravelling. Spewing its contents over the floor.
Staring at the contents I could not help but smile, knowing exactly what it was and, more importantly, who had put it there.
I dropped to my knees, sifting through what lay around me. A tearful sorrow trembling my lips.
My eyes were drawn to a rolled piece of paper, held in place by a thin silver ring. A ring I recognised to be one of Adrius's. Won in a competition of some kind – he had won many, but not as many as Telestis.
I slid the wax-paper from its housing, pushing the ring over my thumb before unrolling the wax-paper. Staring through tear-filled eyes at the perfect cursive writing I knew to be Telestis.
‘Little sis, Firstly, well done on reading mother’s map to find this cave, even though I knew you would. But, sadly, if you are reading this then something awful has happened to Adrius, mother and myself. Yet it is something we all knew was to come. I am just so glad we managed to get you away from the city before it happened.
‘We have left these items for you to help aid your journey North, where you will find those you need to seek. You should recognise the bow as it is the one you used in your first kill. Remember? The ugly boar you brought down with your first arrow? I still say it looked a little like you when you sulk.
I found myself laughing at Telestis's joke. Swiftly stopped by a deep guilt clawing at my mind.
‘Leaving you food was quite difficult as we had no idea when you will need it, so we could not leave fresh food. Therefore we have left the basics, rice, flour etc. Which should be of use to you.
‘You need to stay away from populated areas until you get clear of this TerraCustode, and beyond if you can, as you may well be recognised and we do not want that.
‘There are several caves along the route North, and many forests to walk through, which will keep suspicious eyes at bay. But you are capable of doing so without too much trouble, all you need is faith in yourself.
‘Your brother and I have hidden what supplies we could in caves, marked on the map mother gave you.
I looked at the map a little more closely. The small red marks visible now I knew what to look for. Red crosses easily missed by fluttering eyes.
‘If you plan your route carefully you can collect the supplies as you head North. Most are in well hidden caves which can be used to rest in, maybe sleep in too. But only if you feel you face no danger.
‘Never forget, mother, Adrius and I love you with all our hearts and miss you so much. This is not what we wanted to happen but, if you are reading this, we had no choice. We want you to live and this was the best way’
My heart ached badly. Tears streamed down my cheeks, droplets hitting the wax-paper with a gentle tapping thump. The last few written words blurred through salted tears.
‘Stay strong little one, and do not lose your gentle kindness even if you face the most deplorable. We will always love you for who you are and what you have done.’
My heart shattered like fine porcelain struck by a rock. Now sobbing uncontrollably. Tightly clutching the letter in my trembling hands.
My last thoughts were of those I had lost. My mother and brothers, before tiredness finally took me. Their smiling faces filling my mind as I sobbed myself to sleep.
I woke quickly, startled from my sleep, the letter from my brother still clutched in my chilled hand.
It took a few seconds to remember where I was, and how I got there. Glancing around to see the fire having gone out, hours before from the looks of the lifeless ashes. Leaving cold, damp air enveloping my shivering body.
I relit the fire, welcoming the warmth once the flames caught. Blood soon tingling through my numbed fingers, bringing them back into life. Soon warmed enough to set about cooking some food. Toasting bread, roasting one of the larger potatoes.
I boiled some water, before carefully pouring it over dried fruit I found inside the sack the cave.
Once I had eaten, finishing the last of the hot fruit drink, I kicked the lose gritty floor over the fire, smothering the flames.
I prepared myself for the days hike, collecting what I had into a single sack. Once packed I my set about disguising myself, hacking more of my hair. Wiping lines of the vanishing paste across my face. Even making sure my clothing hung loosely from my body. Doing all I could to hide my true-self from prying eye.
Once done I made my way to the mouth of the cave, looking out through the trees of the forest. The grey light of the new day bringing a fresh floral scent with it.
I checked over the map, the small red crosses bursting from the paper.
The nearest cross sat on another mountain several kilometres North. Mostly open land leading toward it. Open land which I had been told to avoid. Or at least until I was outside the TerraCustode of the city. But what choice did I have?
With a deep breath, fighting the sorrow burning deep inside me, I descended the mountain. Following a map I knew I could trust as I trusted those who gave it to me. Minutes later I reached the foot of the mountain, turning North through the forest. My mind alert to my surroundings, listening for dangers, watching for pitfalls.
I had no idea how long I walked before I noticed the trees beginning to spread out. Soon reaching the edge of the forest leading onto more open land. The sun had climbed, pushing its growing heat through the trees. Not quite high enough to slither through the knitted canopy of leaves, yet managing to fight the chill of the shadowed air.
I crouched at the edging trees, glancing over the map. Using the compass to figure North. A mountain lay to my right, another straight ahead, a village – Delphi, according to the map – lay roughly half way between the mountain and myself. The village itself caused me little concern. My only worry being a blue line on the map indicating a passage of water cutting through my path. Water which could well be a gentle stream, or a raging river. I would not know until I reached it.
Stepping from the relative safety of the forest I headed across the land, focussed on my surroundings heading North.
Minutes passed, hours soon following, the sun having already peeked. Now descending, welcoming the early evening. Darkness mere hours from the horizon.
I soon caught sight of Delphi village sitting in the distance to my right. The stream no more than a few kilometres further North.
Approaching the village I feared being seen by someone. A farmer tending livestock grazing in the surrounding fields. Women heading to the stream for water, to wash clothing, maybe even heading back to the village. It needed only one person to become suspicious of me walking the land. A suspicion reported to Gourians who would be dispatched to investigate.
Keeping Delphi village to my right I headed toward the stream. Remaining vigilant. Alert. Watching around me with each footstep. Waiting, expecting to be discovered by someone walking by.
As I passed the village I caught sight of something glistening to my right. A slight flash I could easily have missed.
For a moment I thought my mind played tricks on me. Only I saw it again. The definite shape of a person nearer the village. Could it be villagers? Gourians maybe? It was hard to tell.
I quickened my pace a little, heading for the stream. I knew I had passed over the TerraCustode border of father’s City. Now walking through, I think it was Custode Congard Clorec’s TerraCustode. I had heard father speak of Custode Clorec several times. A friend, he called him. Yet I was unsure if I had ever met him. Or if he would recognised me.
Glancing back toward the village I caught sight of the figure again. Only there were now three figures who seemed to be walking toward me. Were they following me? Surely not. But I could not take the chance.
I added a little more urgency in my footsteps, whilst not wanting to cause too much suspicion for those who may see me. Each time I looked back the figures seemed closer. They were definitely following me, but why? Had they heard of my escape? Were they Gourians on patrol?
None of that mattered, what did matter was keeping ahead of those following me as I crossed the land.
Some time later, twenty, maybe thirty minutes, I saw the first sign of the stream indicated on the map. The ground dampening beneath each footstep. Puddles of water pooling around each of my boots, refreshing my aching feet. A soft, pleasant breeze massaging my lungs.
I reached the stream marked on the map, only it was a little wider than I thought. Possibly a little deeper too. The thought of stepping into the water screamed in my mind.
I could not swim well, in fact, I could not swim at all. It was not something I had thought about doing. Not something I had had to learn. I had grown up in a city where swimming was not an important part of life. So I had not shown any interest. Yet my brothers could swim, Telestis offering to teach me, when they found the time. I always put him off as I feared the water. I think he knew this, but he never pushed me.
How I regretted it now as I stared across the water to the other banking, about twenty metres across the slow flowing water.
I glanced behind me once more, catching sight of the figures who had gained a little ground on me, getting closer with each passing seconds. My fear of the water pushed aside by a rising concern of the strangers in the distance.
I had no choice, I had to cross the water, to try and out pace those pursuing me. If they were pursuing me. The only plan I had was to get to the mountain marked on the map. There I could, hopefully, hide from sight, maybe losing them as I did so.
With a deep sigh I stepped into the stream, the biting coldness catching my breath a little. Unable to stop a squeal of surprised shock emitting from within me.
I took each step with caution, watching my feet thrash beneath the surface, treading the rock covered bed I could see through the clear water. Silently hoping the ground would not disappear beneath me.
The water pushed passed me with a slow, gentle tap on my cold flesh. My trousers soaked up to the knees, slowly rising to my thighs the further I walked.
I did not dare look behind me, not wanting to see how close the figures were from me. My mind busy negotiating a path through the water, heading toward the banking which seemed so far away.
To my relief the water never deepened above my thighs, becoming shallower as I reached the banking. I thankfully stepped onto dry land, now able to turn back the way I had come.
The figures had gone. Nothing but open land, rolling fields as far as I could see. No sign of anyone following me. I could not help but smile a little at my own stupidity, my own paranoia. Rushing into the assumption the figures I saw were following me. Why should they be? Yet a niggling doubt still aired in my thoughts.
I pushed the doubt to the back of my mind, almost laughing out loud at my own fear. Feeling a little foolish as I stood there, alone.
After a few minutes, catching my breath, checking around me, I set off walking again. Heading toward the mountain. Steady, cautious steps brushing through the ankle high grass.
I ate as I walked, bread, cheese, apples and a delicious jam mother had made for me. The taste of it thrashing more memories through my tired, struggling mind.
After a long, hard slog across the vast open land I finally reached the foot of the mountain. The rocky monster arcing over me like a concrete wave frozen in time.
I glanced back along the route I had walked, relieved to see no sign of the figures I feared were following me.
The sun had fallen, almost dropped from the sky. Not long now before the grey of dusk would settle over the land. I was running out of time to find the cave which, according to the letter tucked safely into my pocket, was well hidden. I just hoped I could find it before night fell.
I could see a path leading up the mountainside, almost lost in the years of untouched foliage and twisted shrubbery. Branches and gripped ivy knitted together so tightly its strength resembled that of the solid rock it covered.
Without hesitation I headed up the path, pushing through the overgrowth, using the knife to slice through the more stubborn parts. All the time searching for signs of a cave.
A few minutes up the mountain my eyes were drawn to a large overhang of bushes pushing from the rock a few metres above where I stood. A familiar voice tapping at my mind, telling me I had found what I sought. I could almost hear Telestis congratulating me on doing so.
I looked around once more, making sure I was not being followed, hoping I was not being watched. The days fading light helping hide where I stood.
Satisfied I was alone I climbed up the few metres to the bushes blooming from the rock. Once there I pushed the thick ivy and knitted branches apart, unable to stop a smile curving on my lips when I saw the blackness of a cave slowly appearing. The cave indicated on the map, in the letter. A place for be to wait out the falling night in relative safety.
Crawling through the bush took seconds. Ignoring the prickles of the thick, broken twigs clawing at my skin. Droplets of blood left against the green of the leaves.
Crouched on the other side of the bush I shuffled the leaves and branches back together. Hiding the obvious gap I had made. The fading light from the forest stood little chance of pushing through the bush into the darkness of the cave I was now inside.
I saw the long wooden handle of a torch leaning against the wall. A glow of ease rushing through my mind, wondering whether my brothers had left it there for me.
Grabbing the handle I shuffled into the darkness of the cave, my eyes unadjusted, relying on touch to get me away from the mouth. Away from the forest.
With slow, cautious steps I managed to reach the far end of the cave, glad to have lost sight of the mouth. A good sign for me to be able to light the torch without the flames being seen outside.
I flashed the flint into the arid kindling in the end of the torch. Flames quickly danced into life, splitting the darkness of the cave wide open. The orange-yellow glow glittering off the rough, rocky walls. Bright enough to show me the opening into another part of the cave, which I headed into. A low sigh of relief pushing through my lips as I saw the cave was a suitable size to wait out the falling night.
I set about making a small fire at the far end of the cave. The smoke rising out of sight high overhead. I cooked a little of the food I had, boiling off some rice, roasted a potato. I boiled a little water, pouring it over fruit already inside the cup. Thin, grey steam rose into my face. The hot fruit drink quenching my thirst with a pleasant ease.
Once I finished the drink I got to my feet, glancing around the cave under the glowing light of the flaming torch. I soon saw the package my brothers had left me. Quickly unravelling what lay inside. More food, rice, pasta, flour, together with several items of clothing. A shirt, socks, trousers and a coat, all my size. All my clothes, no doubt taken from my wardrobe back home for this sole purpose.
Inside the pocket of the coat I found another letter written on waxed-paper. Another note from those I love, those I desperately wanted to see, to hear, just one more time. I could not bring myself to read the note, not yet. My fragile mind already flooding with sorrow.
I slotted the rolled paper back into the pocket as I took a seat near the fire. Now struggling with the dilemma of the letter. Should I read it? I had to. Even if it clawed at my heart, I had to know what was in it.
After a few minutes of slogging out the argument I prepared myself, mentally and physically. I unrolled the letter, settling back against the cold rocky wall, my legs bent, my chin almost resting on my knees. The thick coat wrapped around me to keep out any chill which had sneaked passed the fire.
With tear-filled eyes I read the letter under the light of the glowing torch.
‘You are doing so well, little sis,’ it read, ‘but you have a long way to go if you want to get to the mountains in the North. The mountains mother told you about.
I wiped away the tears already rolling down my cheeks, sniffling sobs rising from within me.
‘We have left items in several places along the route you should take. The furthest we managed was in Grenack caves in the North Western regions. We were refused permission to travel further North which meant we could not find what we sought. Your brother and I believe those you seek can be found in and around Kinclove forest and the Forest of Timore. I just hope the information we were given is correct.’
I looked at the map, scoring my fingertip on an imaginary route North. Several grey shades depicting the caves, some having red crosses etched inside them. A red mark lay inside Nonporto forest, just North-East of Sedani Town. No signs of a mountain anywhere near the red-cross.
On the map I found Grenack caves, sitting North West of Dunedinium City – the Tourian there being Rioc Le Moel. I had heard stories of him being a vicious monster who enjoyed torturing people for fun. I had never met him, even through he had visited my father several times. I was always banished from the main house when Tourian Le Moel visited.
North-East of Grenack caves sat the two forest, Kinclove and Timore, which sat right on the banking of what looked to be a large lake.
I turned my attention back to the letter.
'Your journey will be a long one and, as you have already guessed, it will not be easy. But we know you are strong enough to do this. And we know you have the courage to change mankind for the better. You will have to use your skills and your own wits to make this journey. Remember to ration what you have and what you get.
Tears dropped from my chin, landing with a dull slap on the waxed-paper in my hand.
‘Never forget, little sis’, we all love you and want you to survive. We have faith in you and what you can do. Just be who you are and you will find those with trust. Goodbye for now.’
I clutched the letter against my chest, Salted tears stinging my eyes. Desperately trying to blink away the niggling itch. Unable to stop my heart breaking with the painful images flooding my mind.
My last thoughts were of mother and my two brothers, their faces the last thing I saw before finally falling asleep.
Something dragged me from my sleep. Was it a noise? Had I heard the approach of someone? or something? I could not be sure. I sat motionless in the darkness of the cave, the fire long dead. Embers no longer glowed. The chill in the air cutting through my clothing. Even the coat unable to keep warmth inside me.
I quickly set about relighting the fire, preparing some food and a hot drink. Preparing myself for another day’s walk north.
As the food cooked and the water boiled I re-read the letter which had brought me to tears hours before. The only thing left from those I loved, those I still love.
I ate the hot food, finishing off the drink, looking over the map. Once I decided my route I collected my belongings, making sure the letters were safe and secure. After kicking dirt over the fire to extinguish its warmth I set off on another days walk. Hoping to make it without any trouble.
I made my way down the mountainside with ease, reaching the foot in minutes, before heading North over open land. Something I was not too keen on doing.
It was then I saw a flash of movement to my right. Tiny specks of black seeming to be walking toward where I stood. Were they the same figures I had seen yesterday? Surely not. How could they have walked around the mountain during darkness? No one walked the lands at night. Knowing what lay out there.
I turned from the movement, quickening my pace across the rolling fields. The easy, level route a gracious welcome after the loose stones and sharps rocks of the mountainside.
Now moving at a fast pace, or a slow jog, I crossed the land, keeping the trees of Oxianius Forest in view. The trunks seeming so small in the distance.
Glancing back along the path, as discretely as I could, I caught sight of something moving in the distance. Three figures crossing the land. I knew then they were definitely following me. But what did they want? Did they know who I was? Surely not.
I pushed away the myriad questions stabbing at my painful thoughts, quickening my pace once more.
Once I reached half way I slowed my pace, glancing back to see the three figures still gaining ground on me. No more than four hundred metres away. The gap closing with each heartbeat.
I instinctively dragged my knife from its housing, gripping it so tight my knuckles whitened. A seed of fear already growing wildly inside me.
Oxianius forest was only minutes away, minutes which could well be hours if those following me closed the gap. But I kept moving, my jog soon a sprint, racing across the land. Desperate to outrun my pursuers.
I finally reached Oxianius forest. Spinning on my heals as I passed the edging trees. Now facing the way I had come.
The three figures were running in a small cluster. Heading toward the forest I squatted in.
Wasting no time I turned, heading into the trees of the forest, dodging around the aged trunks. Each turn identical to the previous. Easily lost if I did not have the compass to guide me North.
After what could easily have been hours I stumbled across the edge of the forest, staring out over yet more open ground.
To my right I could make out the walls surrounding the town of Parthius. To my left sat a rocky mountain passed a small village, Lutetia village, according to the map. My only option was a straight run across the land toward Dantisci forest, either before nightfall or before my pursuers caught me. Preferring the former, fearing the latter.
Stepping from the trees I walked quickly, without running. Not wanting to draw too much attention to myself being close to a town and village. In sight from both.
I walked with my head down, my arms wrapped around my chest. Hands tucked under my armpits. The posture of a drifter, a stray. A person who had no where to go and nothing to offer.
I kept walking, minutes turning to hours, but did not dare stop. The sun having already begun its descent. No more than a few hours of daylight remained. Only a few hours to find somewhere to spend another night out in the wilderness. Another night out alone. Except for my thoughts.
Checking the map as I walked I could see the blue of another stream running across my path. Only this blue looked wider than the last. But was it deeper? I hoped not.
I soon reached the stream, relieved to see it was no deeper than the last. Confident I could cross it without any real trouble.
Housing the knife back into its sheath I stepped into the water, having glanced back to see the three figures still behind me, less than a hundred metres now. Close enough for me to see who they were.
I was slightly relieved to see the figures wore shabby clothing, not that of a Gourian hunter. I guessed I had caught their attention at some point, raising their curiosity so badly they decided to follow me.
I kept moving, kicking through the stream. The cold water no higher than my thighs. Chilling through my thin clothing, tapping at my skin.
Once at the other side of the water I stepped onto the gritty covered banking, glancing back to see the three figures already crossing the water. No more than thirty metres away now. So close I could see the vicious glare in the eyes of the nearest one.
My heart jack-hammered in my chest. Panic striking my mind with brutal force. The fact the figures were not Gourians held no calm inside me. I knew villagers could be as brutal as the toughest of Gourians. With the determination of the three chasing me across the land I knew they were out to take what I had. Maybe even to take my life.
I kept moving, fear bubbling inside me as I snatched the bow from over my shoulder, swiftly arming it with an arrow.
Even though prepared for the figures I still jumped as the first of my pursuers stepped in front of me, stopping me in my tracks. His burning, hateful stare held nothing but malice. His mouth full of broken, yellow teeth snarling like an unleashed rabid dog.
From the corners of my eyes I could see the other two either side of me. Their appearance as ragged as each other.
Right then I knew who they were, what they were. They were Ereptors, thieves roaming the lands searching for prey. Prey like me. Robbing and most likely killing those they found. I was not going be one of their victims.
“What do you want?” I snarled. Thankful for the deep tone in my voice. Even if it came from a fear rising inside me.
“What ever you’ve got,” the first man growled.
I glanced at each of them, one at a time. My eyes falling back on the first man. “I-I-I don’t have much.”
“We’ll take what you’ve got.”
I feared my quivering legs were about to collapse beneath me. My scratchy throat dried with a fear like I had never felt before. Did they know? Could they see it in me?
“Just give it me.” the man in front of me snarled.
“NO,” I shouted. Startling myself a little. A sudden burst of anger bringing bravery to my persona. “You’re having nothing.”
I felt a tightened grip on my left shoulder. Warm fingers crushing my collar bone. The right side of my head struck with the pounding of a heavy fist. My mind swimming in a soup-like dizziness. Flashing lights bursting through a blackness swamping my thoughts.
“You’ll give us what we want,” a gruff snarl hissed from behind me. The stench of stale, rotten fish rolling on his breath.
I struggled to breath with the muscular arm wrapped around my throat, crushing my windpipe. The tightening grip unknowingly keeping me upright on weakened, languid legs.
The side of my head throbbed. A myriad of lights flashing through the dull cloud forming behind my eyes. The sound of dull laughter piercing my ears.
My legs weakened beneath me, jelly-like. I knew I was only seconds from passing out, seconds from losing my life, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I felt a splash of warm liquid splattered on my face, dribble from the Ereptor? Most likely. Only his grip around my throat loosened. My legs finally giving way as I slumped to the ground, gasping air into my aching lungs.
Through blurred eyes I struggled to take in what I saw. The fishy-breath Ereptor lay on the ground, his eyes frozen wide. A glare I recognised from my nightmares. The eyes of Mulier Petrus's whose decapitated head had stopped at my feet. I knew I was looking into the eyes of a dead man. But how?
I heard Chaos breaking out around me, unable to see anything beyond blurred silhouettes. Watching both turning in all directions. Obvious confusion in their actions.
Screams of pain soon filled the air. A howl-like cry easily mistaken for a wounded animal.
Through struggling eyes and throbbing mind I saw one of the Ereptors fall to the ground, clutching his leg. A half metre long rod poking from his thigh. Had he fallen on a broken branch? I wondered. Hearing his shrieking cries becoming louder as he ripped the rod from his leg. Even within his cries the crunch of raked muscle and flesh spread across the breeze.
I could see what the screaming Ereptor held in his hand. Recognising the blood covered metal head and trimmed feathers of a half-metre arrow. Not a broken branch I first thought.
I looked around in complete confusion. Seeing the standing Ereptor motionless. Statue like. Fear sticking him to the spot. Only the screams from his injured friend brought him from his near trance like state.
It was then I caught sight of a figure descending the mountainside, walking toward the chaos. The definite shape of a bow clutched in his hand, an arrow ready to be fired.
Had the stranger shot the arrows from such a distance? I guessed one hundred metres, maybe one twenty. Each arrow finding its target with pin-point precision.
I had only ever seen Telestis achieve such a fate. Splitting something as small as an apple placed on a wooden barrel from over one hundred metres. A shot only a few could make.
I knew it was impossible, but for a moment, a split second, I wondered if it were Telestis standing there. Wishing it was, yet, deep down, knowing it could not be.
I was not quite sure what I heard next. The uninjured Ereptor panicking, now dragging his friend off the ground. But I swear I heard him cry out, “it’s him, run.”
Him, I wondered, who on earth is him? My final thoughts as my mind finally gave in to its own struggle. A painful fatigued darkness engulfing me. Seeing nothing more. Hearing nothing more, before I finally lost consciousness.
Author Notes: Any comments, good or bad, are much appreciated ...