I struggled to open my eyes. My vision blurred. My head ached, badly. Bright flash-like fireworks pounded my fogged mind.
Faint images ran through my thoughts, recollection of what had happened, where I was. The last thing I remember slowly dragging through to the front of my mind.
A soft voice spoke through my blurred haze. A male voice I feared could well be an Ereptor. My mind filled with drugged images of the Ereptors. The sight of a stranger on the mountainside sending the Ereptors into a terrified frenzy. Had the stranger captured my? Was I in his lair?
“You’ve been out for quite sometime,” his voice remained soft. Calming almost.
“Where am I?” with tired, aching arms I struggled into a sitting position.
“You’re safe,” he told me. “You should take it easy.”
I could not help but feel a calming ease wash through me with each word he spoke. His soft tone almost mesmerising. Holding nothing I need fear.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Ereptors,” the stranger explained, “they’re quite common around here. Bit of a pain really.”
I forced my eyes open. Thankful for the near darkness around me. Only the flickering flames of a small fire and a burning torch offering light.
The rocky curves of the walls told me I was inside a cave. The strangers silhouette sitting near the fire. My vision improved enough to see his muscular body beneath the few layers of clothing he wore.
“I thought they’d killed you.” he kept his voice a whisper.
“I-I don’t understand.”
“It’ll come back to you,” he told me, busily poking the fire, having draped thick slices of meat across a smooth, blackened rock. The mouth-watering aroma lifting through the cave. Already tapping at my taste buds.
“I remember the water,” I dug deep into my thoughts, trying to recall what had happened, “I got over that. Then …”
“The Ereptors,” he continued poking the flames, “they’ve been loitering around for a few days now.”
“Loitering around where?”
“Around Limae town,” he explained, “Lutetia. They’ve been waiting for prey.”
He turned to me. In the light of the flames I caught his young, yet rugged looks. “and you were their prey.”
“What happened to them?” I asked.
Flashing images filled my mind. Too many at one time. Confused chaos erupting through my thoughts. I recalled someone grabbing me by the throat. Crushing the life from me. The face of Mulier Pellius rushed my thoughts. His dead eyes staring at me, pleading for something I could not give.
“They won’t be bothering you here.”
I watched him poking the fire, flipping over the meat on the rock.
“Who are you?” I pushed myself into a sitting position. Struggling with the thumping crush in my head.
“Petrus,” he smiled, passing me a cup he had poured hot water into. A thin waft of steam rising over the rim. “Drink this slowly, it’ll help your throat.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the offering, “Petrus.”
“Do you have a name?” the man, Peréz asked.
“Yes,” I hesitated, almost giving myself away. His kind eyes almost dragging me into giving him my real name. “My name’s Jon.”
“Jon?” He repeated. His narrowing eyes showing uncertainty in my words.
I nodded. My smile, I wished was of confidence, trembled on my lips.
“So, Jon,” he turned his attention back to the meat sizzling on the rock, throwing me one last glance. “What brings someone like you here?”
“Someone like me?” my mind queried his comment. What was ‘someone like me?’
He turned to me, “you must be all of thirteen years of age.”
I stared at him, looking into his eyes, desperate to read his thoughts.
“Someone so young crossing the lands is unheard of.”
“I’m older than thirteen,” I told him, yet I swore he knew I was lying.
“Okay.” He laughed.
“I am,” I protested.
“So what brings you here?” he asked.
“I-I am seeking shelter,” I told him, “to see out nightfall.”
“Are you alone?”
I stared at him, hesitating. So many questions rushing my thoughts. If I told him I was not alone he may wonder where the others were. If I told him I was alone he may well finish what the Ereptors started. Yet, somewhere inside me, a whispering voice told me I was safe with him. “Yes.”
“You need to be careful around these parts,” he smiled before turning back to the food cooking around the fire.
“I gathered that,” I laughed, nervously.
He turned to me, his smile calming. “Are you hungry?”
He stabbed one of the slices of meat with his knife, slapping it onto a flattened piece of bark. Stabbing a crusted potato sitting near the flames, placing it next to the meat before passing it to me. “It might be hot.”
“Thank you,” I took the offerings, together with the knife, and a spoon, he held out to me. All the time wondering if he was about to pounce.
He held out a small small water sack, “Help wash it down.”
“Thank you.” I took the sack with a nervous smile.
“It's not poison,” he told me. My nerves calming with his gentle smile.
I cracked open the skin of the potato, finding myself glancing at Petrus as he ate. Curiosity building within me.
“Are you not afraid they will come back?” I asked.
He glanced at me.
“The Ereptors?” I could see something in his eyes, something I could not quite read, yet I knew it was nothing of danger toward me. “Do you not fear they will return.”
“They’ll always return.”
A thread of uncertainty rushed through me. Would the Ereptors return? Were they already here? Was I looking at one now?
“It’s just a matter of staying ahead of them.”
I found myself glancing at Petrus several times whilst I ate. My mind struggling with curious emotions stirring my soul.
The deep dread of those I had lost echoed through my thoughts. Their brutal deaths replaying over and over again. The need to cry almost overwhelming. But I knew I had to hide the pains clawing at my heart.
“Are you okay?” Petrus asked, dragging me from my thoughts.
“Yes,” I told him, “thank you.”
“So what brings you here?” he asked.
“I am heading North,” I told him. Watching him sitting across the fire from me. The small flames offering enough light for me to see his young features. I guessed he was only a few years older than myself. Maybe fifteen, sixteen years of age. Yet his eyes showed that of a much older boy. A man even.
“North?” he repeated, “what's there?”
“I'm not sure.”
“How far north?” he asked, now chewing on the blackened skin of the potato.
“The mountains.” I spoke without thought. Telling him, a total stranger, where I was heading. Yet I felt nothing of concern as we sat with only the small fire separating us.
“The Mountains?” he smiled, “Libertas Mountains?”
I nodded, again without thinking.
“That’s some distance.”
“How far?” I asked, intrigued.
“I know Andreange City is maybe six hundred kilometres away,” he explained, “the mountains are just short of that.”
“At least ten days walk,” he spoke with such a soft tone, “if you’re lucky.”
I had not really thought about the distance to the mountains. My mind still tortured by those I had lost. My body almost on auto-pilot, heading in a direction my mother told me to walk.
“Where are you heading?” I asked him, watching him sipping from his water-sack.
He stared at me over his water-sack. His eyes seeming to bore into my mind.
“I-I’m sorry,” a rush of fear spread through my blood. Yet it was a fear I had never felt before.
“Pons Aelius City,” he told me with a smile.
Had he seen the fear inside me? Was it written on my face?
“Any particular reason?” Was I pushing him now? Testing his temper by asking such a question?
“You’re a bit nosey aren’t you?” he laughed.
“I’m sorry,” I tried to keep my own smile from trembling, “I-I just thought –”
“It’s not a problem.” His smile calmed my rising fear. “I’ve got a package to deliver.”
“A package?” I could not stop myself from questioning him. Was I simply trying to keep him talking? Devouring the company of his voice? “Anything of interest?”
His smile seemed to widen a little, “I’ve never looked inside.”
He held out another cup of steaming water, the soft scent of lemon drifting over the rim. “Lemon tea,” he assured me with a smile.
I took it from him, for a split second wondering if it were poisoned. Soon dismissing the fear. Something deep inside me assured me I was safe. I lifted the bowl to my mouth, drinking the water, enjoying the fresh, yet bitter taste tickling the back of my throat.
“It's good for you,” he told me, drinking from his own cup, “or so they say.”
“Nice taste,” I smiled, staring at him. Puzzled as to why I felt no danger from him.
We continued talking. Finishing the food and drink. I soon found myself relaxing in his company, feeling a warmth of comfort knowing he was there. For a brief moment I could easily have told him who I really was.
Before I knew it the night had fallen, leaving the land outside the cave in complete darkness.
Petrus kept the fire going, placing small pieces of wood onto the flames where others had burnt away. He had passed me a thick, woollen blanket which I had wrapped around me. Already feeling tiredness clawing at my mind.
I watched him push his back up against the wall opposite the only way into the cave. A large coat covering him as he sat there, as if on guard.
Soon after I could not keep my eyes open any longer, blinking myself to sleep. Pushing away the horrors of what I had witnessed. Now hoping I could get through the night without being disturbed by my nightmares.
I woke up quickly. Startled by something. A noise? Maybe? I was not sure as my eyes snapped open. Finding myself in a humid blackness.
“Morning.” A voice in the darkness made me jump.
For a split second I swore it was Telestis's in the dim light of the cave. My hazy mind soon recalling where I was. Recognising the voice of Petrus.
“Did you sleep well?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him, “thank you.”
“Are you hungry?” he poked the fire, lifting the flames into life.
“Pretty much.” I watched him with curiosity.
“Help yourself,” Petrus told her, “cans are hot so be careful.”
I edged closer to the fire. My eyes still on the stranger. Cautious of his motives.
“I have food,” I told him, dragging my sack across the gritty ground.
“Good,” Petrus sipped his drink. Passing me a second cup he had filled with boiled water.
I took the cup, enjoying the gentle scent of lemon wafting beneath my nostril. “Then please, take some.”
“No,” he moved his hand quickly, placing it on top of mine. Stopping me from opening my sack.
My heart thumped hard. A niggling fear whipping through my mind. Soon lifting as I stared at Petrus, whose face was mere centimetres from me.
“You'll need your food,” he spoke softly, calming. A gentle smile arcing on his lips. “You've got a long journey ahead of you.”
I stared at him as he moved his hand from mine. My mind spinning in a muddled fog, wondering what he would do to me if he knew who I was. The question of whether he even thought I was a girl soon came to the surface of my thoughts.
I had made myself look more male than female – having cut my hair short. Covering my body in large clothing. Thankful that the curves and shape of the females I had seen in the city, those curves and shapes my mother told me would eventually come, had not yet formed.
Simply looking like a male was only half the battle. I had to act like one too. A male walking the lands alone attracted less attention from the Gourians or those working in the fields. A lone female would be stopped, arrested and punished for breaking the strictest of laws.
Only now, sitting opposite a boy only a year of two older than me, I hoped my disguise would hold. Knowing of the consequences if it failed.
“Do you have family?” I asked him, desperate to take any curiosity from his thoughts.
“Sort of,” he turned back to the fire, “more like close friends.”
“Gourians?” I asked, already knowing the answer. His nod confirming it.
“I'm sorry,” I felt his sorrow all too well.
“It was a long time ago,” he told me. “What about you?”
“All gone.” I spoke quickly, desperate to get the words out without bursting into tears. “All those I love are dead.”
Tears began welling in my eyes, battling to stop them from flowing once more. I did not want Petrus, someone I did not know, to see me cry. After all, I was trying to show myself as a strong, fearless boy heading North, alone.
“I'm sorry,” Petrus glanced toward me. A genuine sorrow in his tone.
“We've all lost someone close.”.
He jabbed his knife into the fire, pulling out a sizzling piece of meat now dangling from the tip of the blade. He slapped it onto a rock sitting at the side of the fire, quickly slicing it in half. Passing me one of the pieces skewered onto the end of his knife.
“What is it?” I asked. Taking the knife, placing the meat on the flattened piece of bark I used for a plate.
“Fox,” he smiled, “caught it yesterday.”
I sliced at the meat, popping small pieces into my mouth. Savouring the roasted, slightly charred taste. “It’s good.” I instinctively moved my hand over my mouth, not wanting to spit any food out.
“Your mother must have been a proud woman,” Petrus spoke calmly, soothing almost.
I looked at him. My hand still covering my mouth, “I'm sorry?”
“Your mother,” Petrus repeated, “she must have been a proud woman to have taught you such manners.”
I realised what I had done. Simply putting my hand in front of my mouth whilst eating showed a sign of good manners. Usually only seen from those who surround the Custodes. Manners showing great respect for the important people around them.
Only now, sitting there, inside a cave, with a boy I had just met, I had foolishly let my guard down and had shown him that I had been brought up in such a way that may well raise questions in his mind.
He threw me a reassuring smile. Soon turning his attention back to the meat he was eating. “How’s the fox?”
“It’s good.” I returned his smile, albeit a little nervously. Thankful he had changed the subject.
“I prefer rabbit?” he told me. His smile strangely calming my fear.
We sat around the fire, sipping the hot lemon water. A conversation building slowly inside the flame-light of the cave.
Once finished I packed away my things, throwing the sack over my shoulder. Curiously watching Petrus do the same.
“Are you still heading North?” he asked.
I nodded, deep inside hoping he would offer to walk with me. My confused, sorrowful state wanting him to join me, if only for a little while. He was a stranger in a lonely part of the land, I was lonely in a strange part of the land.
“Do you mind if I walk with you?” he smiled.
“I’d like that,” I spoke a little too quickly, hoping he did not hear the fear of loneliness in my tone.
Minutes later we were ready to move on. Leaving the area as if untouched. Soon standing at the mouth of the cave.
The sun had begun to rise, the grey of dawn still covering the land I could see.
“Are you ready for this?” Petrus asked.
I turned to him. His smile bringing a rush of calm through my mind. “I think so.”
As we headed down the mountainside I watched him descend the stubborn rock with ease. Determined footsteps having trodden such paths many times.
Once at the foot of the mountain we headed North West, following the mountain into a forest, according to the map it was Dantisci Forest.
I found myself constantly glancing toward Petrus with a strange curiosity. Seeing him much clearer in the rising dawn. Even in the dullness of the forest I caught sight of something within him. I had no idea what, but I knew it was something I need not fear.
A conversation grew as we walked. Small talk dispersing the trickle of nervousness inside my mind.
After a few hours, I had no idea how many, we came to the edging of the forest. Squatting against the roughness of one of the many aged trunks.
I dragged the map from my pocket, unrolling it to find where we were. Petrus glanced at me, then the map. For a moment I thought he may well steal it after slaughtering me. But all he did was smile.
“Tiguri village.” He pointed toward a black speck in the distance, “Florentine village is a few kilometres further North-West.”
I checked over the map, seeing the names of the villages he spoke of marked on it.
“What’s that?” he asked, poking his finger at a red cross marked on the map. A cross sitting in the green colouring of Nonporto forest.
“A place of safety,” I told him, before I could stop my words, “or so I'm told.”
“It’s not exactly close,” he mumbled, “eight hours. Longer if we give the villages a wide berth.”
I watched his finger moving along the map, indicating a route around Tiguri village. Heading along the foot of another mountain we could see in the distance.
“What about the Ereptors?” I asked, concerned the friends of those Petrus had killed would seek retribution.
He shrugged his shoulders, nonchalantly, “we’ll just have to watch out for them.”
“Are you not scared?”
He turned to me, a smile curving on his lips. “Terrified.”
I could not help but smile, seeing the look of sarcasm in his eyes. A mocking tone which was so like Telestis's.
“Aren’t you scared?” he asked.
I nodded, unable to stop the twitching smile on my lips. Until a rush of guilt ripped through my mind. Images of my loved ones slaughtered now filling my thoughts.
“Are you okay?”
Petrus’s soft, caring tone snapped me from my thoughts. “Yes,” I told him, yet deep inside my fragile heart shattered like glass.
We took one last look over the open ground ahead of us. Nervousness tapping at my mind. What if someone saw us? Would they see us as drifters? Or as a threat to themselves and their Custode?
“Ready?” Petrus's tone whistled gently in my ears.
I nodded, having already secured the map back into my pocket. I dragged my knife from my boot, sliding it into my waistband. My bow resting over my shoulder. Several arrows dangling over my back, all in easy reach.
We moved with speed across the land, heading toward a mountain sitting far in the distance. The black speck of Tiguri village to the left. Several kilometres separating us. A distance I felt comfortable with.
The journey was easy. Crossing the level field with few pitfalls, and, thankfully, no sign of anyone having seen us.
We were only minutes from the grey rock of the mountain when Petrus slowed to a stop. His arm stretching across my body, stopping me from taking another step.
“What is it?” I asked, puzzled as to what had caught his attention.
I followed his finger toward the left of the mountain. Seeing nothing which warranted his unease.
“Something’s coming,” he whispered, as if not wanting to be overheard by unseen ears.
I caught a hint of excitement in his tone. Airing nothing of fear.
“I can’t see anything.”
“Look at the mountain there,” he pointed at the left edge of the grey rock.
Then I saw it. Only a flash of the tiniest black speck. Something I would have missed, possibly until it sprang upon me when it was too late.
“What is it?”
“Not sure,” he kept his voice a whisper. His eyes fixed on the speck.
He spoke with such confidence. Something I always heard in Telestis’s words, God, I missed Telestis. I missed them all, so much.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“We keep moving,” he shrugged his shoulders before setting off walking once more, “see if we can avoid them.
“Who do you think it is?” I kept up his pace. My mind scrambling with so many theories. Each one brutally heinous.
“Could be Gourians,” He threw me a calming smile, almost reassuring my fear, “but I'd wager it’s Ereptors.”
“Do you think it’s something to do with those from yesterday?”
His tone remained calm. The fact we could well have to face a group of Ereptors did not seem to phase him at all. Yet I had already begun to tremble with anticipated fear.
We trekked toward the mountain, hoping to reach the rock before we were seen. Only from the speed the black-specks walked I very much doubted it were possible.
With no other choice we walked on.
With the mountain directly ahead of us, our pace quickened. The need to reach the foot of the grey rock now paramount.
Petrus explained we may well fall from the sight of our pursuers once we reached the first curve of the rock. I hoped he was right.
The land rolled on for what seemed like forever, offering nothing to hide from the specks in the distance. Specks which soon became figures as they neared.
Almost at the mountain Petrus stopped once more. “This is not good,” he turned, staring across the land.
I counted five figures now, no more than a half a kilometre away. I knew we were definitely of interest to them as they headed straight towards us.
“What do we do?” I asked. Desperate to keep my voice from trembling.
“We keep moving.”
“What if they catch up with us?”
I caught his glance, seeing a twinge of ease flicker in his eyes. His smile somehow settling my rising fear. I could not help but return his smile.
“Let’s just get to the mountain,” he whispered, setting off once more, “we’ll see what happens from there.”
I struggled to understand his calmness as I walked with him, our pace quickened. Soon seconds from the foot of the mountain. Yet seconds from those pursuing us.
From the corner of my eye I glimpsed the figures getting closer with each breath. My heart pounding so hard, like a badly played drum.
“They’re going to kill us, aren’t they?” I wondered if Petrus could hear heartbeat drumming in my ears.
“Let’s just keep moving.” Was all he said.
We reached the foot of the mountain, heading left, around the curving rock. For a brief moment we lost sight of the figures, only for them to reappear within seconds. Five menacing figures now so close I could see they were Ereptors.
“Let’s keep going,” Petrus whispered from the corner of his mouth, “don’t look back.”
“They’ll catch us,” I feared what was to happen. Yet glancing at Petrus strangely eased my mind. For reasons I struggled to understand I knew he was capable of dealing with what I feared was to happen.
We managed to round another corner of the mountain before the shouts of the Ereptors spread fear through my mind. An icy chill running down my spine, raising the hairs on my neck.
“Stay behind me,” Petrus whispered, “everything will be fine.”
I glanced at him, catching a glisten of something in his eyes. Something I swore held a barrel of confidence. “Are you sure?”
He glanced at me. “Yes,” he smiled, “trust me.”
I did not question him. Putting my life in the hands of a stranger. Yet I held nothing but trust for him.
He turned to face the Ereptors. I turned with him, looking at the nearest figure whose eyes were now fixed on me. His gaping mouth silently screaming out the obvious fear he failed to hide.
“What do you want?” Petrus raised his voice, his tone airing a confidence his mannerism showed.
The fear struck Ereptor dug his elbow into the ribs of the man standing next to him, leaning in to whisper in his ear. Now both staring at me, nodding in agreement with each other
I could not be sure what the fearful Ereptor told the other but I swear I saw his lips speak my name, my true name. But how did he know? How did he recognise me? Was my disguise so easy to see through?
“I asked you a question.” Petrus's voice remained firm, unnerved by what was happening. Focussed on what he had to do.
A third Ereptor shifted suddenly. I swore I saw his hand reached for something in his waistband, a split second before a half metre long arrow trembled from his forehead. His head snapped backwards before his body slumped to the ground. Finally twitching into death.
This sudden action brought chaos at the foot of the mountain. Chaos which dragged all of us into it.
Another of the Ereptors dropped to the ground, an arrow tearing out his throat. A third speared by an arrow cracking through his chest, burrowing into his heart.
The two remaining Ereptors stared at their fallen friends. Shocked expressions pasted their faces.
Glancing at Petrus I saw his bow, gripped in strong hands. His fingers, moments from releasing another arrow, trembled slightly in the string of the bow
The fearful Ereptor raised his hand, his trembling finger pointing right at me. “It can’t be you.”
Petrus did not take his eyes from the Ereptors. Moments from sending another arrow spinning through the air
“You’re supposed to be dead,” the Ereptor cried, “they killed you.”
The other Ereptor bent slightly at the waist. Was he grabbing for a knife in his boot? His actions too slow. He did not see the arrow spinning through the air. Barely feeling it piercing through the top of his skull, shredding his brain. Only a brief squeal emitting from him before his life ended
The remaining Ereptor stared at Petrus. His widened eyes showing the fear inside him.
“Do you know who you’re travelling with?” the Ereptor’s voice trembled with each word.
I caught Petrus glance at me before turning back to the Ereptor. Did he know who I was? Had the Ereptor opened his mind?
The crack of thunder split the air, startling us all. The snapping of a single bullet fired from so far away. The Ereptor’s head slugged backward, his body following a split second later. Crumbling to the ground before he took his final breath.
“Run,” Petrus shouted.
He grabbed my hand, pulling me along with him. I stumbled along the ground, fearing I was about to trip, crashing to the ground. Only Petrus's tightened grip keeping me upright.
Once I regained my balance I was able to run better, yet Petrus still gripped my hand.
Thunderous booms rocked through the air. The unmistakable pounding of horses cracking at the ground beneath their hooves.
I did not have to look back to know the horses held Gourians in the saddles. Gourians who were mere seconds from Petrus and myself. The need to escape them now paramount.
I prayed we could.
Racing around the foot of the mountain I knew we would never outrun the horses. Fearing to turn to see how close they were. Pounding hooves powerful enough to shake the ground beneath my feet.
“They’re going to catch us,” I cried, desperately trying to keep pace with Petrus.
“Just keep running.” he shouted. His tone firm, yet strangely calming, “we’re nearly there.”
“There’s a path up the mountain.” he assured me, “a tunnel leading through.”
I kept pace with him, turning toward a rough, overgrown path splitting through the rocky mountain. Heading up the mountainside.
For the first time I glanced back, now seeing the Gourian riders, four of them, racing across the land towards us. The horses racing through the dust clouds their thumping hooves kicked up.
We kept running, ascending the snaking path. Twisting and turning in the hope of hiding from the Gourians view.
A gunshot erupted through the air. Echoing away into the distances. Were they shooting at us? I hoped not. But who else were they firing at.
Petrus grabbed my sleeve, dragging me behind a thick, waist high bush. For a moment I feared he would attack me. A flickering of a moment which, seeing Petrus's hand on my sleeve, vanished as quickly as it came.
“Stay down,” he whispered, only centimetres from me as we crouched behind the prickly bush. So close his warm breath brushed my face.
A heavy weight of dread rose inside me. The fearful Ereptor’s actions replaying in my mind. Even if we outran the Gourians I knew Petrus would ask questions about the Ereptor’s comments. But how did the Ereptor know? What had given me away?
The Gourians slowed their horses to a halt, stopping several metres from the foot of the rocky mountainside. No more than twenty metres below where we crouched.
Two Gourians dismounted, heading for the rocky foot. Their pace slow. Eyes darting across the ground, searching for something to indicate who, or what, they had seen.
“What do we do?” I finally found the courage to speak. Keeping my voice low. Barely a whisper in the soft breeze.
His tone aired nothing of concern. His eyes almost smiling his calmness.
“What if they find us?” I struggled to imitate his confidence.
“We’ll deal with that if it happens.”
“How can you be so calm?”
His chuckled breath brought a gentle smile to his lips. His calming sea-blue eyes, sparkling with the kiss of the sunlight, holding nothing but kindness. Showing no malice toward me. Although I could not say that for the Gourians searching the ground below.
“See that bush over there,” he poked his finger towards a large bush a few metres further up the mountainside. Hand size yellow flower blooming from the green of the leaves.
“There’s a tunnel behind it,” he told me, “we get to that we can follow the tunnel through the mountain.”
I glanced at the bush, quickly turning my attention back to him. “What if they see us going into it?”
His smile oozed reassurance as he took an arrow from its quiver. “Let’s give them something to look for.”
I watched him with curiosity as he dragged a short tube from the pack strapped on his back. He slid the tube onto the end of the arrow. A last push snagging it in place.
He took the bow from his shoulder, sliding the arrow into place before drawing back the string. With a careful aim over the heads of the Gourians, he released the arrow, sending it spinning through the air.
A split second later I flinched, ducking lower, as an explosion ripped through the air. Booming echoes bouncing off the rocky mountain. Rolling away across the fields.
The snorting of horse and shouts of Gourians desperately trying to control their panicking beasts mixed in with the booming echoes. Creating a chaos Petrus had caused.
Still crouched we made our way toward the bush, carefully crossing the loose rocky path. Constantly glancing over at the confusion of the Gourians now searching the charred patch caused by the explosive tube Petrus had fired.
We made it to the tunnel without the Gourians turning from Petrus's distraction. Pushing through the bush into a damp, dark chill which almost took my breath away.
Petrus shuffled the large, hand-size leaves back into place before turning to me, “This way.”
I had no idea why, but I followed him into the darkness without question.
The enveloping darkness seemed to go on forever. A damp chill clawing at my skin beneath the thin layer of clothing.
I struggled to understand why I had followed the stranger into the tunnel. Was it fear of the Gourians catching me? Possibly. Yet I knew it was something more. Questioning why I seemed to trust Petrus in such a short time?
My thoughts were taken by the bright flickers of sparks splitting through the darkness. Sparks becoming a flame lighting up the tunnel. My eyes adjusting to see Petrus's almost nonchalant expression as the flames lit up his face.
I caught a look of something mysterious in his eyes. A glistening which screamed out more than I could ever begin to understand.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him. Had he read my puzzlement? Was I that transparent? Only now I felt my face beginning to warm. I only hoped it was the heat of the flames causing it.
“We should keep going.”
I heard nothing but gentleness in his tone. Thoughts of Telestis and Adrius flashing through my mind. The kindness of the stranger I now walked with akin to that of my brothers.
We walked silently through the tunnel. The flames of the torch leading the way.
I found myself glancing at Petrus several times. Wondering his age. Was he four, maybe five years older than me? No more than that. Yet he seemed to have the mind of someone who had walked the lands for many years. A boy who had witnessed more than a man ever should.
“Where does this lead?” I eventually found my voice again.
“If I told you I didn’t know,” he turned to me, slowing his pace a little, “would you be scared?”
I knew I should have blurted out ‘yes’ without hesitation, yet I held no fear of him. Almost losing myself in his calming mannerism. I simply shook my head.
“Just East of Nonporto forest,” he told me.
I swear I caught mischief in his flickering smile.
“Not far,” he spoke with a little reassurance, “five minutes at the most.”
“Will they find us?” I could not rid my fear of the Gourians finding the mouth of the tunnel. Following us into the darkness.
“Are you not scared of them catching us?” I struggled to understand his calmness. We were almost captured, almost killed, yet he seemed to take it all in his stride.
“Yes,” he smiled, “but there’s no point in thinking about what may not happen.”
I glanced at him several times as we walked along the flame lit tunnel. So many thoughts flooding my already confused mind. A myriad questions which needed answers I could not find. Except for the question of trust. The growing trust for the boy I barely knew. But why?
“There.” Petrus's hushed voice amplified in our rocky surrounding. His finger poking along the tunnel.
I followed his ginger, seeing a bright speck of daylight ahead. A speck growing with each step we took toward what I knew was the end of the tunnel.
“What’s out there?” I asked.
“Open fields, I’m afraid.”
A rush of concern hit my stomach, hard. Fearing crossing the open land. What if the Gourians knew of the tunnels end? Had they already made their way there? Now lying in wait outside?
“There’s nothing to fear,” he almost laughed out the word, “it’s very unlikely there’ll be any Gourians out there.”
I stared at him. Had he read my mind? Had my face given away more that it should? “How sure are you?”
“Pretty sure.” His smile curved with confidence.
I returned his smile, a little reassured. Yet not truly convinced.
We reached the end of the tunnel in seconds. Both crouched near the jagged rocky mouth. Peering out across the open land which welcomed us with an eerie silence.
I saw a tiny speck in the distance, I guessed it to be the village of Florentine to the left, with Nonporto Forest to the right.
“See,” Petrus glanced at me. His smile still curved, “I told you there’d be no Gourians.”
I could not help but smile at his calming flash of humour. Catching an impish sparkle in his eyes.
“You were lucky,” I failed to stop the words falling from my mouth. My eyes fixed on Petrus, expecting him to punish me. He simply smiled before turning his attention back to the fields rolling away from us.
“We should make the forest in less than an hour.” He announced. “If we’re not delayed.”
One hour! I thought. One hour which may well be ten. The open land leaving us exposed to passing Gourians, Ereptors, even villagers and townsfolk. A single sighting may well bring more danger upon us.
“It’ll be fine,” he assured me. His confident smile chipping away any concerns I had.
I followed Petrus out of the tunnel, watching the surrounding land for any sign of movement. Seeing nothing but the pleasantness of the countryside I failed to appreciate.
We made our way around the foot of the mountain, toward the forest, hoping to find a shorter sprint across the open land. Afraid of being seen.
The sun had already passed its highest point, it had done a while back. The dark orange glow of its final descent bringing its own eeriness.
The trees of Nonporto forest grew with each step. A forest offering a little protection the land failed to give.
We reached almost half way when Petrus stopped walking. His questioning eyes darting around the land.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he spoke quickly before setting off once more, “just my imagination.” He turned to me with a reassuring smile. “We best keep going.”
Was he hiding something from me?
Nonporto forest soon towered over us, dragging us toward its near mesmerising trees which stood in majestic beauty. The metre-wide trunks offering a little safety from anyone who may well be watching.
We finally reached the edging trees, turning to look over the path we had taken. I caught Petrus's frowned, serious look, slightly squinted eyes pushing through the lowering brightness of the sun. Had he actually seen something?
“Have you still got that map?” he asked me. Still watching the land we had walked.
I dragged the map from my pocket, unrolling it before handing it to him.
He poked his finger onto the small red-cross marked inside the green colouring of the forest we were now in. “You think this mark’s a safe place?”
“Yes,” I told him with confidence.
“I trust the person who gave me the map.” I glanced at the map. My mind filling with images of those I had lost. Those I would never see again. For a moment I feared bursting into tears.
He stared at me with curious eyes. Almost as if he were reading my thoughts. Had the Ereptor’s words already set cogs in motion inside his mind? Was he questioning who I really was?
“Okay then,” he shrugged his shoulders, “let’s find it.”
We were on the move once more, heading through the forest. Hiding amongst the vast array of aged trees.
There were few visible paths snaking between the towering trunks. Most overgrown. Many completely devoured by nature herself. Several denser patches throughout the forest offering nothing more than claustrophobia to those who feared it.
I had no idea how much time had passed, nor how far we had walked, before the realisation of nightfall came upon me. The darkness quickening within the trees of the forest. What remained of daylight struggled to penetrate the canopy high overhead.
“Is that it?” Petrus came to a stop.
He pointed toward a rough patch of forest debris several metres to the right. Two towering oaks stood like sentries either side of what could well be a narrow pathway.
We stepped closer to the sentries, in silence. Petrus had already dragged his bow from his shoulder. Arming it with an arrow. I gripped my knife, tightly. Desperate to stop my hands shaking. Concentrating on what we walked toward.
As we neared the two oaks I could see the flicker of grey rock masked by shrubbery trembling in the soft breeze. A grey rock I hoped the red cross on the map represented.
We pushed through the shrubbery, trying to cause minimal disruption in order to hide our route. Finally coming upon a metre wide hole cut into solid rock. Obvious tool markings framed the blackened hole, telling me this was man-made. Had my brothers dug through? Or had they stumbled upon it? It did not matter. What mattered was what lay beyond. A cavern? Maybe a tunnel?
Petrus squeezed through the hole first, our supplies next. Then it was my turn. sliding into a musk filled darkness.
With stumbling fingers I blindly searched the cold, rock walls, feeling for a torch of some kind. Hoping there was one. I could hear the shuffling of Petrus's feet across the gritty floor, doing the same. His low toned celebration indicated he had found one. Quickly flinting it into life.
The flames danced gently through the darkness, rising to light up the cave we stood in. A good sized cave, maybe twenty metres by ten, the ceiling out of reach of the torches flame.
“Well,” Petrus whispered, slowly moving the torch around the cave. Its orange glow searching for what may hide there.
“You were right to trust those who gave you the map.”
I could not help but smile, thinking of Telestis, Adrius and mother. Guilt soon clawing at my soul. Stomping on any joy I briefly held.
We set about building a fire. Small flames soon growing. Lighting up the cave with its spreading warmth. Food and water soon heated on large rocks circling the fire. Meat sizzling and popping. Boiled water poured over a handful of berries inside a cup. Tantalising aromas lifting my spirits.
We sat around the fire in silence, dining on the meat, potatoes and a soft paste which tasted of goat’s cheese. Savouring the hot berry drink warming my body from within.
“What did that Ereptor mean?” Petrus asked, breaking the silence. His voice firm yet almost soothing.
“When?” I knew exactly when.
I had been expecting him to ask the question since we escaped the Gourians. His curiosity tapped by the Ereptor’s words.
He stared at me. His inquisitive eyes holding nothing of malice. “When he asked if I knew who I travelled with.”
“I’m not sure,” I lied. I think he knew I lied, yet he did not accuse me. “He must have thought I was someone else.”
I tried to throw him a confident smile, only a tremor caught my lips. I feared only a grimace showed.
Petrus did not question me any further. Yet I read uncertainty in his eyes as he turned his attention back to his food.
I had no idea why but a rising tension grabbed at my mind. My shoulders became taut. My heart heavy. I had lied to Petrus, and now, for reasons I struggled to understand, I felt guilty for doing so. Should I tell him the truth? No, I barely knew him. Yet I felt a strong trust had already grown toward him.
“May I ask you something?” I was desperate to take away any suspicion from his mind.
“Not at all.”
“Why did you not kill the Gourians?”
He looked at me, his smile growing with a soft, calming warmth. “That would be foolish.”
“But you killed the Ereptors.”
“Nobody cares for Ereptors,” he smiled, “but take the life of a Gourian and everyone cares.”
I knew exactly what he was saying, realising how sensible he was when it came to surviving. The boy, a few years my elder, with the mind of a mature adult.
He asked to see the map again, edging around the fire in order to sit closer to me. I knew I should have felt concerned of his movement, but I did not. Holding nothing but trust for him.
He spread the map on the dusty ground. Glancing over it, before poking his finger onto another red-cross on the map. The red-cross sitting on Mount Aldorfi. Which was at least sixty kilometres.
The route was planned, most of the journey would take us through forest. Only two short patches of open land which could bring its own dangers. But with no other option we had to take the chance across the land.
“We best get some rest,” Petrus's voice remained low. Calming, “we’ve a long walk in tomorrow.”
My eyes snapped open, staring at the orange glow of the fire burning in the centre of the cave. The delicious aroma of cooking spreading through the air.
“Morning,” Petrus's voice seemed to calm a niggling concern fighting to grow inside me.
“Morning. I shuffled closer to the fire, savouring the warmth of the flames massaging my chilled body.
“Did you sleep well?”
“I think so,” I told him, rubbing my hand together close to the flames. Fingers tingling with the growing warmth. Pins and needles tapping beneath my skin.
“We’ll have a bite to eat then head off.” He stabbed at the meat with his knife, turning it over on the hot rock. A comforting crackle of the fat in the meat tapping off the rock walls.
He passed me a slice of the meat on flattened bark, a blackened-skin potato crackling at the side of it. “If that’s okay with you.”
I nodded. Taking the offerings with an urgent hunger. Tearing at the meat with my hands. Chomping on the pieces I tossed into my mouth.
Twenty minutes later, both fed and watered, we cleared the cave of any sign anyone had been there. The fire smothered with the grit and dust kicked over it. Our supplies packed. Soon ready to move on.
We exited the cave, pushing through the bush, hiding any sign of us having been there. Using the compass we headed North-West, weaving around the trees, the forest constantly changing from dense to sparse. With what could easily have been a thousand trees in every direction.
Well into the walk the silence broke with a chilling roar of an animal. Lion? Tiger? I was not quite sure. Only it was close as the rumbled roar bounced off the many trunks.
Through the corner of my eyes I saw Petrus drag an arrow from its quiver. Pulling it back slightly in the string of his bow. His mind, and body, alert to our surroundings.
“What is –”
“There,” he hissed out the word, having turned his aim toward a darkened patch to our right.
I saw it. Only a flash at first. Soon the shape of a large, muscular tiger stalking through the shrubbery only metres from us. Only there were more tigers. Another two following the first. All creeping the land with near silent steps
“Don’t panic,” Petrus whispered through the corner of his mouth. His eyes fixed on the animals pushing through the forest debris. Their bodies barely shifting, their legs moving as if in slow motion.
“Don’t panic,” I almost laughed out the words, fear rushing my mind as I watched the tigers through widened eyes.
I knew the power of tigers, having seen them bring down their prey with such ease. Huge white teeth and needle sharp claws tearing into the flesh of their kill. Such ferocious beasts now bearing down on us.
“Stay close,” Petrus told me, his voice still a whispered. Not turning his attention from the tigers.
I slowly, cautiously dragged my bow from my shoulder. Sliding an arrow onto the string.
Outnumbered. Two arrows to fight three tigers, I knew the odds of us escaping dwindling with each nervous heartbeat.
We nudged away from the tigers. Hoping they would not follow. Yet, if they were hungry, they would see us as easy prey. A feast to keep them satisfied for the rest of the day. I was not going to be their meal and, from the expression on Petrus's face, I knew he felt the same.
The tigers moved toward us. Their bodies dropping into what I knew was their attack position. They were hungry and we were their food.
“They’re going to kill us aren’t they?” My heart pounded hard in my chest. I feared it would bounce through my ribcage.
“You’ll be no more than an appetiser for them,” Petrus laughed.
I chuckled, nervously. A little taken aback by his calmness. I knew Telestis held his composure through many situations, but, with three large beast moments from pouncing, even he would have been unable to find amusement. Yet Petrus did. Was he hiding his true fears? No, I could see it in his eyes. He did not fear the tigers. I don’t even think he feared death itself.
He seemed in total control of what was happening around him, as if he knew exactly what to do.
“We need to run.” I tried to hide my rising fear.
“If we run they’ll catch us.”
“So we just wait?”
His voice remained calm. Not even tremble. The string of his bow pulled back a little more, waiting for what I knew was to come. I struggled to grip my bow tightly, cold hands almost numb. Even my legs trembling a little. Silently praying they would hold steady long enough to cope with what was coming. What ever that was.
“I’m scared,” I could not stop the words rolling from my mouth. For a brief moment I thought I was standing next to Telestis. My brother who I knew would protect me.
“So am I.”
I caught Petrus's glance, catching a glistening humour in his eyes. A humour which somehow eased my own fears.
The lead tiger slowed to a stop, the others doing the same. All three glaring at us, their prey. I could not help but feel almost in awe at the beauty of the powerful beast. Such grace amongst such savagery.
It did not blame the tigers for what they were doing. They were simply hunting for food and we were in the domain.
Telestis had always told me this. The forest and lands outside the cities, town and village were the domain of the wildlife. A person should respect that or they would face certain death.
Petrus moved forward slightly, his bow lowering, only a little, but enough to notice.
“What are you doing?” I hissed through terrified lips.
“Just don’t move,” he whispered back, without turning from the beasts.
“They’re going to kill you.” my heart pounded hard in my chest, so hard I feared it would frighten the tigers themselves. Maybe the tigers could eat my heart, I thought, whilst I ran for my life. What the hell was I thinking? My sanity almost lost in the eyes of the glaring beasts.
Petrus took another step, then another. The tigers watched him with their own curiosity. White foaming froth dribbled from the fur around the nearest tiger’s mouth, dripping onto its wide padded paws.
Fear spread through my body, rushing through my blood. Not fear for myself, although I was terrified. My fear was for Petrus slowly walking toward the tigers who watched him. Their mouths widened, displaying finger-length, yellow-white teeth ready to tear into the weak flesh of Petrus.
The lead tiger padded forward, slowly. Eyes fixed on Petrus. I lifted my bow, taking aim at the slowly moving beast. Ready to release the arrow. I only hoped I could feed another arrow onto the strings before the other tigers pounced.
“Don’t.” Petrus hissed.
Was he telling the tigers? Or me? His raised arm indicating the latter. But why? Why did he not want me to spear the tiger with an arrow?
I watched in stunned amazement as the tigers back legs bent slightly, moments from leaping at Petrus. Its front plate-sized paws rising off the ground. Its snarled roar merging with my own fearful screams as I closed my eyes.
(End of chapters 1 - 9)
(Chapters 10 - 11 to follow)
Author Notes: This is the third installment of The Lonely Swan story, (Consisting of Chapters 1 - 9/ Chapters 10 - 11 to follow)
I hope you enjoy reading it ....
Please, any comments, good or bad, are always welcome.