I headed North West, away from the foot of Mount Aldorfi, unable to resist glancing back, only to see Petrus's shrinking figure disappearing into the distance. My heart ached, now left alone once more.
My thoughts filled with those I had lost. Telestis, Adrius and mother. All slaughtered on the orders of my father. I had watched from afar as father took their lives. His own wife and sons. Brutal deaths which would haunt me forever. Now fresh loneliness allowing the torturous scenes to replay over and over in my mind.
Meeting Petrus seemed to have helped eased the horrors rushing my thoughts. His calming voice and trusting gentle eyes somehow comforting my struggling heart.
I had only known him for a matter of days, sharing refuge with him over three nights as we crossed the lands. Little knowing he had seen through my disguise with such ease. Yet he remained silent until we were moments from going our separate ways.
All the time he had treated me as a person, not as property, which others may well have done. After all, that is what females are, simple property for man to use.
I knew he and I were heading in different directions once we descended the Northern section of Mount Aldorfi. His journey taking him East, toward Pons Aelius city, whilst mine would take me North, toward the Libertas Mountains. A long journey, Petrus has warned me. A journey I wished he could have joined me on. But his path was as important as mine.
It took me just shy of an hour to reach the first line of trees into Moguntina forest. I paused, briefly, looking over the land I had crossed, before heading into the forest.
A thick soup of darkened fog punished my mind. So many thoughts struggling to weave passed each other. Faces, places, blood lust slaughter, all feeding my confusion. Dragging at my empty heart.
My mind stung with images of Telestis and Adrius, both having always been there for me. I could still see Mothers troubled, tear-filled eyes desperately trying to hide the pain I knew she held. Her last words spinning my thoughts. Telling me to find the mountains. To seek the freedom which lay there.
I had no idea how far I had walked through the forest, nor how much time had passed. Diminishing daylight the only indication dusk was falling.
Weariness slowed my pace. Muscles pulling so tight up the back of my legs I feared they would tear with the very next step. My mind still fuzzed with so many questions. Yet so few answers.
Something to my right caught my eye. Unnatural straight slabs of grey rock poking from beneath green bushes budding with yellow flowers. Much of the slabs covered from sight.
I could see the earth around one side of the slab had been dug away. Deep tool markings almost hidden by the years of forest foliage, hiding an eerie blackness beyond.
With no other option, the blackness of night falling inside the dense forest, I pushed aside the rough foliage. Squeezing through the gap into the darkness beyond.
Once inside the cave I dragged a small pre-packed torch from my pack, flinting the arid end into life. The flames quickly grew, illuminating my surroundings. Rocky walls stood a good ten metres apart. The ceiling, untouched by the dancing light of the torches flames, out of view from where I stood.
I set about building a small fire near the centre of the cave. Ample dried wood around the floor of the cave. The dancing flames soon illuminated my surrounding. Eerie shadows dancing in the corners where the orange glow tried to touch.
I warmed some food, slithers of meat draped over rocks edging the fire. Veins of fat crossing through the meat soon bubbling with the heat.
I boiled some water, making sure I did not use more than I had rationed for, pouring it over a handful of berries inside a cup. The fresh, sweet aroma quickly filling the cave.
With a tired, lonely heart I soon settled into the silence of the cave. Now having time to think, too much time. How I wished Petrus was still with me, missing his company more than I thought possible.
Sitting close to the warming fire I ate the few morsels of food. Enjoying the sweetness of the hot fruit drink. Savouring the warmth my body needed. All the time I watched the flames dance like ballerinas crossing an eerie orange-yellow velvet carpets.
My mind flooded with what had happened to me. The deaths of those I loved. The Ereptors attack which seemed so long ago. The figure of the man on the mountainside who had stopped the attack. A man who turned out to be a boy only a few years my elder. The kindness of Petrus, the boy, who had treated me as a person, even though, secretly, knowing the truth.
I had come to trust him. It did not matter I had only known him for a few days. He had drawn me in with his kindness. Warming my soul with genuine decency. He was so akin to Telestis. Having similar warmth towards others without judgement.
We had crossed the lands during the day, resting through the nights inside the caves we came across. I had savoured his company. Enjoying the conversations, the stories he told, getting to know him as if he were someone I had known for many years.
Now, sitting alone in a cave somewhere in Moguntina forest, my head in my hands, I sobbed with a lonely heart. Soft cries of sorrow passing over trembling lips.
Thoughts of ending my life right there flashed through my mind. One bullet fired from the pistol Petrus had given me would take away the pains crushing my soul. Stopping the dread clawing at my heart.
Only I knew I could not do it. I could not disappoint those who wanted me to live. My mother and brothers. They would never forgive me. They knew what was coming to all of us, how we were all to be slaughtered. Only they wanted me to live. Helping me escape the city, giving me all I needed in order to survive the land I had to cross.
I could not end it all because I felt alone. I could not do that to those I love. Those I had lost.
My thoughts went to Petrus once more. The notion of using his pistol to end my life now sounding so absurd. He had given it to me to use for protection. Not to end my life because loneliness struck.
I remembered the coin he had given me, quickly dragging the string over my head. I stared at it resting on my open palm. Fresh sobs bursting from my lungs.
My eyes burned with flooding tears. The coin soon a blur in my hand as tiredness finally took me. Sending me into a restless sleep my body so craved.
My eyes snapped open into a confusion of near-darkness. A few seconds passed before I recalled were I was.
Uncurling my clenched fist I stared at Petrus's coin indented in my palm. Having fallen asleep clinging to its memories. Petrus being with me if only in my mind.
I quickly lit a torch before checking the crack leading out of the cave, staring out into the grey of the rising dawn. Less than an hour before daylight spread across the land, giving me ample time to get myself together before heading out on another days trek.
Returning to the fire I stoked it back into life, quickly warming some food, boiling some water. Soon savouring the taste, enjoying the warmth.
Once I finished I dampened the fire with kicked grit from the ground before heading from the relative safety of the cave.
Back in the forest I checked the map, soon setting off in a South-Westerly direction. Heading toward Mount Allosia, toward the red-cross marked on the map.
The journey was going to be long. I guessed another one and a half hours until I came to the edge of the forest. At least another six more before I reached the foot of Mount Allosia. I just hoped the climb up the mountain would not be too difficult.
With determined steps I pushed on. My mind filling with thoughts of those who had helped me live. My family, mother, brothers. Never my father, I hated my father. I would always hate my father.
I ate morsels of food along the way, sipping the water with caution, rationing each drop. I had no idea when, or even where, I would find fresh water again.
The rising dawn slowly brought the forest to life. Flowers opening with the warming kiss of the day’s sun pushing through the canopy high overhead. Invisible creatures shuffling through the undergrowth. No doubt afraid they would become my prey if I saw them. Not yet, I thought. I still had ample food before I had to think about hunting for more.
I finally reached the edge of the forest. Pausing to look out over the open land stretching toward Mount Allosia. Watching for movement. Relieved to see nothing but the knee-high grass gently wafting in the soft breeze.
Wasting no time I stepped from the trees, continuing toward the towering mountain which seemed so far away.
The sun rose behind me. At least another hour before it reached its peak. Another five, maybe six, before dusk began to settle. I knew I could reach the mountain before dark, I only hoped I could find the place marked on the map in time.
The rising heat of the day had long since replaced the itching chill of dawn. My body sweltering with each step. I had contemplated taking off my coat along the way, quickly dismissing the idea for fear of losing what disguise I had. Knowing anyone could appear at any moment, from anywhere.
The narrow ridge at the South section of mount Allosia eventually came into view. Yet still a good hours walk. Only there was something else there. Something moving around the foot of the ridge. Something heading toward me.
I kept walking toward the mountain. The movement in the distance soon becoming shapes. Shapes becoming figures. I had no idea how many. Unable to separate them properly.
Fear rose inside me. My mind spinning with so many stubborn questions. Were they Gourians? Ereptors? Or simply villagers. Who ever they were I knew they were best avoided.
The mass of dark shapes soon separated into four figures walking toward me. Had they seen me? It was hard to tell. I had to assume they had.
I contemplated turning back, maybe changing direction, heading North, around the other side of Mount Allosia. Only I knew they would follow me, which ever direction I chose.
Seconds dragged into minutes. My pace slowing as the figures closed in on me. I had already grabbed for Petrus's pistol tucked in the waistband at the small of my back. Caressing the trigger with a trembling finger.
The figures were no more than a two hundred metres now. Even from such a distance I could see they were not Gourians. Their dirty, thread-worn clothing and dishevelled looks telling me exactly who they were. Ereptors.
I stared at the lead figure. A shaggy, unkempt beard hanging from his chin. His aged skin darkened by years under the baking sun. Narrow, weasel like eyes glaring at me as I watched them getting closer.
The figure around him seemed younger. Their faces ravaged by the outdoors too. Eyes similar to the lead figure. Where they related? I guessed they were. Maybe father and sons.
I struggled to control the terror flooding my body. My mind screaming with what I knew was to come. For a brief moment I could easily have lost myself in a crazed panic. Stopped only by a soft, reassuring voice gently tapping into my thoughts. Was it Telestis? No. It was Petrus. His words soothing, somehow easing my fears.
My thoughts filled with how he had dealt with such a situation. His calmness, unmoved by the dangers he faced. Such a remarkable ability I wished I could mimic. I knew I could not, but at least I could try.
“Stop right there,” the lead figure shouted. Standing metres from me.
“What do you want?” I surprised myself with the vicious growl grumbling from my dried mouth. My unseen hand still clutching the pistol behind my back.
“What are you doing here?” the lead Ereptor stepped toward me. Stopping almost in arms reach.
“What business is that of your?” I glared at him, hoping my fear remained hidden. My eyes focussed on his speckled-black wrinkled nose and frowned eyes. For a brief moment I could easily have burst out laughing at his bushy eyebrows. The image of two baby caterpillars chasing each other flashing into my thoughts.
“This is our land.”
“Your land.” Now I laughed, “I’d like to hear you tell Custode Jarry that.”
I recalled the map. The land lying within the terrain of Luguvalium city. The city controlled by Custode Pasker Jarry. I had met Custode Jarry several times during his visits to my father. He was an evil man who thought nothing of butchering those who showed him such disrespect.
More wrinkles drew across the man’s face, his lips dropped into a grimace of uncertainty. Suspicious eyes glaring at me. Had he recognised me? No, surely not. I was not known this far north. Or was I?
“Who are you?” he asked. His tone having almost softened.
“That is of no concern to you,” I told him. Forcing myself not to look at his eyebrows. Fearing laughter would air my nervousness.
“You are crossing the lands alone,” he glared at me, “I’m sure Custode Jarry would find that suspicious.”
“Maybe not as suspicious as those claiming his land to be theirs.”
One of the other men stepped forward, leaning into the lead Ereptor, whispering unheard words into his ear.
“Who are you?” the lead man asked.
“My name is not important.” I could almost hear Petrus calming words guiding me through what I had to do. Telling me to plan my next move. To cover all scenarios.
I glanced at each man, taking in everything I could about them. Where they stood, how they stood. Their rifles and pistols still holstered. Swords still sheathed. None showing any signs of arming themselves. They obviously did not see me as a threat, nothing of danger. Having no idea of the pistol clasped behind my back.
The lead man glared at me. The younger man to his side, his son? Possibly, glanced at the two others loitering behind. Both those showing no concern in what was happening. Their attention caught by something in the distance. Their lack of interest could well be my advantage.
“Just step aside,” I kept my voice firm, yet my heart pounded with a terrifying force. For a few seconds I feared my legs would crumble beneath me, sending me helplessly to the ground.
“And if we don’t?”
“Just step aside,” I repeated, managing a growl from deep within me. Desperate to push at the mind of the man standing in my way. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“Too late,” the wrinkled man’s lips curved into a smile, his eyes glowing with sinister motives.
A flash of movement caught my eye. The figure standing to his side reaching for something. A weapon no doubt. I had to act, fast. If I did not I would surely die.
I dragged the pistol from behind my back. Swinging it around in a single swift movement. Surprising even myself. My finger had already squeezed the trigger. The crack of a bullet fired splitting through the eerie atmosphere, bringing chaos in the blink of an eye.
Time seemed to slow down. My eyes drawn to a finger-tip size red dot stamped on the wrinkled man’s forehead, a split second before the back of his skull exploded. Splinters of bone and brain matter sprayed over the man standing next to him. The two others startled from their own interest. Their confusion giving me the few seconds I needed.
I had no idea what came over me. Finding strength from somewhere, an agility I did not know I had. Nudging slightly to my left, only a little, I fired at the closest Ereptor who stared at his fallen friend.
A bullet struck the side of the stunned figure head, piercing his skin, cracking through his skull just above his ear. The force of the impact punched him backwards. His quivering body thumping into a nearby trunk. Blood smudged down the bark as his body slumped to the ground.
I saw one of the other Ereptor’s turn toward me, a pistol in his hands. Opening fire in almost blind panic. The heat of a bullet flashed passed my forehead. Missing me by shear luck.
Turning quickly I threw myself to the ground, rolling across the harsh grit, just as another bullet pinged off a rock only centimetres from my chest. Ricochetting off into the distance.
I somehow managed to push myself to my feet mid-roll, turning toward the nearest Ereptor. Firing a single shot just as he twisted his body to the side, shifting from my line of fire. Only luck was on my side once more.
His boot landed on a spread of lose stone, causing him to lose balance. His head jerked backwards as the bullet sliced through the air. The small wad of hot metal piercing through his right eye. Tearing deep into his brain. Dead before he knew what had happened.
The remaining Ereptor swing his rifle around. The muzzle only centimetres from my face.
I closed my eyes, tightly. Hearing the dull, metallic click of the firing pin cracking against the bullet. My mind already having accepted death.
The explosion of the bullet fired echoed across the land. A high-pitched howl-like scream bursting through the echoes. Screams easily mistaken for that of a wounded animal.
I opened my eyes, drawn to the Ereptor dropped rifle rocking slightly on the ground. The Ereptor had fallen to his knees, his hands slapped over his face. Thick blood poured through his trembling fingers. Muffled screams of agony filled the air like a wolf caught in a trap.
It took a few seconds to realise what had happened. Relief flooding my body. A fortuitous smile curving on my lips as luck favoured me once again.
The Ereptor’s rifle had back-fired. The bullet somehow jamming inside the barrel. The small, yet powerful explosion ripping apart the rear of the rifle. Red-hot shrapnel spraying his face and upper torso.
I raised my pistol, my mind a fog-like haze as I fired a single bullet into the top of the snivelling Ereptor's head. His screams stopping with a final gargled cry. An eerie silence soon settling across the lands.
The Ereptor’s lifeless body slumped to the floor. His blood-matted hair hiding the bullet hole. The realisation of what I had just done now striking me, hard.
I stared at the smoking pistol gripped tightly in my hand. The pistol I had used to kill all four men. Three I had no choice but to kill. The fourth I had killed in cold blood.
A voice screamed inside my mind. Was it guilt chastising me for what I had done? I could have let the Ereptor live. He was of no danger to me. Blinded by his own weapon. Yet I had shot him, without hesitation. Without mercy. What had I done? What had I become?
Dragging myself from my burning guilt I glanced around the land, fearing the gunshots had been heard across the lands. Thankful to see no movement, hearing no sounds. With a few deep breaths, hissing air into my lungs, I continued my journey. Desperate to get as far from the Ereptors bodies as possible.
I quickened my pace. Not daring to look back, afraid of what I may see. My eyes focussed on the rocky edges of the mountain in the distance.
Guilt clawed at my mind, burning through my soul. Sickened by what I had done. Why had I killed the Ereptor in cold blood? I tried to convince myself I had too do it, or face being killed myself. Only he was in no fit state to see me, let alone shoot at me, even if he managed to find his rifle dropped on the ground.
Had I become as cold-blooded as the Ereptors? Killing those who were of no danger to me? Was this the only way I could survive? Had it become kill of be killed? Was this how my life was to be?
The edge of the rocky mountain seemed to jump out at me. My mind distracted by countless questions spinning through my thoughts. So much guilt feasting on so much sorrow.
The sun had already begun to fall a few hours earlier. It’s near orange glow slowly sinking against the horizon to my left. I guessed I had four, maybe five hours of daylight remaining before darkness would halt my journey. The only option being to get to the place marked on the map.
I quickened my step, following the foot of the mountain toward a gorge indicated on the map. I just hoped I could find it before it was too late.
The sight of a spilt in the rocky mountain brought a thread of hope to my tortured mind. The opening of a gorge shining like a welcoming beacon. The gorge marked on the map, I hoped.
I headed along the gorge, watching around me with nervous eyes. My tired, aching body now desperate for rest. The last thing I needed now was to be ambushed by those I failed to see.
The gorge cut deep through the mountain. Each step I took watched over by steep sides smoothed by nature herself.
I followed the rocky path up the mountain, alert for signs of danger. Seeing nothing but the birds resting on the ledges high over head.
With aching muscles, burning with throbbing pain, the need to find the place marked on the map became paramount in my mind. Although, according to the map I should have already found something. Or maybe I had. I just did not know I had.
Then I saw it. Thin, dark lines cutting around several huge boulders. Solid, grey rocks double my height, at least. I knew if it were not for the map I would have walked straight passed the cave without a second glance. Only I knew something was there. Something which shouted out to me, as if waving me over.
I wasted no time, pushing myself through the narrow gap between two of the boulders. Stepping cautiously into the darkness of a cave beyond. The stale stench of rotten food and aged fire-ash doing little to put me off heading into the cave. Into a place I hoped would offer safe sanctuary for the coming night.
Stepping into the blackness of the cave I paused briefly, savouring the strangely comforting silence. Listening for the slightest signs of danger. Hearing nothing but the beating of my heart drumming in my ears.
Once clear of the mouth I flinted a torch into life, small flames devouring the darkness like a starving beast. Lighting the cave around me. A cave I could see was perfect for my needs.
I soon settled in for the night, a small fire burning the arid debris I scavenged from the ground around me. Slices of meat warmed on heated stones edging the flames. My stomach rumbling in anticipation of the food yet to come. I carefully poured boiled water over slices of lemon in a cup, savouring the bitter scent rising into my mind.
I sat in silence. A silence broken only by the crackling of the wood burning in the fire. Pops of trapped air finally escaping there wooden prison. Sparks flashing within the dancing flames.
My mind thrashed with many questions I struggled to cope with. Tortured by the memory of the helpless Ereptor who life I had cruelly taken without thought. Sharp, jagged nails of guilt clawing at my heart.
Once I had eaten, finishing the drink, each sip soothing the harshness in my throat, I pushed myself into a crevice in the wall. The fire burning to my right, the mouth of the cave to my left.
I struggled to stop my mind from flooding with what had happened. Now desperate to clear my thoughts. Longing for sleep. Tiredness eventually taking me into a fitful slumber.
I opened my eyes, greeted by nothing but darkness. Quickly recalling where 1 was. The fire had died long since, allowing a chill to tap at my skin beneath the few layers of clothing I wore.
Flinting the fire back into life the flames split through the darkness, gradually warming the air around me.
I made breakfast, cooking slithers of meat, browning some bread, washing it down with boiled water poured over lemon slices into a cup. Already anticipating another gruelling day ahead of me.
As I ate, and drank, I looked over the map under the flickering glow of the flames. I planned a route toward Grenack cave, the next place marked on the map by a red cross. Yet the distance seemed at least a two day walk.
The route I opted for would take me North-West. Keeping me close to the foot of the mountain. Nothing but open land lay North and East. The mountain itself blocking a route West.
Once I was ready I packed everything away, dousing the fire with kicks of dirt, before heading out of the cave. Back onto the gorge. For a brief moment I lost my bearings, seeing nothing but the enveloping grey rock. Thankful for the compass to lead me in the right direction.
I headed along the gorge, descending the mountain with relative ease. Reaching the foot in less than thirty minutes. The surrounding lands stretched out in front of me for what looked like forever. Beautiful, rolling landscapes which could hide a myriad dangers.
With a final look around I set off along the foot of the mountain. Staying close to the jagged rock, hoping to hide the shape of my body from passing eyes.
I walked at a steady pace, making good progress in the dampness of the morning chill. The sun climbed to my right, spraying the ground with its growing warmth. Slowly lifting my spirits.
Hours rolled by without much notice. My mind focussed on my surroundings. Watching for the slightest movement. Seeing nothing but the gentle sway of the knee high reeds fluttering in the softest of breezes.
I had just crossed a narrow stream when I caught sight of something moving across the land only a few hundred metres north. Dark shapes quickly turning into figures. Three figures heading toward me. Had they seen me? Surely they had.
Paranoid fear began burning inside my mind. Thoughts of having to fight off another gang of Ereptors not something I relished. I just did not have the energy for another battle. Not physically, nor mentally. My heart still struggled with the thoughts of what I had already done. The churning guilt of taking the life of a man who was no longer a threat to me. Would I do it again? Could I do it again?
I continued walking, eventually losing sight of the figures, who ever they were. My priority now was to reach the relative safety of a forest which still seemed so far away.
My path took me across a few shallow brooks. The coldness of the gently flowing water easing my aching feet. A breath of fresh air lifting my spirits a little.
The forest was no more than a few hundred metres when I caught sight of the figures again. They had changed direction, now heading to the same forest I was. I knew then I had drawn their attention enough for them to wonder who I was and what I was doing.
I continued walking. What other choice did I have? I could not turn back. I did not have the energy to climb back over the mountain and trek along its western side. East was out of the question. Too many kilometres of open land. North offered little safety from wandering eyes either. Leaving only the forest I was already walking towards.
My only hope now was to reach the forest and hide amongst the trees. Hoping the three figures would simply pass me by. Although I very much doubted.
I kept them in sight as they closed in on me. They must have seen me by now, surely? Framed by the grey of the towering mountain I knew I must had stuck out like a red rose amongst the weeds.
Within minutes I could see the three figures staring toward me, now so close I saw their faces beneath their hooded disguises. They had seen me, now I feared another battle was only moments away.
I quickened my pace, still hoping I could hide from sight once I reached the trees. A hope which faded with each passing second. But I still pushed on. I was not going to give in, not know. Not ever.
One of the figures raised a hand. Were they about to attack? To throw something at me? A rush of relief flooded my thoughts as I realised who ever it was was simple waving. An empty-handed gesture I hoped screamed peace. Yet I feared danger was a mere heartbeat away.
The gap between the trio of figures and myself narrowed. My mind easing a little seeing they were not Gourians. The idea of them being Ereptors still clawed at my fears.
The same figure raised a wave once more. I waved back, without thinking. Instincts I suppose. But now it was done.
Seconds passed before we came face to face. Stopping only metres apart.
We stood in silence for what could have been an eternity. Darting eyes watching each other with suspicion. Curiosity even.
I took in everything about them. Their mannerism, their stance. Even the way they constantly glanced at each other for what I thought could well be a sign of insecurities. I tried to pick out which one led the others. Telestis had often told me that taking out the leader of a group would cause confusion amongst the ranks. A confusion which could aid me in battle.
“Hello,” one of the three stepped forward, a trembling hand held out slightly.
I stared at the thinly framed figure, standing no taller than myself, hidden beneath shabby clothing. Strands of dark, ruffled hair drooping from beneath a ragged fur-framed hood.
“What do you want?” I growled, desperate to show a confidence I struggled to find inside myself.
My hand had already slipped around my back, fingers curled around the handle of the pistol.
“Nothing,” the lead figure stood in front of me. Only a metre or so separating us.
“Nothing?” I frowned, confused.
“We mean you know harm.” The lead figure told me.
My fingers had tightened around the pistol behind my back, already having slid it from my waistband. The warm metal gently scratching my skin.
“We’re heading West,” the lead figure’s smile held a waver of truth, honesty even. “Toward Hagenoe village.”
I glanced at each of them with curiosity, not quite sure of what was happening. Or what was about to happen.
The lead figure’s raised hands pushed away their hood, uncovering the disguise which I now saw through. It quickly dawned on me what I had looked passed seconds before.
I could not help but smile, seeing a grin arcing on the lead figures face. A face I now saw as female.
I guessed her to be no more than twenty years of age. Short, dishevelled hair almost as dark as mine. Small lips pouting beneath a button-like nose. Wide brown eyes airing kindness, yet I swore I saw a slither of puzzlement too.
Now the obvious had jumped into my mind I quickly saw what I would have missed. The curves of her body beneath baggy clothing. Not quite baggy enough to hide her femininity, yet she seemed to wear her clothes as if caring little of being seen as female.
“My name’s Gavia,” the lead figure laughed at my obvious confusion.
I reached out, taking her hand. Shaking it gently. “I’m Jon.” I told her. My mind relaxing a little in the presence of a female, deeming her less of a threat.
“This is Lydus,” she wafted her hand toward a short, stocky man standing behind her. He looked in his early twenties,. Shabby clothing covering a muscular physique. Not quite Telestis's build but still muscular.
“And this is Hegio.” Gavia's finger nudged toward the other figure. A taller, thinner man whose pale complexion made him look as though he struggled with some kind of illness. Small, rounded spectacles somehow balancing on his narrow, bony nose.
“Please to meet you,” I turned to them, nodding a welcome.
“What brings you to cross the lands on your own?” Gavia asked.
“I prefer my own company,” I lied. Was I getting better at it?
“It’s a bit dangerous alone.”
“I’ve come to realise that,” I tried to laugh, only my nervousness stopped me from doing so, “I’ve managed so far.”
“We should keep moving,” one of the others, Hegio I think, spoke with urgency.
Gavia glanced at him, nodding, before turning back to me. “We saw Gourians heading this way a few hours ago.”
“Coming from where?”
“Not sure,” she shrugged her shoulders, “Sangalli town, we think.”
I looked at each of them, paranoia spinning my mind. I knew I should not trust them. I could not trust anyone, yet I had trusted Petrus. The fact Gavia was female seemed to settle my mind a little.
“We’ll all be safer within the trees.” Gavia pointed across to the trees I was already walking towards.
“We best keep going then.”
Gavia and I walked a few metres ahead of the others, My fears eased a little in the company of a female. Yet something still niggled at my mind. But what?
We reached the forest in minutes, stepping into the mass of towering trunks. I stopped to look back over the path we had walked. Thankful to see no sign of Gourians, anywhere.
Once inside the dulling light of the forest everything seemed to happen at once. So quickly I struggled to take it all in.
Darkness descended on me in the blink of an eye. A coarse sack dragged over my head. A stench of rotten vegetables rising into my nose, forced into my lungs with each struggled breath.
My legs buckled from the force of a boot kicking the back of my knee, dropping me to the ground with such painful ease. Once pinned down my wrists and ankles were hastily tied with rough rope. Binding me into submission. Captured so quickly I had no time to scream, let alone defend myself.
“Let me go,” I finally found my voice. “NOW.”
I heard rumbles of laughter. Male tones finding humour in my predicament. Hegio or Lydus, I was unsure. Yet I did not hear Gavia’s voice joining in with her companions. Had they captured her too? No. She was part of this.
“Stop wriggling,” one of the male voices boomed down my ear, “you’ll only hurt yourself.”
“Drop dead,” I snarled.
I pulled at the ropes binding my wrists. Ignoring the burns punishing my skin.
“Look at this,” a male voice laughed.
I felt the warm metal of the pistol slide from my waistband. Hearing the scraping of the slider pulled back. The dull click of a bullet popping from the chamber, dropping to the ground with a muffled thump.
“Where did you get this?”
“Get lost,” I growled.
“It doesn’t matter.” Gavia finally spoke. Her tone firm, “let’s just get moving.”
I was hastily dragged to my feet, hands grabbing around my waist. Quickly bundled over the shoulder of one of the men before being carried deeper into the forest.
I had been captured with such ease. Now being carried to what could well be my death.
I had no idea how far I had been carried through the forest. Bounced on the shoulder of someone I feared was more dangerous than an Ereptor.
The only people I knew who were worse than Ereptors were Plagiars. Kidnappers who took their captives to the nearest city to claim a merces, a reward from the Custode or Tourian. I had witnessed Plagiars dragging their captives into my father’s City. Plagiars substantially rewarded. Those captured were severely punished.
If they were Plagiars I would be taken to the nearest city where my true identity would be revealed. When that occurred I would face slaughter, no doubt after having been escorted back to Lindines city where my father would inflict such slaughter.
I could not let this happen. Yet I lay slouched helplessly over the shoulder of one of my captors. Bounced up and down like a rag-doll in the hands of a clumsy child.
Many bounced kilometres later we finally came to a stop, where I was dropped onto the ground without mercy. Tied hands unable to protect my body from thumping onto the hardened ground.
I was swiftly dragged across the scattered foliage. Rough hands clasping around my upper arms before my back slammed against the rough bark of a tree trunk.
Within seconds my ropes had been untied then retied, now bound tightly to the trunk. The frayed ropes cut into my wrists with each movement, trickles of warm blood oozing from where my skin had already split. Piercing pains finally stopping me from trying to loosen the knotted mass any more.
I could not believe how stupidly naive I had been. Taken in by the trio. More by Gavia, her soft, feminine mannerism cutting through what mistrust I had held.
“What about the hood?” I growled, hoping my voice aired a confidence my mind struggled to find.
I heard nothing but silence. Had they left me? Had they tied me to the tree and gone? I doubted it. The cracking of a twig under a heavy boot telling me I was not alone.
The darkness lifted with the shuffling of the cloth torn off my head. My mind enveloped by the dull light of the forest. The remaining daylight barely managing to split through the canopy high overhead.
I looked up at the face of the one who had uncovered me. Staring straight at Gavia crouching at my side. My rising anger quickly subdued by a strange kindness I saw in her soft brown eyes. A kindness her actions seemed to swallow.
“What do you want from me?” I whispered. My voice low.
She said nothing, a slight curving smile sending shreds of confusion through my mind. She pushed herself to her feet before heading back to the others.
I watched her settle herself near the others, all sitting around a small fire they had built. Their voices were muffled yet I swore I heard my name mentioned several times. Not my true name, which was a good thing I thought. They had no idea who I really was. Only seeing me as a female travelling alone. Someone they could claim a merces from the city Custode.
I could not stop my mind from punishing itself. I had dropped my guard allowing myself to be caught. Fooled by a female I thought I could trust. Now I was alone and possibly facing certain death.
They had taken all I had. My food, water. Bow, knife. Even the pistol. I was unarmed and bound to a tree trunk with thick ropes cutting into my skin. Yet I could not stop the slight smile as I realised they had not taken the coin Petrus had given me. A coin bound to twine, hanging from my neck. A token of little use, yet it seemed to give me slithers of courage I knew I would need.
The air soon began to fill with the delicious aroma of cooked rabbit tapping at my taste-buds. The softest scent of mixed-berry tea drifting passed my face. I was so hungry now my stomach cramped with the desperate need for food.
I caught Gavia glancing at me several times. Her eyes darting toward Hegio or Lydus, as if to see if they had noticed her actions. Neither having done so.
As we looked at each other I swore I caught a shot of guilt in her eyes. A saddened frown etch on her face. But there was something else there. Was it a flash of recognition? Did she know who I was? Who I really was? No, it was not possible.
Watching the trio with a strange interest I did my best to formulate a plan of escape. An escape I felt would never come.
I caught Gavia glancing at me again before her eyes darted around the trees. The mumbling voices of all three merging into dull tones which made no sense.
Hegio and Lydus got to their feet, both turning their stare toward me. For a moment I feared they were about to attack me, or worse. But they did not. They grabbed their knives and headed into the forest, soon disappearing in the shadows of the trees.
Gavia watched them head out of sight before turning toward me, slowly making her way to where I sat strapped to the trunk. Her eyes fixed on me.
I feared what was to come.
Gavia crouched in front of me, staring into my eyes.
“What do you want?” I snarled, pulling at my bindings. Flinching as the rough rope clawed at my skin.
“I know who you are,” she told me, her voice hushed. Her eyes darting around the trees.
“What do you mean?” I stared at her, our faces only centimetres apart. So close I felt her warm breath brushing my skin.
“I know who you are?”
Looking into her eyes I saw nothing of hatred. Nothing I deemed a danger. Her lips trembling into a smile.
“Who am I then?” I asked. Deep down I knew what she meant, yet still feared what she would say.
Her eyes darted around the trees. Was she looking for her companions? Did she fear the words she was about to say? Terrified of being overheard? Before she leant into me a little.
“You’re Varia Madec’s daughter.”
Time seemed to stand still. My heart pounded so hard in my chest I feared it would burst from within. For one moment I swore it stopped beating altogether. My mind screamed so loud I thought insanity would take me. Now staring at Gavia with widened eyes, desperate to bore into her thoughts. To know what she knew. How she knew.
“Who told you that?” I tried laughing through nervous mumbles.
“No one told me,” she whispered. Her eyes constantly searching the forest. “I recognised you.”
I stared at her, unable to find any words of defence.
“I wasn’t sure at first,” she explained, her voice barely a whisper, “your face was familiar. I just couldn’t figure out why.”
I stared at her. Her eyes flicking between me and the forest. Was she waiting for her companions to return? Waiting for help before she took my life?
“It’s been a few years since I last saw you,” she whispered, “but I would recognise you anywhere.”
I was lost for words, stunned into a silent disbelief.
“You were no more than eight,” Gavia's smile twitched slightly, “maybe even seven.”
I stared at her. My mind dragging through faded memories, desperate to find answers I needed.
“I don’t expect you to remember me,” Gavia leaned in a little closer, “nor my mother, Catalia?”
A myriad images exploded in my mind. Faces flashing through my thoughts. One face stood out amongst the barrage of many. The paled, gaunt face of a kind-hearted lady whose smile held nothing but gentleness. A lady I knew to be Catalia. Gavia's mother. The recognition of the girl staring at me now dawning in my fogged confusion.
“You remember her, don’t you?” Gavia asked. Her smile holding a calmness I had seen before.
Memories pushed through my mind. Recalling Catalia, one of mother’s household staff. One of mother’s more favoured staff. Mother had given Catalia special permission for her children to live inside our home. Her daughter, Gavia, and Gavia's younger brother.
Gavia was five years my senior, yet I recalled how we used to play inside the recreation area of my home. Skipping ropes, tossing loops over pins. We even spent many happy times toy fighting. A friendship, almost sister-like, growing strong.
I recalled the fresh, innocent smile of Gavia's younger brother. More my age, maybe a year older. A kind soul whose sense of humour, even at a young age, brought a light of joy where ever he stepped.
“Samia.” I could not stop the name rolling from my mouth. Remembering Gavia's brother. My eyes drawn to where her companions had walked. “Is he one of those?”
“No,” Gavia whispered. Sadness in her low tone, “Samia was killed by Ereptors.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her with a heavy heart. “I did not know.”
I recalled my mother and Catalia had formed a close bond. I often saw them laughing happily as mother helped the staff around the house. Only when father was away. We all knew the consequences if father discovered how close mother had become to the household staff. Especially Catalia.
Then I remembered what had happened. Why Catalia had left the city, taking Gavia and Samia with her. Their lives in mortal danger, because of my father.
Father had finally noticed the friendship between them. To be honest I think he also realised the friendship of Gavia, Samia and myself. Fortunately mother had overheard father talking of what was to come, of the punishment he was to inflict on Catalia and her children.
Mother had warned Catalia, telling her to leave the city. Giving her what she could to help her on her way.
In the darkness of night, so long ago now, I was taken to kitchen of my home where Catalia, Gavia and Samia were waiting. I saw the sadness in all their eyes. Gavia's tears rolling down her cheeks. The heartbreak of a friendship about to be ripped apart.
I watched, broken hearted, as my brothers, together with a handful of trusted riders, escorted Catalia and her family from the city. Heading North under the cover of darkness.
Mother told me they would be taken to a town far away where they could live without the fear of father’s punishment. Where they could try and build a new life for themselves.
That was the last I saw of them, of Gavia. Until now.
“What about Catalia?” I asked.
“She passed away shortly after Samia’s death” Gavia’s dropped her gaze. A slight quiver in her voice.
Gavia looked at me again. “Don’t be.” Her smile widening with genuine sincerity, “thanks to you and your family she had many good years. We all had good years.”
“I’m so glad you did.” I smiled. My mind spinning with flashing memories. Happier times Gavia and I spent together.
“Your mother and brothers saved our lives,” she told me, “you gave us what you could so we could live.”
“They did that for me too,” I told her.
I saw confusion etched on her face.
“They helped me escape the city,” I sighed.
“Escape the city?”
“My father happened.” I told her.
I quickly explained what had happened. How my father had given the orders to arrest and punish mother and my two brother. How they had helped me escape the city in the early hours in order for me to live. I told her how I had watched my father execute them all, my mother and brothers. My father showing nothing of remorse for what he did.
“I’m so sorry,” Gavia whispered. Her tone soft. Genuine heartbreak in her words.
I tried to keep my smile from twitching.
“I loved your mother,” Gavia sighed, “I know my mother did too. And Samia. She had the kindest of hearts.”
“We loved you all too.”
I recalled the heartbreak when Gavia and her family had left the city. I spent many hours wandering around the house in a daze-like state. Mourning the loss of a large part of what I felt to be my own family.
I knew mother felt the same. Her mind occupied by what was her loss. Her heartbreak at losing such a close friend.
“So, what now?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Gavia's frown showed puzzlement.
“With me?” I tried moving inside the ropes wrapped around me, “now you know?”
Gavia said nothing, dragging a knife from her boot. For a moment I thought she would cut my throat where I sat. Only for her to hack at the ropes binding me to the trunk.
My hands tingled with the rush of blood flushing through them. The ropes loosened before dropping to the ground. My hands untied. Free to move.
“You need to go,” Gavia whispered, “before they return.”
I felt the ropes slide from my legs, brushing heavily across my grazed shins. “Where did they go?”
“On a wild goose chase,” Gavia whispered. A threat of humour in her words. “You just need to go.”
I struggled getting to my feet. Near crippling numbness causing me to stumble, almost bringing me back down. Only Gavia's lightening reactions keeping me upright.
“Can you walk?” she asked. Genuine concern in her whispered voice.
I nodded, standing upright. My jelly-like legs struggling to hold my body weight.
“I don’t understand,” I leant against the rough bark of the tree trunk, keeping myself steady, “why are you doing this?”
“You were always kind to us,” Gavia's smile warmed my very soul, “I could not live with myself if I harmed you.”
“What about the others?” I nodded toward the forest where Lydus and Hegio had headed through, “Won’t they punish you?”
“I’ll deal with them,” Gavia smiled, handing me my supplies, compass, pistol, bow and arrows.
I took all she gave me, swinging the bag over my shoulder. The bow tucked next to it. Arrows in the quiver slung over my other shoulder. Pistol pushed into my waistband.
“Now go,” Gavia took my hand, smiling with genuine sincerity. “Run as fast as you can.”
“Thank you,” I whispered, clasping her hand in mine.
“You’ve no need to thank me,” she sighed, “just run.”
Author Notes: This is Chapters 1 - 10 of the Lonely Swan story #4 - Desolate and Alone
(Chapters 11 - 14 to follow)