The dull crack of gunfire blasted throughout the forest. Roaring grumbles bouncing off the trees. Yet I heard no screams.
I opened my eyes, expecting to see the tiger tearing into Petrus. Seeing only his bow lay uselessly on the rough ground. An unused arrow lay across it.
Looking around the surrounding trees I saw Petrus standing to my right, a pistol held in his hand, pointing skywards. A slither of white smoke rising from the muzzle.
“What happened?” I asked, mystified.
“They don’t like loud noises,” Petrus turned to me. His smile widening, “for such powerful beasts they’re pretty cowardly.”
I returned his smile, nervously. Looking at the pistol in his hand before turning back to the forest. Searching for any sign of the tigers.
“We should keep moving,” Petrus pushed the pistol into the waistband of his trousers, “that shot would have drawn attention.”
We moved on, pushing through the forest. All the time I expected to see the tigers somewhere. Following us or maybe even lay in wait. Were tigers capable of such thought?
Our pace soon quickened, keen to put as much ground between us and the tigers, where ever they were.
We eventually reached the edge of the forest, staring over the short run to the next forest. My body ached, badly, savouring the few minutes of rest before pushing on once more.
The sun had already begun it descent. Yet its heat still punishing my tiring body once I stepped out into the open. I could see from Petrus's slight sagging shoulders the heat had tapped away at his energy too.
We quickened our steps across the open land. A fast walk soon a jog, watching for signs of movement. Tigers? Gourians? Ereptors? Thankfully seeing none.
Once in the forest we kept walking, relying on the map and compass to keep heading North toward mount Aldorfi. Where a red-cross marked on the map showed a place I hoped would offer safety. Only there were many hours of walking before we reached it. I prayed we had the daylight to get there.
We took short rests, eating and drinking, replenishing the energy we lost. Our chatter, as with out rations, kept to a minimum. Constantly watching for the dangers which could pounce on us at any moment.
Hours had passed, I had no idea how many, before we reached the end of the forest, staring out toward Mount Aldorfi. A monstrous towering rock seeming so far away.
We wasted no time, seeing off across the land, watching for the slightest movement. Soon reaching the foot of the mountain, before following a path up the rocky side.
The path eventually levelled into a plateau. Large walls of shrubbery scattered around the flat rock. Rock-grey mountain towering either side.
A dark patch sitting behind one of the many bushes caught my eye. Was it what the red-cross marked on the map showed? I could see Petrus had seen it too, moving toward it.
We pushed through the bush with relative ease, finding the blackness of another cave beyond. Another place I hoped we could rest for the night as darkness already pushed against the light of the falling dusk.
Once inside the cave we found torches, flinting them to life. A small fire soon lit, warming the air, boiling water and cooking some food. The aroma of the sizzling meat causing my mouth to water, my stomach to grumble. Reminding me how hungry I really was.
The food was soon cooked. Boiled water poured over berries and sliced lemons inside a cup. A warming taste which helped sooth my throat, tenderly caressing me from the inside.
Petrus looked up from the map he studied as he tore at the meat through gritted teeth. “Looks like this is our last night together.”
I looked at him. Confusion tapping my mind for a few seconds, soon realising what he meant. We would descend the mountain in the morning, once at the foot we would go our separate way. He would head East, toward Pons Aelius City, I would head West, along my journey to the Northern Mountains.
“Are you okay?” he asked, dragging me from my thoughts.
“Yes,” I told him. I hoped he could not see through my lie.
I tried to hold back the slithering of fear rising inside me. A fear of being alone once more. Only there was more than fear rattling my thoughts. More than the loneliness I would have to endure once more. I knew I was going to miss Petrus's company. I was going to miss Petrus. The few days and nights spent together had helped sooth my frightened mind, even helping my aching heart. Only, come morning, I was going to have to say goodbye to him.
“It’s a shame really,” he spoke softly, calmly.
“It is,” I tried hiding the sorrow building inside me, not wanting to show weakness, “it’s a shame we can’t continue on the same path.”
We sat around the fire talking, well into the early hours, without noticing. He spoke of his journey as a vector, working for a man he called Amergin. Delivering messages, even parcels, from place to place. Crossing the lands for days, weeks. Sometimes into months. All the time living off his own instincts.
I struggled with the idea of telling him who I really was and where I came from. I knew I could trust him yet I did not want to tell him who my father was and what he had done. The idea of Petrus judging me for my father’s actions terrified me. So I said nothing about him, nor did he ask questions I feared I could not answer.
Tiredness eventually found me as I drifted off to sleep. Exhausted by the days events.
A new day dawned. The sun beginning to rise. I awoke with a little less of a start, catching sight of Petrus stoking the fire. Having already begun cooking some of the food, boiling some of the water. Before I was fully awake.
“Morning,” he greeted me with his comforting smile, “sleep well?”
“Yes,” I shifted closer to the fire, closer to him, “thank you.”
My heart weighed heavy, an invisible fist, clenched tightly, punching into my stomach. I knew I would be walking the lands alone once we reached the foot of the mountain.
Even though I had known Petrus for a day or two I knew I was going to miss him. Was it the feeling of security I was about to lose? Knowing he was there with me? No. I was going to miss his company. His calming smile, his easy tone which made even the most dangerous of situation seem trivial.
We talked as we ate breakfast, toasted bread, potatoes. I sipped the hot lemon drink which warmed my body. All the time unable to help myself glancing at Petrus.
I had met very few genuinely kind people outside my own family, and most of the household staff. Never whilst travelling the lands. Most would have slaughtered me by now, many raping me first. Yet I knew Petrus's heart held nothing of malice toward me.
Yes, he had taken the lives of the Ereptors, but that was to help me. He had not slaughtered the Gourians, even though he could have done so with ease. The explosive arrow fired over their heads as a distraction could easily have killed them all with one swipe.
But the real reason I knew he held a kind, gentle soul, was the way he dealt with the tigers. Even in the face of death he refused to kill them. Preferring to scare them away. Killing only for survival, for food, not just because he could.
I pushed the thoughts away from my mind, wanting to enjoy the last few hours of Petrus's company. Once we hit the foot of the mountain we would go our separate paths.
We talked with such ease as we collected everything together. Petrus kicked grit and soil over the flames, the ambers quickly disappearing, until no signs of a fire remained.
Minutes later we were on the move again, heading from the cave, across the mountain. Soon descending the rocky side. All the time I knew each step took me closer to loneliness once more. Something I dreaded so much.
Less than thirty minutes later we reached the foot of the mountain. My mind still struggling with the thought of what I knew was to come.
Petrus stopped walking, turning to me with his warming smile. A genuine smile I would never forget. “Here’s where we part company I’m afraid.”
“It's been a pleasure walking you,” I held my hand out to him. Desperate to hide the sadness of my aching heart.
He shook my outstretched hand, gently, “It's been my honour,” he smiled as he dropped his head forward slightly, “my lady.”
My heart rushed with a pounding dread. Fear ripping my mind as I stared at him. “You know?”
He nodded, his smile never faltering. Even his eyes glistened in the touch of the growing daylight.
“When did you know?”
“First night,” he told me, “that Ereptor confirmed it. I was hoping you’d tell me.”
“Don't be sorry,” he smiled at me, “I don't blame you.”
I looked at him, my smile quivering slightly. “I did not want you to judge me.”
“Knowing my father is –”
“Don’t.” Petrus lifted his hand. His index finger raised centimetres from my lips, “you don’t have to tell me.”
I stared at him, not quite sure what to say now.
“You might need this,” he dug his hand into a leather pouch strapped to the side of his waist. Pulling out a small pistol. Holding it out for me to take.
“I can't,” I whispered.
“You're going to need it,” he told me, “it's bad enough travelling as a boy. But as a girl.”
He placed the pistol into my hand with a caring touch, gently clasping my hand in both his. “Your journey is going to be hard,” he whispered, staring into my eyes. “But you seem to know what you’re doing.”
He dug his hand into another of his pockets, dragging out a pouch which rattled almost in tune. “Bullets.” He told me, dropping the pouch into my pocket. “Go sparingly with them.”
I looked at him, unable to stop my smile from quivering. Only a heartbeat from bursting into tears. The kindness of a stranger, a boy I had just met, offering me protection once we went our separate ways. The kindness of someone I first feared would attack me. Only he had done his best to help keep me from the insanity closing in on my mind. Pushing away the loneliness of my heart. Offering me protection and companionship without asking for anything in return.
“You can shoot, can't you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I told him, “my brothers taught me.”
My mind flashed with thoughts of my brothers teaching me how to use weapons. Pistols, rifles, knives, swords. Even a bow and arrow, which was my favourite.
They had taught me how to use a pistol, how to load it and how to fire it. Making sure I prepared myself for what they called ‘the kick’ as it was fired.
I felt confident in using a pistol, even at the age of ten my brothers had praised me for my skills, telling me I was as good with a pistol as many people years older than me.
Right then, smiling at Petrus, I silently thanked my brothers for their teachings.
I slid the pistol into my waistband, covering it with a flap of my shirt.
“Are you sure you don't need it?” I asked.
“You'll need it more than I.”
I read warmth in his smile. Kindness in his eyes. I knew a friendship had grown between us, at least for me anyway. A trusting bond I felt toward him. Now only moments from going our separate ways, I felt sadness tearing through my heart, knowing our time together was about to end.
He reached around the back of his head, fiddling with a thin string looped around his neck. He pulled the string, lifting a small coin tied to it from beneath his shirt. He took a step towards me, his hands either side of my head, the ends of the string in each hand.
A flicker of panic soon vanished as I realised what he was doing. With the string now around my neck he tied the ends back together. Finishing what he was doing with a warming smile.
“It might bring you luck,” he told me.
I lifted the coin, smiling as I looked at it. “I can't take this,” I told him, knowing the coin was of great value.
“You must,” Petrus smiled as he turned to walk away, glancing back at me as I stood there. “Good luck on your quest.”
Those were his last words to me as I watched him walk away.
“And you,” I shouted after him. A sadness quickly enveloping me. The void in my soul he had temporarily filled now empty once more.
I looked at the coin, struggling with battling emotions rushing my mind. Many I recognised, sorrow, fear, unease. But there were others I had never known before. Emotions I put down to loneliness, again. Alone to continue my journey toward the Libertas Mountains. To find those I sought.
Author Notes: Chapters 10 and 11 of The Lonely Swan story #3