by Kevin Grover
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
When Lon woke, morning sun broke the trees and blinded him. Leg on fire with pain, Lon straightened up against the tree.
Stretching, he climbed down. The forest floor was damp and soft and his boots sank into the ground. It was silent and peaceful with only the sound of birdsong, and he carefully made his way between the trees, unsure where he was going.
His eyes snapped around to the trees as he limped on, noticing more Pygmy symbols. The forest floor began to slope upwards and the trees became denser. After a short while, a bead of sweat formed on Lon’s brow. He wiped it away with the back of his hand and was forced to sit against a tree, wheezing.
The pain in his leg became a dull throb and he checked the wound. It had crusted over with dried blood mixed with mud. He needed to wash it, fearing an infection. Drawing a dagger from the inside of his boot, he crawled around a clump of plants. After a short search he found the short, spiky-leafed Gerna plant and cut a few leaves from it, placing them in his pouch. The sound of running water was close. A short walk later he came to a river snaking through the forest, too wide to cross.
First, Lon washed his leg in the ice-cold water. It numbed the pain instantly. Glad he had managed to grab his bag last night, he went through it and found his flint which he used to light a fire by the edge of the stream. Keeping the fire small, he pulled his metal bowl out, filled it with water and heated it over the flame, tearing up the Gerna plant and sprinkling it into the water. When it was hot, he drank it and washed the last of it over the wound, then dressed it with a new strip of tunic.
He kicked dirt over the remains of the fire to hide his presence. Gathering his possessions together, he followed the river in the direction he guessed was north. As he continued on, the mist left and the sun warmed.
A dart shot by his ear and Lon dove to the ground, drawing his sword as he did so. Another dart stuck in the tree behind, narrowly missing his neck. A third dart flew at him and he slashed it from the air with his sword and backed around the tree for cover.
Ropes fell from the trees and grey-skinned Pygmies climbed down. Five of them stood surrounding Lon. They were no more than four feet in height, little men with pointed teeth and claws. Sharp horns poked from the top of their curly black hair that fell in knots down to their spindly legs. With a screech they advanced, their tails whipping out. Two more jumped from the bushes, blow pipes moving to their lips to let loose another attack.
With lightning speed, Lon ran at the closest two, sword raised. He beheaded them in a great gush of black blood. He dove to the left as one of the Pygmies raised a spear and he spun round and thrust his sword through its stomach. He swung the Pygmy, still impaled on his sword, round into the other, sending it flying.
Another Pygmy felt Lon’s fist straight in its face and it dropped to the floor with a whimper. Lon pulled his sword free and wiped it on the ground, catching a glimpse of the demon in the corner of his eye. It was thrilled to see so much death.
I would drink their blood and eat their flesh, it whispered. Lon turned around and it vanished.
Sometimes, Lon thought, the demon wasn’t too different from him. The Pygmies would regroup and come in greater numbers; he had to move fast. In the distance, he heard the dogs and beyond them the sound of men hunting.
For what seemed like hours he ran on, resting at intervals. He snapped some bushes and trampled the soil, then carefully backtracked and continued north, his feet making as little contact with the ground as possible. The forest began to thin and before long he was back out in the open.
The land before him was a windswept heath with no cover. The sky had turned grey and a bitter rain fell. He sped on across the heath towards some rocky hills in the distance. If he could make the hills, he had a chance.
Run away like a coward, the demon sneered.
As the rain grew heavy, Lon pressed on, determined to make for the hills. As forked lightning split the sky, he was at the foot of the hills. The ground beneath hardened and boulders provided a good shelter against the harsh wind and rain. Then, against a low rock, he saw a figure. Without thought, he drew his sword, kept low and moved in for a silent kill. As he was raising his sword and about to strike, the figure turned and looked at him.
“Windred!” Lon replaced his sword and crouched down next to the old man. He grabbed his shoulder and noticed how pale he appeared. ‘By the gods, you’re alive!’
Windred smiled weakly and looked down, Lon following his gaze to a shaft of metal sticking from his left leg. Windred’s breathing was laboured and he took hold of Lon’s arm with a bloody hand. “I couldn’t pull it out,” he gasped.
Lon looked at the arrow. It was buried deep into the flesh. Pulling it out could cause a worse wound, but he had to take the risk. “I’ve seen worse than this.” He ripped off his tunic and made a collection of bandages, laying them out on the rocks. He then put his hand around the cold steel of the arrow, looking up at Windred. “I will do it on the count of five.”
Windred nodded. “You can count that far, my friend?”
Lon smiled. “No.” On the number two Lon pushed Windred’s leg down with his left hand while his right hand pulled the arrow up and out, tearing the flesh and sending spurts of blood into the air. Windred yelled out in pain.
“By the gods!” he cried, taking short breaths.
“You whine like a woman.”
“Son of a whore!” Windred cursed, but he smiled warmly as Lon tied a piece of cloth tightly above the wound. The blood slowed to a trickle. It would need patching up, but he looked back across the heath and saw a line of riders burst through the forest. Quickly, he pulled Windred up and dragged him up the hill.
Looking back, Lon saw the riders were at the foot of the hills and he lowered Windred down against a low boulder. They had the advantage as the hills were too rocky for the horses and the riders would have to dismount. The jutting rocks provided them shelter from arrows. The odds were not good, though, as the dogs were released. They came running, barking and snarling, up into the hills towards them.
As soon as the dogs were upon them, Lon swung his sword and took out three in one swipe. Windred stabbed at one and it went down with a yelp and lay twitching on the floor. One jumped at Lon and he grabbed it and threw it against a rock where it smashed in a bloody pulp. The bowmen raised their bows and took aim. Lon backed down behind the rocks with Windred.
“My friend,” Lon said, “I have to fight them.”
Windred grabbed his arm. “That is what the demon wants.”
Lon nodded slowly. The demon laughed and he bit his lip in anger. “They will kill us both, even though you are innocent.”
Windred smiled. “No one is really innocent, is he?” He closed his eyes and sighed. “You must do what you must.”
The soldiers advanced, their bows raised. The arrows whistled through the air, striking the rocks around them. Waiting for the last arrow, Lon prepared to charge before they had a chance to take aim again. The rain was hard. Like shards of glass it dug into their skin and the sky gave out a thunderous cry.
Taking a deep breath, Lon stood and faced the army below with his sword held high as a mighty clap of thunder rocked the land. But the army had turned their backs and faced the forest where a great darkness spewed forth. It spread out into a line and the horses reared up and those on foot fell in behind the horsemen.
The Pygmy army advanced on them by the hundreds, charging down across the heath at those who had trodden their sacred paths. The horsemen rode out to meet them first and the bowmen let loose their arrows.
The dogs were released and sped on towards the Pygmies. Both armies clashed in the middle of the heath beneath the dark sky and Lon and Windred watched as the bloody battle commenced. The two factions fought fiercely, merging into the one army.
The Pygmies slashed with their hooked swords and hacked down the first wave of attacking soldiers. The smell of blood was within the air.
“We should leave now,” Lon said.
Helping Windred to his feet, they headed into the hills. Those who survived would struggle in following, and the two companions had a good head start. The gods had favoured them today, but the blood flowed from Windred’s leg, a river of crimson spilling out behind them. He became weaker as they continued, but before they could rest, Lon knew they had to make some distance, further into the rocky hills.
* * *
By late afternoon as the sun began to sink, Lon and Windred came to the ancient ruins in the foothills of Arath-Hol. A fire burned between them as they rested among the ruins where they had first met. Lon had managed to stitch Windred’s leg, and he rested against a pillar, eyes staring into the fire. But Lon saw how weak Windred had become, his face paler than he had ever seen.
“Put some more wood on the fire, my friend,’ Windred said. “It is so cold.”
Lon sighed, prodding the fire with a stick. “There is no more firewood in these hills, Win.” The demon had slunk away from him, as it would always when they camped down in Arath-Hol. Perhaps, he thought, it was something to do with the runes carved upon the pillars, for this had once been the land of the witches.
“Will they ever stop hunting me?” Lon mused aloud.
Windred sat up, wincing in pain. “If you live long enough, live a good life. There is something you should know about me, Lon.”
Lon stared into the flames. “You talk as though you are dying.”
Windred coughed, a trickle of blood at his lips that he wiped quickly away. “We both know I am. But do not look at me like that. We must all die eventually and I am old. But I must tell you how I was once like you.”
“What do you mean?”
Windred sighed. “Many years ago, I had a demon as you do. Only I allowed the demon to take control. I killed many and cared not what crime I committed. It was an old witch living in the wilds that exorcised me of this demon. I begged her to take this curse from me, and she did. The hair of a newborn upon the first day of winter was required, so the demon would pass to another.”
“I was born upon the first day of winter.”
Windred coughed and wheezed. “I did not care how the witch would do it. But when I was finally free, I saw the wrongness of my action. For years I hid myself in the deepest of woods until the people eventually stopped hunting me, but I had to find redemption somehow, make it right.”
Through clenched teeth, Lon asked, “Is that why you came looking for me?”
Windred nodded. “They spoke of a child in the hill tribes with a shadow born on the first day of winter. It did not take me long to track you. In a way, we are linked by that vile beast.”
There was too much for Lon to take in. Confused, he pulled away from Windred and hung his head. Anger bubbled inside and he clenched his fist. For years he had been tormented because his one true friend had cursed him as a child. “Where can I find this witch who saved you?”
Windred remained silent. Lon looked over at the old man and saw his face was still, his eyes wide and looking up into the night sky.
“Sleep well, old friend,” he whispered, “for I shall never sleep as peacefully.” Behind him, he heard cruel laughter.
Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Grover