It had been as if the heavens themselves had been staring down at him, lofty, mighty, and so leviathan in a sense that made him feel utterly insignificant. Deep and wide cracks seared the once smooth surface of the colossal walls, and they seemed to be etched by time itself. Or perhaps Gods had battled here long before his coming to Earth, their enormous swords ripping the ground open like wallowing mountains. No one knew, and certainly not Skylar. For this was far above knowledge and perception. All he knew was the fables of the One-eyed storyteller, the legend of the valley between the mountains.
On top of the Stronghold in front of them, which rose from the seared, barren ground, abandoned sentries stood to watch. Mist coiled around the worn-down stone statues of powerful men. Or heroes, as they seemed to be, their stone limbs holding the replicas of glorious weapons. They loomed over Skylar and the group, casting down their shadows and gaze in disdain.
The leader of the group came to a sudden stop. He twirled around in those dark, leather boots he always seemed so proud about and broke out in a grin. It made his set of yellow teeth emerge, like the pale piss of hurried man. And as always, they struck that rare, disgusting unity with his dusky, disfigured beard. Clearly, he had trimmed it himself without a mirror.
“Indeed, what should have taken us a few months took us over half a year.” he proclaimed. “In the winter we had not foreseen to be met with, we wandered, suffered, and almost froze to death. Some of those who were with us from the beginning, whom we regarded as friends, partners... as brothers... they failed to make here today. But that spirit of theirs is still here with us. And now the final test has come.”
Skylar’s eyes twitched as he watched the man. He turned around to see Barker and Garen both trying to contain their obvious hatred. Other than the three, the rest cheered, screamed and roared until their voices could hold no more, whereafter they began to set up tents around the leader, doing their utmost to flatter and compliment the older man for successfully leading them to the destination.
“Well, the tent won’t be setting up itself anytime soon,” Barker commented as the three watched the spectacle of burly men fawning over the leader. He slapped Garen’s back and grinned toward Skylar. The three left the busy area and found a more secluded place beneath a giant oak, a couple tens of meters away from the rest of the group. Then they entered the forest behind them. Just as the tent would not set up itself, dinner would serve itself on a silver plate here in the wilderness.
Barker grabbed the longbow from his back and scanned the landscape with a discerning eye. He searched for even the smallest track or sign of a potential dinner. Skylar knew just how steady and precise his best friend’s hands were, they were one of the causes they could make it this far, along with Garen’s strength.
“Split up as usual?” Skylar proposed.
The other two agreed. “Sure.”
Handing over the two water pouches to Skylar, they each left in a different direction. Garen went back to the camp, to scour for firewood nearby and set up the tent while Barker did as he always did. Dash away to god knows where following that damn intuition of his. The scary thing was, it was always right. He always found meat to eat, no matter if it was a rabbit or deer or even a big, fat bird of unknown kind.
The forest was draped in darkness and the twinkling stars above were his only guides. He listened in silence and eventually heard what he had been trying to hear.
The ash-brown willows growing by the edge of the riverbank were lonely and dying. They reeked of age and wilt. Like old women of once gracious bodies. They paved open a path from the forest, into the curving river where fetlocks of white mist hovered above and hordes riparian grass thrived below.
He hunched down on one knee. The grass below his soaked shoes crawled like tangled webs, however, did not interfere with the clear water. And from there, the reflection of a young boy stared back, with intelligent, mature blue eyes weaving in the radiance of the full moon. His brown hair was covered in a layer of filth, and so was his face. He washed up, and as the water once again turned still, his skin was fairer, and his hair, well, less filthy.
The surface flickered as his hands entered and retrieved a mouthful.
He carried it to his cracked lips while trembling. Then he drank. It had a sweet taste of mellow grass, better than the river water near the village. Maybe it came from the melting snow of nearby mountain peaks, that would explain it.
He could not help but show a smile to the world as he unfastened all of his pouches and refilled them, knowing it would last him and his companions for days.
When he returned to the edge of the camp, the tent was already assembled. Fumes of gray smoke rose from the small hole on top of the tent and decorated the sky with a cloudy shroud. He pushed back the drape at the entrance and entered, and was assaulted by a white and black blur who began to lick his face.
”Miss me already?” he mused.
The assailant was a bear cub covered in black and white stripes, who Skylar had found along the way, completely alone and cradled in blood. He had nursed it back to health and since then, it had been attached to him as if he was its mother.
It erupted with an ecstatic wail from hearing his voice and nuzzled its furry head against his cheek. He laughed and held it against his chest, stroking that black and white fur with a smile. He then looked up and found Garen sitting on the ground, feeding the growing flames with dry branches.
Skylar looked at Garen and then at the bear cub. “Did he... bother you a lot?”
”Not more than usual.” the wide-framed boy said without turning his head. “You found water?”
Garen was a head taller than both Barker and him, though two years older, and had a hulking stature unfitting for his age. His brown eyes flickered from watching the fire, and he once again put in another branch to be consumed by the sizzling flames.
“Mm.” Skylar got seated beside his friend. He took one of the filled pouches from his belt and handed it to his friend, who thanked him with a nod and swung his head back, drinking a third in one go. “That was refreshing,” he said afterward.
“And needed,” Skylar added.
The hulking man could not help laughing. “Yeah,” he admitted.
“By the way, I found the river a few kilometers from here,” he explained. “The water is fresh and clear. If tomorrow does not go as planned, we can swing by before heading home.”
“Tomorrow will go as planned,” Garen returned.
“We can never be sure. What if–”
“Skylar.” the hulking man said loudly. He stared right into through Skylar, and those eyes, of a shining, oak brown, burst with self-confidence. “You, me and Barker. We can do it.”
Skylar looked at the sizzling fire, and then to his feet. His soaked shoes were getting less soaked here beside the fire.
“I hope so too, brother,” he whispered. “But I don’t have the confidence like you. You are stronger than most adults, while Barker is quick and agile, not to mention how he handles that longbow. But what about me? I’m slow and weak. And I can’t even hit a tree from ten meters away with my lousy accuracy.”
“So what if you are slow and weak?”
Garen put his arm around Skylar’s shoulder. “That’s why you have us, brother. Don’t forget, you are smart. So much smarter than everyone else here. You see what others don’t.”
“So what if I’m smart. Can that let me enter that mysterious place?” Skylar asked. “I, myself, doubt it.”
Garen sat quietly in front of Skylar, kneading his knuckles.
“But you know, even if I don’t succeed, my dearest wish is for you two to do so,” Skylar said. “Then I can go back home and boast to everyone that the brothers of mine, Skylar, are more than mere men.”
Before Garen could respond, the drape to the tent was pushed back. The black-haired young boy who stood at the entrance had his face bathed in blood, yet green eyes filled with ecstasy. He roared in laughter, and pulled over a brown, haggard figure from behind. It was a deer around two meters long, with dead eyes and an arrow sticking out from its throat. The young boy grinned as he looked at Garen and Skylar.
“What do you think?” he said. “Wanna feast like kings tonight?”
“Brother, you are a fucking legend.” Garen looked at the deer as if it was already a large piece of grilled meat.
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Barker gave him a snort filled with disdain. “Hey, can anyone give me something to drink? I’d kill for some nice sparkling water right now.”
“Come at me then.” the hulking boy got up to his feet. He held the pouch as he pretended to be serious.
“A joke, it was a joke, here go get the deer ready, bro.” Barker laughed after having taken a few steps back. He received the pouch and drank even more than Garen, proof of how daunting his task of hunting was. “I’ve caught some rabbits too,” he said after Garen left the tent to prepare the deer. “But you know Garen. Had I said that while he was here...” he shook his head.
“Well, I suppose he really loves rabbit,” Skylar replied.
“That maniac. And what’s the deal with always preparing my game? He’s got a fetish or something?”
“We should be thankful he likes to do that thing, Barker,” Skylar said. “I, for one, would rather eat it raw than to dissect it.”
“Eat it raw?” Barker gestured a sign for puking. He then jested. “On another note, he would make a fine wife, our Garen that is. Though that strength of his is a bit terrifying...”
Skylar turned pale. “I would not even want to think him in bed...”
"Hahaha, me neither. How’s the little fellow?
”Better," Skylar admitted. "He can eat and move properly. Still can't understand where all that blood came from though.
"Maybe its mother was attacked by another animal?"
"Who knows? Anyway, all it needed was food and rest to get back on its feet."
"And love," Barker added just like Skylar had added to Garen's sentence half an hour earlier.
"I suppose so."
”But brother, I doubt you' ll have the chance to keep him if we succeed tomorrow,” Barker said. He kept the fire burning by putting in additional branches. ”You remember what Ol' Eddard told us right before we left?"
”That middle-aged man was just a freeloader,” he said. ”At least we worked for our food. He didn't."
”And yet his stories are what caused us to make the journey.” the green-eyed youth filled in. ”What made us unite in blood and become brothers from but three normal orphan friends. I for one is truly thankful for everything he did for us. Aren't you?"
Skylar rolled his eyes. "Maybe a bit."
”And I really don’t think we were only what we thought he was. The things he knew...” Barker lowered his voice. ”Almost as if he had been here. At that place,” he said and pointed in the direction toward of the enormous stronghold with coiling mist.
Skylar could not hold back his laughter. ”Him? No way.”
The drape was suddenly pushed back as a towering figure fell down into the tent. It was their friend.
”Garen!” Skylar hurried forward, helping a the hulking boy up to sit. His face was smeared with crimson, and his eyes filling with fury. As they raised him up, Garen twisted in pain.
”I’ll kill those fuckers,” Barker screamed as he witnessed the wounds on his friend’s body and understood what had happened. He was about to leave when Garen’s iron grip held him back.
”Why? They always take our meat! The food I have to spend hours searching for! We cannot let them get away by beating you!” Barker roared.
” If anything happens today, then tomorrow...” Garen trailed off.
”So what?” Barker cursed. ”Should we just stand and take their bullshit? They beat you up for god’s sake!”
Skylar looked at Garen’s unwavering expression and sighed sadly. ”The two rabbits will be our dinner, I can prepare them."
"As much as you hate it?" Barker asked. "Forget it, I'll fix it. Take care of Garen."
Skylar nodded as Barker left the tent.
He sat down and helped bandage his brother's wounds. They weren't as serious as they looked. Mostly bruises and a few superficial flesh wounds. No broken bones or fractures.
Barker joined them after having put the two skinned hares on skewers and helped Garen sit down. No one was in the mood to chat. When the meat had finished grilling, they split it into three pieces, their wounded friend rightfully receiving a larger one of even though he protested against it.
They continued to sit in silence. Nothing good would come out in speaking about it. Just more hatred and anger than there already was. It was not the first time something like this happened, but they didn't expect it to happen today as well.
Skylar stepped out of the tent later that night, holding the cub in his arms. He followed the way back to the river and waded out in the cold water
In his heart, there was a thumping that could not be stopped.
He sat down on a big mossy stone in the middle of the river and gazed up at the sky. The dark moon similarily watched him. Its glimmering ribbons causing the surface of the water to shimmer like rippling alloy.
Leaves rustled in the windy night, almost as if they were dancing the world asleep and him along with it.
Skylar removed the tattered bandage covering his left hand, looking at the symmetrical and mysterious mark in the middle of his palm. He then looked back at the cub.
It had happened a few days ago, a night like this. Out of nowhere, the cub had taken a big bite into his hand, why he had not known. It gazed up innocently at him now as he looked at it, and he could not help but rub its head with a smile.
He wrapped up the hand again. Then he took one last glance at the sky before going back to the tent. Tomorrow was a big day, he thought on his back about to fall asleep in the tent, and he would do everything in his might to succeed even if he knew his chances were slim...