A Juicy Meal
As I crouched behind a spikenard thorn bush, I took a large lungful of the jungle air. I smelled the hints of the morning dew evaporating into the air, the fresh lilabarries hanging in the canopies above, and the intoxicating blood red flowers surrounding the jungle floor. The smell of the forest reminded me of the life surrounding me and bringing with it a sense of home.
The thought of sleeping in my own bed suddenly flooded my mind, and I was eager to get back. Tracking an Empire platoon these last few months had not been a pleasant experience. I had to sleep on the dirty forest floor, and it always made me feel like Amina’s filthy age was hanging on to me. Waking up in mud was something I will never get used to, I hated being dirty. Just the thought of it caused a shudder to run through me.
A twig snapped to the right of my head, dragging me out of my thoughts. I surveyed the trees to the right and saw caught the sharp tips of antlers and a mustard patch of fur. The elk that I had sensed earlier finally waltzed into the clearing I was watching.
My lips curved into a smile, I could already taste the succulent meat Poppy, and I would be eating for dinner. Reaching behind my back, I grabbed one of my arrows and knocked it into my bow. As I lifted the bow in front of me, I pulled my arm back and pulled the string to my cheek. Taking a slow breathe my body relaxed as I readied myself to release the arrow.
Just as I let go, I noticed a sound behind me, My body immediately tensed, causing my arrow to veer to the right on release. It struck a tree to the right of the Elk’s head, causing it to run off. Between one breath and the next, I dropped my bow and spun as I reached for the knife at my belt.
But, before I could withdraw it, a cloaked figure hit me with the hilt of their sword. I fell to the ground, my vision slowly going dark.
I hate this stupid jungle….
Ugh, why does my head hurt so bad? It’s like a Hari war drum is beating incessantly in my head.
Squeezing my eyes shut, pained groan slipped from my mouth. I moved my arms to cover my face but found I couldn’t. My hands were tied in place behind my back.
What the Tah...
Forcing my right eye open, ignored the pain and tried to get a grasp on what was doing on. I found myself lying face down on a dirt floor. From my position, I couldn’t see much, so I decided to take stock of my body. I moved each limb determining if I had any injuries. Thankfully, besides the pounding in my head, I was injury free.
The next thing to do, since I couldn’t visually curvey my circumstances, was to survey it on a different level. Clearing my head, I attempted to connect with the essence of the earth. Once connected, I would be able to understand where I was and maybe who I was dealing with.
Although connecting to the earth is usually second nature to me, I walked carefully. Connecting with the earth requires a clear and stable mind; otherwise, chaos and pain are projected into it. Then it rejects the connection and forcefully pushes the turmoil and strain back into my own sphere. When this has happened before, it has caused some of the most excruciating pain I have ever experienced in my life. I so do not need that right now.
I took a deep breathe and released as much tension from my body I could. Slowly my body relaxed and I finally I felt comfortable enough to connect with the earth.
Through my mind’s eye I saw black space filled with two colors; the pearly white of my mind and the swirling green energy the earth. My essence tentatively reached out to the rippling green expanse. The tendrils gently touched the green, as if asking for permission to. With a moment of hesitation, the earth’s essence touched mine, and the two energies began to mix together. They created a swirling pool of white, rich light greens, and rich emeralds. Once fully connected, I searched the energy patterns of the earth in an attempt to determine where I was. I pushed my conscious out, following natural energy.
Sighing in relief, I allowed my mind to bathe in the connection. It made me feel as though I was floating in a river of warm water, a river that filled me with the calm energy of the earth. This was my own personal oasis, my sanctuary. But, it was short lived.
Almost instantly a sharp pain attacked my head, and the earth shoved me out. My head spun from the shove, gasping like a fish out of water, I squeezed my eyes shut. I muttered a few choice curse words, I tried to get my berating under control. Finally, the pain dissipated and my mind calmed down.
Ugh, I feel like I have been trampled on by a herd of rhinos. I will not be trying that again anytime soon.
Taking a few deep breaths, I decided to focus on what I could sense around me. I could taste the humidity in the air, and although the jungle is always humid, this particular must occurs in areas by the Seno River. Now I just needed to figure out where I was to it. Once I figured that out, getting home wouldn’t be a problem. But, before I could do more, I suddenly felt a wave of exhaustion envelope me, and the lullaby of sleep swiftly swept me under its spell
Light seeped through my eyelids, and I heard voices outside my tent. Knowing there was no way I could go back to bed now I begrudgingly opened my eyes. Opening my eyes, I noticed that the light outside was seeping into the tent, letting me see my surroundings. The first thing I noticed was the roof of my supposed prison. Large tree branches held up some sort of animal skin. Turning my head, I saw that the walls were made similarly. It was a small space only a few feet from one end to the other and circular shaped.
I am tied up, a hostage of people I don’t know, and no idea what they want with you. What could possibly go wrong?
I remembered my stiletto knife sheathed to my chest binding and moved my hands up and down my back feeling for it. Suddenly the tent door opened and I froze. I did not want to it discovered and taken away.
I watched as two men walked in. The first one was a tall and lanky young man. He seemed to be around 6′2 and seemed to be made of lean muscle. His hazel hair fell over his eyes. An easy smile spread across. His face.
“Orson, looks like our guest has finally woken up,” said the young man.
The other guy and replied with a grunt. When I took in his size, I had a hard time seeing in his entire frame. The man named Orson was a beast. He had bright red hair, shaved on both sides, with a five-inch Mohawk. He also had a red beard that was thick and fell to his chest. He was a few inches shorter than the first man, but what he lacked in height he made up in width. I swear, his chest is as broad as a 25-year-old oak, making him one of the most massive men I had ever seen. And instead of being plump, he was made entirely of muscle. He looked as though he could lift me with his bare hands and break my body in half. When I noticed his expression I inwardly cringed, he had a nasty scowl.
Orson folded his arms over his chest and cleared his throat. I quickly averted my eyes, not wanting to expose how alert I was.
“Welcome to our humble abode, I’m Leven, and this is Orson. We are your escort while you are staying with us,” said the younger one.
Thinking about my situation, I decided to play a distressed damsel. Hoping that any suspicion would be lessened.
Staring at the ground as I asked in a small voice,
“Where am I?”
“Speak up!” grunted Orson.
I pretended to jump in surprise and made my lower lip quiver. Leven turned to scowl at Orson before he crouched down to my eye level.
“My apologies about Orson, he just takes his job a little too seriously sometimes. I give you, my word, he won’t hurt you. But, we couldn’t quite hear what you said. Could you say it one more time.”
Looking up through my eyelashes, I asked,
“Where am I?”
Levens smile slightly faltered.
“Unfortunately, we can’t tell you. But, the Warlord wants to meet. He may be willing to answer some of your questions.”
“Is he going to hurt me?” I squeaked.
Leven touched my shoulder and gave me a reassuring smile,
“As long as you answer his questions you won’t have to worry about anything.”
I began to tremble again and nodded my head.
Untying my legs, Leven helped lift me up. I gave him a thankful smile, my legs felt like jelly, and he was the only thing keeping me up. As we stepped out of the tent, I saw dozens of similarly looking leather-covered tents, surrounding the one I had been in.
The only people in Aleia who lived in tents were the nomads of the Hari. Everyone else lived in houses, huts, or treehouses. And I knew of no one who would risk trekking, let alone living, in the Dundei Jungle. It is notoriously dangerous and unpredictable. Deadly plants and animal-filled almost every acre.
The oddity of the situation piqued my interest. As we walked amongst the tents observed the camp. There were hundreds of tents with multiple people living in. The people walking around were doing everyday things like cooking, cleaning, children playing, and people practicing with weapons. They dressed similarly to the people from the coasts, but with more earth tone fabric. Most of the women wore dresses, but a few were in pants or skirts that went to their thighs. Those women carried weapons and were obviously fighters of some sort.
After a while, I began to notice I was drawing a lot of attention. The men we passed would pursue my body with a look of utter disgust. At first, I was confused, I usually got the opposite reaction from men, but then I become all too aware of my smell. For the first time, I looked down at the rest of myself and saw I was covered, in mud and animals shit. I must have fallen into a pile when I was knocked out. This was the first and only time I would be thankful to be covered in filth. It would definitely keep the men away.
After a little walk, we stopped in front of a massive tent that could comfortably fit five others.
This must be their leaders’ tent, probably compensating for something.
Stepping inside the tent, I caved in on myself and stared at my feet. I could hear music playing and assumed some party must have been going on. Realizing we haven’t been noticed yet I snuck a peek at the room.
As I surveyed the room, I noticed only seven occupants. To my right sat she and a woman was very tall. Her rich copper skin and curly black hair added to her fierce demeanor. She’s most likely a fighter, one who fights like a lioness protecting her cubs.
The man to the right of her must be six-five or six-six. His long limbs were stretched out, seeming to go on forever, as he leaned back onto my hands. Most people probably would mistake this to mean he was easygoing, but I saw the sharp glint in his emerald eyes. He noticed everything and everyone.
In contrast, the man sitting on the other side of him was his complete opposite. This man’s skin was as dark as midnight, and he had a head full of thick dreadlocks that framed his face. He seemed to be around six-three and built like the men from the barren, hard and impenetrable.
But, sitting smack dab in the middle of the room was a man whose presence immediately consumed my attention. I knew instantly that he was in charge.
He is a huge man, not as large as the guard Orson, but he still has broad shoulders. From his relaxed position, I would guess he is around 6′3. A scar caught my attention, and I followed it down as it cut diagonally towards the corner of his mouth. His amber eyes trapped mine, mesmerizing me. I had never met someone with those color of eyes in all of my travels. His features became even more fascinating with the combination of his black hair. Those eyes were accentuated by his bronzed skin and silky black hair. However alluring his looks are, it was his bearing that gave his position as the Leader.
His powerful muscles spoke of a man who spent many hours honing combat skills, skills that have been honed in battle. The crows feet at the corners of his eyes indicated he often thinks about matters that weigh on the soul. But, his most notable feature was his eyes. They possessed a shrewdness that only exists in a calculating mind, someone who is always on alert. This was not a man I wanted to cross.
Gradually the group noticed our arrival and turned towards us. I could feel their probing eyes, wondering who I could be. Three of the occupants were bards, and they looked at me with disgust, the filth covering me obviously offending them. From the way that they were dressed, they looked like they were the type to never get their hands dirty, always relying on the skills of others. The others in the room were. The rest of the people were warriors, regarding me with a clinical interest. Paranoid they may be able to tell I was faking, I dropped my eyes to the floor.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched one of the sauntered over to me. This woman had the perfect hourglass figure, the epitome of the female ideal. She had an entire head of wavy crimson hair and striking emerald eyes. She was around 5′9 and had curves in all the right places. Her curves were highlighted by the silky off-white dress that fell to her feet. It was a modest dress that covered her arms with a hint of cleavage peeking out from the top. This was a woman who knew she was beautiful and often used it to her advantage.
Once she was within arm’s length her nose wrinkled in displeasure and then looked at my guards.
Turning to Leven, she asked,
“Couldn’t you have cleaned her up before you brought her? The Warlord won’t be able to get this stench out of his tent for weeks.”
Levens adam apple bobbed, and he couldn’t stop fidgeting. Orson answered for him, apparently not affected.
“The Warlord wanted us to bring her to him as soon as possible. Are you suggesting we should have disobeyed his orders?”
The woman was about to speak when she was interrupted by a deep feminine voice,
“Cathel, I’m sure you haven’t forgotten your station. You are not in a position to question or give any orders to the warrior class. To even assume so is grounds for punishment.”
Cathel’s face instantly turned pink, but she managed to paste a pleasant smile onto her face.
“My apologies Commander Thalia and Warlord. I was only thinking of your pleasure. But, we will take our leave so you can begin business.”
Right before she left the tent, she added,
“And if you are in need of anything, Warlord, I am your willing subject.”
As she sauntered out and I noticed a few men entranced by her retreating form. I almost felt sorry for the fools. One by one the men turned their attention back to me, apparently ready to begin.
“So, you’re the one found hiding in the Jungle.”
Staring at the tiny creature in front of me I wondered where she came from. She apparently hadn’t bathed in a while, making it hard to determine much about her. But, I could tell that she is very tiny, significantly shorter than our women. She couldn’t be more than 5′3. Her apparent lack of curves has me guessing that she is young, around fourteen years old. She is also very quiet and must go unnoticed quite often.
No wonder she was able to make it past my sentries. Her lack of presence would be significant for spies….Has one of the Warlords of this land sent her to gather intel about my people?
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The girl trembled, naturally afraid. We had yet to give her a reason to be scared. I had to wonder if the people here were all like her, seems to be scared of their own shadows. But why was she in the jungle? It was overrun with deadly plants and animals. We have already lost ten of our own people during our first week. How has she been able to stay alive?
Hardening my face, I said
“Yesterday Kian,” I pointed at a tall man in the left corner of the room with a scarf covering his face and hood on his head, ” found you squatting behind a bush only a few kilometers from our camp. When he noticed you were armed, he knocked you unconscious. Concerned with what you may know about us he brought you back to our camp. You can’t blame us for being suspicious, I mean how often does a girl as tiny as yourself survive alone, especially in a place like this.”
Her eyes began to fill with tears, and said in a shaky voice,
“I d-didn’t see any of your people before now, I-I promise. My Aba and I were separated from our caravan when we were attacked by robbers. We fled into the jungle, but he was stung by one of the deadly bees and died. I had been wondering the jungle when I saw the elk. I was so hungry and that I had to try and kill it. But, I don’t even know how to use a bow. Honestly..”
Ryker, my second in command chuckled and looked at her with amusement.
“Excuse me, but I’m sure you can understand why I find that very hard to believe. Even our most skilled warriors don’t travel alone in the jungle. It’s just too dangerous.”
The girls’ eyes widened in horror at his implied. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish, trying to find something to say.
“I-I have nothing to o-offer as proof. I-I-I-”
Suddenly she broke down into sobs.
“I want to believe what you’re saying. You are very frail and don’t seem to be a threat. So, for now, we will put you to use while I try to figure out a permanent solution.”
The girl abruptly looked up at, eyes glistening with tears.
“If you l-let me go I promise I w-wont tell anyone,” she said in between sobs.
Frowning, I was surprised she let her go was even an option.
“We won’t be letting you go, ever. Although you claim you didn’t know about us before, now you do. And we can’t risk even the chance you might tell people. So you will be staying with us indefinitely.”
Her shoulders heaved, and a fresh new wave of sobs racked her body.
“Warlord,” Commander Thalia said, “I know the servers are struggling to keep up with means. They lost two of their own this week. They could use the help cleaning and could use extra help. We could send her there.”
Our meals had been behind, and I could tell the extra workload was taking a toll on the servers. And if they began to fall apart everything else would too. Putting the girl there would alleviate some of the work, and she would be surrounded by my warriors most of the day. I wouldn’t have to worry about her trying to escape.
“Yes, that should work. Inform the head server of the new addition.”
Thalia gave a firm nod of her head.
When I looked back at the girl I slightly felt bad for her.. This delicate creature would never see her family again, and they would probably wonder if she was dead. But, I pushed those thoughts aside. Worrying about her problems would only distract me from my purpose; to maintain the tentative cohesion of my people and build a new life here. One free of clan warring so my people can flourish for once in our history. And for that to happen, sacrifices must be made, even at the expense of others.
Addressing the guards that brought her in,
“You two will be in charge of watching her. Make sure she is where she is supposed to be and doing what she is supposed to. If she acts out of line, put her back in her tent and keep food and water from her until she is willing to obey.”
Putting their fists over their hearts, they replied in unison,
“Please don’t m-make me s-stay. I really p-promise I won’t say a-anything,” the girl begged.
The table chuckled at her words and Ryker spoke,
“ There is no changing my decision. Maybe you will find peace in the notion that you will be helping to set the foundation for a great people.”