The Bird and the Beast: II
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“I do,” she whispered against his chest.
The Vasaath took her hands in his big, grey ones, his claws resting gently on her skin, and led her through the door.
The light blinded her so much, she had to cover her eyes. Gently, they moved forwards. She felt perfectly at ease, smiling contently as the general led her through the gardens. He looked back at her from time to time, his golden eyes as warm as the sun, and she felt as though she was floating on air.
Then suddenly, the green veil parted and they stepped out onto the Town Square. In the middle of it stood the small, wooden log and his massive sword rested against it.
“No,” she breathed and dug her heels in to stop, but it made no difference to the grey giant as he pulled her along. “No! Please, no!”
“Trust me,” he said and placed her on her knees in front of it. “I would never hurt you.”
“Please,” she cried as he grabbed the hilt of the sword.
The metal glittered in the sunlight, but in the blade, she could see the storm that gathered. Her tears kept falling as she placed her head down onto the block, and his gentle hand carefully moved her hair away from her neck like a soft caress.
“Aamon-at an avaas, aamon-at an evos,” he said and the gentle whisper of metal hurling through air reached her ears.
Juniper gasped and she was startled awake, her hands flying to her throat. Her head was still on her shoulders—she was still alive.
Once her heart had stilled some from the dream that woke her up, she felt the soreness in her body. From head to toe, her muscles ached by the slightest of movements. When her eyes adjusted, she realised that she was somewhere unfamiliar to her.
It was a small room, smelling of firewood and herbs. It was simply furnished with a small wooden table by a window where a candle was lit. Some coats and hats hung by a door, some pine twigs stood as decoration on a ragged countertop, and next to it stood a cupboard with a crooked door.
A fire was burning in a hearth not far from her, and two chairs stood by it. This was someone’s home.
She tried to move, but her body seemed locked in place by the ache. She grunted and managed to sit, at last. She was in a bed, wrapped in furs and blankets.
“Oh, look, Eli!” hissed a voice from deeper within the room. “She’s coming about.”
It was a woman. Soon, she stepped into the light. She was small and round with greying hair. Her cheeks were red and weathered, the skin around her eyes was wrinkled, but her gaze was awake and brilliant blue.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, dearie,” said she and smiled. “We almost thought the cold had taken you.”
“What?” Juniper croaked. Her voice was dry and dusty, and she coughed.
“Eli here found you on the moors in the storm last night,” said the woman. “Poor girl, you were half-frozen once he got you inside.”
“I was fetching firewood, I was,” said a man as he, too, stepped into the light.
Tall, gangly, and old, the man seemed almost like a walking skeleton. The difference between the two was remarkable.
“Then I saw you!” he continued. “Ha! I thought I saw a shadow at first, a small animal, but no. I might be old, but my eyes are still as sharp as an eagle’s! I thought, who in their right mind would be out on them moors in a storm like that? I said to myself, it’s got to be a madman, it has. Builder knows a storm like that is treacherous! What were you doing out there, lassie?”
“Oh, why don’t you leave it well alone, Eli!” barked the woman and waved a rag at him. Then she sighed and looked at Juniper. “Apologies, dearie. My husband likes to flap his gobber. We rarely have visitors, you see. I’m Elisabeth Goodchild, and this is my husband Eli.”
Juniper nodded. “Thank you for saving me, Mr Goodchild.”
“Oh, don’t mention it,” he smiled and waved his hand dismissingly. “I’m happy to be of service! It’s not every day I get to rescue royalty!”
Elisabeth cleared her throat and brought her hands together. “Yes. We know who you are.” Then she jolted, as though she was forgetting herself, and curtsied rather clumsily. “Milady.”
Juniper frowned. “Oh, please, no!” With some effort, she managed to sit on the edge of the bed. “Please, don’t.”
“I’m sorry,” said Elisabeth. “I was never taught how to curtsy, milady.”
Juniper shook her head slowly. “I preferred ‘dearie’.”
The woman smiled. “Of course. You must be hungry?”
At the mention of it, Juniper’s stomach growled greedily, and she nodded. Shortly after, she was served a wonderful bowl of hot soup and a piece of bread on the side.
“If I may, milady, what were you doing out on the moors in the storm?” asked Elisabeth and sat down on a chair by the fire.
“I need to get to Kingshaven,” said Juniper. “The Evergreen Wilds is the fastest way there. It’s of the utmost importance that I speak with Duke Edding.”
“Oh, but my dear,” said Elisabeth as she frowned. “No one goes through the Evergreen Wilds this time of year. The cold brings forth the Wild Gods.”
“And Mountain Folk,” muttered Eli.
“But I must!” cried Juniper. “You don’t understand! The Vasaath and the Kas are going to invade all of Nornest!”
The woman brought her hand to her mouth as she gazed at her husband.
Eli seemed shocked, but he clenched his jaw tightly and joined his wife by the fire. “Well, there is no victory in the world that could satisfy a warlord’s thirst for blood.”
“I must warn Duke Edding,” Juniper continued. “I couldn’t send a message from the city—”
“No, the Grey Ones hold it quite rigorously, I’ve gathered,” muttered the man.
“Eli here is a hunter, you see,” said Elisabeth. “This time of year, he usually brings pelts to the city, but after the Grey Ones took it, we’ve stayed as far away from it as possible.”
“They haven’t come this close to the woods just yet,” said Eli.
“And I hope they never will,” muttered Elisabeth.
“They will occupy every Free City,” said Juniper. “From here to Ravensgate. There will be no escape. If people don’t submit, they will die. I need to warn Duke Edding before it’s too late.”
Elisabeth wrung her hands together and glanced at Eli. Then she sighed. “Well, darling, you can take her through the forest, can you not?”
“And leave you alone? Never!”
“We can’t let the girl wander into the Evergreen Wilds on her own!” cried Elisabeth. “Are you out of your mind?”
“There are ten different Mountain Clans in those woods, Eliza,” growled Eli and pointed towards the door. “Each of them more vicious than the next! Some of them—” He grunted and clenched his jaw. “Some of them eat whatever they can get their hands on, us included!”
Elisabeth sighed heavily. “Well, either we leave Lady Arlington to venture in by herself, or you take her. What else is there?”
Eli sighed heavily. “Well, all right. You’re right. But we will have to wait until I’ve made sure you have all that you need.”
“It’s only a few days, love,” said the woman.
“A few days?” cried Eli. “It’ll take us almost a week just to get to Kingshaven! And that’s if we’re lucky!”
“Who do you think I am? Some damsel in distress?” She scoffed and rose. Then she looked at Juniper with a stern, motherly look. “But you, milady, you will need a few days’ rest before you go anywhere.”
“No, I can’t!” Juniper said. “If you found me last night, it means that the general has had a full day of looking for me. If he finds me, I will never get the chance to escape again! I must go as soon as possible!”
The couple looked at each other again, and then the old man sighed. “All right, all right! We will leave at first light tomorrow morning. You can ride on Old Nellie.”
“Thank you,” Juniper exhaled. “Thank you both!”
“Well, dearie,” muttered Elisabeth. “You get some rest now, do you hear me? A young woman like yourself shouldn’t be out like this. And wool? Sure it’s warm enough, but it does nothing for the wind. I will lend you one of my fur coats.”
Juniper whimpered gratefully. “Thank you, Mrs Goodchild.”
Sighing in relief, she finished her bowl of soup. It was a comfort knowing that the Vasaath had never sent his men this far out, but she knew it was only a matter of time.
She doubted his first instinct was that she had escaped the city. He would search within the walls first, but the moment he realised that she was nowhere to be found, he would send out a search party. She hoped to be far within the Evergreen Wilds by then.
That night, she had trouble sleeping despite her tired frame. She thought about the Vasaath, about how she must have broken his heart. She didn’t want to think about it, but it was all that her head could conjure up.
She cried into the pillow, wondering why love had to hurt so enormously, and she wished that he might find it in his heart to forgive her one day. Perhaps he would still love her enough to marry her once they met again—if they ever did.
She didn’t care that he was going to invade. She didn’t care that he was going to burn the cities. As long as she could warn the people and get them to safety before he did, he could invade all he wanted. She would still love him. It was foolish of her, but the heart wanted what the heart wanted. But she had to overlook her own heartache and do what needed to be done for the people of Nornest.
She fell asleep much later than she would have wanted, and still, she woke up early. Eager to be on her way, she rose and dressed. Elisabeth and Eli slept on a loft but seemed to wake and move when Juniper did. She apologised for being noisy, but Elisabeth wanted to hear none of it.
The woman made them a sturdy sack of food, clothed Juniper in a warm, fur coat, and kissed her husband with tears in her eyes.
“You come back at me, Eli Everett Goodchild,” she barked at him. “Do you hear me?”
She then turned her gaze at Juniper. “And you, dearie. Be careful, and save the people.”
Juniper smiled. “I will. Thank you again, Mrs Goodchild. I shan’t forgive your kindness.”
When the first light beamed over the mountains, Juniper and Eli mounted their two horses and were on their way.
The Evergreen Wilds was a peculiar place. Some said the forest was haunted, some said that the ancient Wild Gods roamed therein, and some claimed that it was the gateway to the Netherworld. Juniper wasn’t sure whether she believed in any of it, but it was indeed a terrifying place.
The pines had thick crowns, like a ceiling over their heads, but the trunks stood sparsely scattered, like lonesome figures in the dim light. The deeper they ventured into it, the quieter it became. Everything was quieter in winter, but the silence that emerged in that forest was deafening.
Out of the wind, the wool underneath the fur coat was starting to warm, but there was a strange chill inside that forest that crawled under her skin and into her very bones. There was something in there that did not like them being there.
Eli seemed to be on his guard. He had a hand on his belt, resting on the hilt of a dagger, and his eyes swept over the snowy moss.
“It’s so quiet,” Juniper whispered.
Eli hummed. “It’s too quiet. No birds. Something’s amiss.” Grunting, he undid the dagger from his belt and handed it to Juniper. “Do you know how to use one of these, milady?”
Juniper nodded sheepishly as she accepted the blade. “But what about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. I’d be a fool if I entered these woods with nothing but a dagger.”
They continued on cautiously. The hooves hitting the snow were the only sounds that were heard, but Juniper felt strangely watched. She kept glancing around, but there was nothing there. Yet, she could not shake the feeling that something was moving amongst the trees.
The darkness fell in the late afternoon. They were both cold from riding for so many hours, and they decided to stop for some supper and a warm fire. They found a suitable spot just a few feet from the main path and Eli had a fire started within minutes.
Leaning comfortingly against thick tree trunks, they ate cheese, bread, and dried meat that Elisabeth had packed for them. The woman had even been kind enough to include tealeaves, and they enjoyed them in cups of melted snow.
Juniper felt her body relax by the food and the warmth of the fire. Her mind focused as she stared into the flames.
“How did you do it?” Eli suddenly asked. “How did you escape the city?”
Juniper gazed up at him and sighed. “I snuck out of the castle, rounded the walls to the east, and strayed out on the moors.”
“Were you imprisoned?”
“No. I was never imprisoned. In fact, I was treated very well by the Kas.”
Eli shifted awkwardly and cleared his throat. “Well, you must have been lucky, then. We’ve all heard of the Night of the Demons. The stink of burning corpses lay like a veil over our farm for days.”
Juniper clenched her jaw. “The Kas were grossly outnumbered. They were only two hundred men, and even though they are very skilful warriors, the general knew they wouldn’t win against five thousand soldiers. It was impossible. So he came up with a wicked plan to even the odds, but he never liked it. He loathed it. He was never the same afterwards.”
“You speak as if you know the beast.”
“I do. I know him quite intimately.” She took a deep breath. “I understand people’s fear of him—he is a powerful and menacing man, indeed—but I know him as good and fair. He wants what is best for his people and he has no issue accepting others as his people, if they only accept him as their leader. They don’t.”
Eli hummed and nodded. He sipped from his tea and leaned back against the tree. “Well, we are strong-willed, we Northerners. Can’t just come here and demand our obedience. We are free souls, we are, born of the Old Faith.”
Juniper scoffed. “To be fair, I think the Kas would appreciate the Old Faith more that they would ever appreciate the Words of Edred. Their beliefs may be strict and rigorous, but there is lots of truth in it. I really do think they could make it better for the common people.”
“If that’s what you think, then how come you escaped the city to warn the others?”
Sighing deeply, she took a sip of her tea. “The Vasaath sees many things in black and white, and they have many such rules within their belief. They believe the only way to order is for people to submit to their ways of life. If they don’t submit, they must die.” She bit down hard and gazed back into the flamed. “Seeing as the Noxboroughers have fought him all the way, I don’t expect the other cities to be more compliant.”
“Well,” said Eli, “let them fight for what is theirs.”
Juniper turned her head towards him. “The Vasaath has thirty thousand men in his army and nearly two hundred ships. There would be no fight, there would be a slaughter.”
Eli whistled in awe and shock and turned his head to the flames and said nothing more.
Juniper sighed heavily and pulled her coat closer around herself. Deep inside, she felt ashamed. How could she have betrayed him so? She didn’t even try to convince him to show mercy. She presumed the worst, and it was too late to turn back now.
When the fire had died down, the duo decided to continue on their journey. Eli didn’t want to sleep in the dark of the forest—they would have to wait for the sun to rise. They lighted a lantern each and hung them on their saddles, but the darkness was almost impenetrable. The silence followed them, and neither Juniper nor Eli was very comfortable in it.
When the sun finally rose, the pair was exhausted—as were the horses. Eli knew a good place to shelter just nearby, in a shallow cavern, and he made up a nice fire to warm them. They slept in turns, and when Juniper watched the fire glitter in the sunlight while Eli slept, she marvelled at how different the forest was during daylight. When she had first entered it the morning before, she had been too nervous to notice, but now, it seemed positively teeming with life.
When Eli awoke, they rode on. They would stop for supper and then ride through the night, just as before. They spoke very little as they ate their dried meat and bread, and when they had warmed themselves enough, they put out the fire and continued on their way deeper into the never-ending forest.
When they had ridden for another hour in the dark, Eli urged his horse to a stop and hushed. He was stiff as a board as his eyes flickered. There were voices behind them.
“Mountain Folk!” he hissed.
They both glanced over their shoulders as several horses could be both seen and heard as they appeared from another path and galloped towards them, torches brandished high by their riders.
“No—can’t be!” Eli gasped. “Stone Wolves! Go, go!” Eli tossed his lantern to the ground and spurred his horse on.
Juniper did the same, her heart high up in her throat.
They raced along the dark path as the others were coming closer. The strangers shouted, screamed, and laughed behind them as they were closing in, and Juniper held on to the reins for dear life and she spurred the horse on even more. She had no idea who the Stone Wolves were, but she had heard dreadful stories of the inhabitants of these woods. She had heard what they did to women, and she did not want to experience it.
They rushed through the silent forest, hooves thundering against the frozen ground and snow whirling around them. Juniper tried to keep her gaze straight ahead but she also wanted to make sure that Eli was still there beside her. He was clinging to his horse as if his life depended on it, galloping like the wind.
She pushed hers even harder, surpassing Eli as he urged her to ride on and don’t look back. She did as told, and the sounds of the riders seemed to fade ever so slightly the farther she raced.
She kept pushing on, driven harder by the notion that they might outrun them, and when the sounds seemed to have disappeared in the vastness of the woods, she dared to slow down.
She was panting from the strain but felt invigorated. “I think we made it, Eli!”
But there was no response. When she looked around, she noticed that she was all alone in the dark.
It was silent like the grave again, and without the lantern, she couldn’t see a thing. Panic rose in her chest and she spun the horse around. She knew neither what way she came from nor what way she should go. Sobs escaped her as she kept gazing about.
Suddenly, a figure on a horse appeared in the dark and she sighed in relief. But it wasn’t Eli. The frame was much larger than the gangly man, and he carried a torch. In the faint light, she could see that the horse was dark—not brown speckled like Eli’s. Juniper screamed, causing her horse to neigh and rear, and she fell from its back onto the ground.
A loud thud was heard from the figure as he dismounted his horse, and Juniper crawled backwards as quickly as she could. When she was back on her feet, she ran.
Trees appeared in the darkness as she rushed through the woods, forcing her to zigzag between them. Low hanging branches scratched her face, caught her hair, and pulled at her clothes. They felt like hands grabbing for her, and she ran even faster.
It was as though her feet knew which way to turn, and she prayed to the Builder to keep her safe as the trees flew by her. She could hear nothing but her own heavy breaths and the heartbeats banging in her ears. She ran until her legs would carry her no further, and she collapsed.
“Little girl, alone in the woods,” hissed a dark voice behind her as the man caught up with her.
She gazed up. Now when he was close enough, she saw the wolf pelt over his shoulders and the strange mask over his face. He looked terrifying.
Crawling backwards, she spat, “What did you do to Eli?”
“Your friend?” the masked man said snidely. “Oh, he squealed like a pig when we gutted him.”
She yelped as she kept backing away.
“He was nothing but skin and bones,” the man continued. “He’ll be tough over the fire. You, on the other hand—I bet you’ll be juicy enough.” He laughed cruelly while slowly walking towards her. “We’ll get our fun first, of course. A nice little cunt like yours must be wet for a cock like mine.”
Juniper felt bile rise in her throat as the masked man came even closer, and she found herself squeezing her thighs together as tightly as she could. She backed into a tree, and the man laughed again. She felt colder than she had ever felt before. This was it, she thought. This was the end of her life.
As if awakened by the alertness in her body, a small voice in the back of her head told her to look for an opening—anything. The man was quite large, much larger than her. She could use that against him. She should be able to crawl between his legs. Remembering the dagger she had fasted on her belt, a dangerous plan formed in the heat of the moment.
She had only seconds to ready herself—when the man leaned down to grab her, she quickly pulled her dagger, dove out of his reach and in between his legs, and drove the blade into his groin. No one ever thought about to armour their inner thighs, exposing one of the major veins, Eno had told her.
She drew strength from her core, let the power travel through her arm, and extend beyond it, just as the Vasaath had taught her; the blade was an extension of herself as she buried it deep into his joint. She twisted it, he screamed, and she roared as she pulled the blade out and stumbled away behind him.
The man fell to his knees, red hot blood staining the snow. She hoped she had caught the artery. Rising to her feet, the bloodied dagger in hand, she breathed heavily as she looked down on the crying man. He didn’t look as terrifying anymore, leaned against the tree in tears.
“You bitch!” he wailed. “I will gut you! I will gut you like I did your pathetic friend!”
She gripped the dagger even harder. She could not afford to let this man live. She knew she had hurt him, but she was unsure of how badly. He was wailing on the ground for now, but the wound was fresh.
She gritted her teeth and before she could change her mind, she threw her arm around his throat and let the blade slit it open. It was harder than she’d anticipated, and the man did not die right away. He gurgled, hissed, and moaned.
He reached for her, grabbed her skirt, and pulled her to the ground. She cried out, kicked at him, but he pulled her underneath him and wrapped his hands around her throat. While trying to breathe through his assault, she fought him with everything she had, stabbing him repeatedly in his shoulder and neck. It was difficult for her to stab through the thick hide and pelts he had around him, but finally, he finally collapsed atop of her.
She wailed and cried while she kept on driving the dagger into his body. She stopped only once she no longer heard his wheezing breaths. Tossing the blade aside, she crawled out from underneath the heavy body, gasping for air. She stared wide-eyed at the scene as she sat beside him and after a few short breaths, she howled in the dark.