The Forest Battle
A few nights later on the trail of the murderers, Mardel, Unbar and I sat around a small fire resting. Aoki slept nearby. I was trying to find a comfortable way to sit considering the soreness in my legs and behind. The first night after we stopped, I felt sore like never before in my life. Then I woke up the next morning. Even with my book-enhanced muscles I was in pain. Each movement caused the most exquisite pain in every muscle in my body. The thought of standing made me want to cry let alone riding another minute in that horrifying saddle. As the days passed, I got more used to riding. The soreness remained, but my tolerance increased.
Mardel handed me a small cup. “Here, drink this but do not swallow too much at once.” The golden liquid tasted sweet and smelled of roses. I sipped a little, letting the golden liquid rest on my tongue before swallowing. It tingled in my mouth and throat. Warmth spread through my limbs, my head cleared. I felt as though I had just woken from a long night’s sleep. The pain lessened. I felt the soreness, but not the crippling pain of the past few days.
“What is this?” I asked, looking at the remnants in my cup.
“It is an elixir I created some time ago. I use it sparingly, for its effects diminish if used over much.”
“Why does Tomeri need a lesson on your famous elixir Mardel? He has used it many times before this. “ I forgot Unbar was listening. Before I could stammer a reply, Mardel saved me.
“I told you the healing spell in Jurulus would cause some memory loss, Unbar. Do you not remember?”
Unbar nodded sheepishly and left the fire to prepare his bedroll.
“I never realized how slow it is to travel this way. Back home we could have covered this much ground in less than an hour. Using a much more comfortable vehicle,“ I said, rubbing my still sore backside. The elixir could only help so much.
“Yes, I remember the marvelous ways you can travel from my trip into your mind. Even more impressive than your cars were the roads. To have so much black stone laid through your cities and country sides! You must have road builders engaged night and day to have so many. How much easier would our travel be if we could travel on roads such as yours?”
I realized how much I took the comforts of home for granted. Right then I didn’t care about roads. What I wanted was my bed. I’d fall asleep and not wake up for days.
“Do you remember how long we have to reach the men ahead?”
“This part of your memory is void of details. All I know is, we need to follow them and get the directions back. I don’t know how long or how we do it.”
Mardel looked troubled. “What is it?” I asked, concerned.
“I think we make a mistake if we rely on your past knowledge of this story too much. The events unfolding around us are different because your presence in the story makes it different. It is as if we are creating a new world with every decision. Each choice brings with it many possible outcomes. I still believe you must follow the fabric of the story, but after more thought, I believe the fabric weaves itself around you. The story is you, what you decide. That is why you must be the main character. Again, I am not certain, but this might be how it works.”
“So I can do whatever I want now? Are you sure?”
“I didn’t say do whatever you want. Were you to leave the quest and settle down with a young Jurulian maiden, I believe the departure from the fabric would be too great. I do think your choices within the fabric are your own, though. You will decide how to reach the journey’s end. Does that make sense?”
The wizard’s words sent my head spinning. How would I ever learn the truth of my new gift? I could begin to see why someone would accept training without knowing what was to come. How could anyone know?
The next morning, as we prepared for the day, Mardel showed me a map.
“The realm of Mirador is split down the middle by a large river pouring into three large seas named after each of our Gods. The river, called Tethys, flows first from the Asterion Sea, the largest, into the Inachus Sea, the smallest, and then finally ending in the Cephisus, the most deadly.” He pointed to each lake in turn. “The Sacred Forest borders the edge of Inachus, which is where I believe our prey is headed.”
“We will go through this later. I believe you have a date.” Mardel didn’t hide his smirk when he saw Aoki approaching, her smile lighting my heart on fire. She reached for my hand, which I offered without hesitation.
“Mardel suggested I re-train you in tracking. It saddens me to know how much you have lost. Your healing has taken much of your memory as well as your strength. No matter how you try to hide it, I see your exhaustion after a simple day of travel. You look as sore as a Hokken novice riding their first beast.”
I had no clue what that meant. I thought I had hidden my soreness well.
“Come with me while there is still light. It’s time for your first lesson.” Aoki led me from the campsite forward on the trail. Her hand felt warm, her scent was intoxicating. I had always skipped over the romance section of the bookstore; perhaps I should have read a few to figure out how it all worked.
Aoki let go of my hand and knelt close to the ground. “See here, they have been careless!” I knelt by her, looking at two sets of footprints.
“See how long they stride?” She pointed to the distance between prints. “In men of about equal size, the younger and heartier person will have the longer stride. A long stride indicates energy, not height, in most cases.”
I looked at the prints. One set had a much longer stride. We followed the tracks down to a small stream. On the opposite bank we could find no sign of our quarry.
“They are finally showing some wisdom, using water to mask their trail. Even rivers can give clues of man’s passing though.” She stood over a rock, half exposed above the water. She tilted her head, staring at it from different angles. Finally, she smiled.
“Here,” she said, gesturing for me to stand by her. “If you tilt your head just right, you can see the imprint of a boot on the rock.” I must have looked doubtful.
“You don’t believe me?” She mocked a hurt look, which turned quickly to a mischievous grin. “Look for yourself then.”
I tilled my head and saw nothing but a bare rock. I changed the angle several times, still seeing nothing. “Okay I see it.” I said, after several moments of futility.
“Liar.” She giggled. “Come, they have gone this direction.”
We walked the water’s edge, looking for signs of the men’s passing. Finally, Aoki found a rocky bank where they had left the river. We tracked them a few hundred yards more, Aoki showing me how to measure the depth of the imprints to determine the weight of each man. I was amazed at how much she could learn by studying the ground.
The next evening I looked hopefully to Aoki, wanting more “training”, but it was Unbar who approached me. “Mardel mentioned to me that you could use some weapons training.”
The warrior had a look of embarrassment on his face. “What is wrong?” I asked.
“It just doesn’t seem right to teach you the use of weapons, when it was you who taught me.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. It amazed me how intertwined into the story I had become. Unbar tossed me a staff. “We’ll begin with this.”
We stood across from each other as Unbar first taught me balance. I learned a variety of moves designed to throw the enemy off balance attacking or defending. Each form had a name.
“The attacking positions always begin with the sun, the defending positions with the moon.” Unbar taught me the sun-across-the-sky, which was a sweeping motion of the staff. Next I learned the-moon-low-on-the-horizon which was a two-handed block. The sun-rides-the-waves I couldn’t quite get the hang of. It required me to flip the staff one-handed and actually let go of the handle as it twirled for an instant. I had to be quick though, if Unbar pressed me at precisely that moment, I would lose my weapon. After an hour, I began to show some skill with the staff, even penetrating Unbar’s defenses a few times.
Each night they rotated. I learned tracking with Aoki or weapons skills with Unbar. By the end of the week my skills were improving. I sat down to rest, the blood still pumping from my latest session with Unbar. Mardel sat across from me, deep in thought.
“You’ve taken to the staff like no one I have seen before. You are a natural.”
“I think I figured out the secret now.” I said, making sure Unbar couldn’t hear me. Aoki was gone tracking, Unbar was brushing down his horse across the campsite.
“What secret are you talking about?” asked the wizard, confused.
“It’s just like the horse riding: You’ve given me some magical help.”
Mardel’s expression changed from confusion to mirth. “Do you think so little of yourself? I have done nothing of the kind. The help I gave you was a unique spell I came across many years ago and is limited to horse riding. I know of no way to help you learn weapons or any other skill than through experience, like anyone else. I am afraid your skill with the staff is all your own.” Mardel chuckled. I was elated. A quiet confidence had been growing all week as I improved; now it soared.
A week more passed on the trail before we finally caught up with our prey. The past few days, the trail was easier to find, and fresher. About mid morning of the fourteenth day, we discovered a recent campsite in a clearing of tall grass, bordering a thick forest of tall trees. I didn’t need my increasing tracking skills to find the spot where a fire had been lit. The embers still smoldered. Aoki walked the site, looking over nearly every patch of ground.
“They left in this direction.” She indicated an opening between two massive trees that stood like sentinels watching over the forest. The group fell silent, looking to me. I was getting used to that look more and more.
“Okay, no rest. Let’s try to reach them as quickly as possible,” I said. I wanted that part of the quest over as soon as possible.
The day grew hot, the hottest yet. We were protected from the sun under the thick forest canopy, but the air stifled. I swatted at little bugs flying around my face. They seemed to take pleasure in flying as close to my eyes as possible. My stallion swished its tail, trying to drive the pests away from its hind quarters.
As the day lengthened, we stopped to rest our mounts and our tired limbs. Even Unbar looked worn down. It was the time of day when the senses grew less attentive, the reactions less precise. Everyone became alert immediately though when we heard men’s voices, coming from somewhere not far ahead. I motioned for Aoki to scout ahead while the rest of us dismounted our horses and tied them in a thicket where they wouldn’t easily be seen or heard. With our horses secured, we walked quietly toward the direction of the voices.
Aoki returned, “There are two men setting up camp in a clearing ahead and not too worried about the noise they are making. I think they believe they have left all danger safely behind. I didn’t get too close so I didn’t see their faces, but they look to be the ones we are tracking.”
The sun had fallen deep into the western sky behind us, making it difficult to see anything in that direction, which gave me an idea. In a book I had read not long ago, a party of Indians won a battle by attacking with the sun at their backs as it set. The defending army had to fight both the Indians and the glare of the sun in their eyes.
“Let’s angle in with the sun at our back and surprise them,” I whispered. I figured my companions would be impressed, but by the looks on their faces, they thought it elementary.
Unbar tried to whisper which came out as a low roar, “You want them dead or alive? I can handle two easily enough on my own.”
“Let’s take them alive if we can.” I couldn’t order the deaths of two people, even if they were murderers. “If they fight and we have to defend ourselves, then so be it.”
A troubled look passed Unbar’s face. “What is it?” I asked.
“What do you recommend?” I asked, turning to Mardel.
“It is a good strategy,” Mardel said quietly.
Unbar headed down the path followed by Aoki. I followed close behind, heading into another fight I wanted no part of. As we got closer the group spread out, careful to make no noise. When we could get no closer without being seen, Aoki held up her hand. She pointed through a copse of trees to the figures of two men with their backs to us. One brushed a horse while the other fried some kind of foul smelling meat over a fire.
Aoki had her bow in her hands and an arrow notched and pointed at the man closest to us, kneeling over a fire. Mardel had his eyes closed. He rubbed a dry leaf in his hands. Unbar walked with his sword drawn, the tip glinting as if by its own light. As frightened as I was, I had to admit, it was a little exciting too. These men had killed a man for gold. How could anyone have so little disregard for life?
Without warning, Aoki put an arrow in the ground, inches from the foot of the man frying meat by the fire. Unbar rushed the man brushing his horse. Mardel stayed where he was, still closing his eyes. When the man at the fire turned his head, Aoki gasped and notched another arrow, this time aiming for his heart. Only my quick reminder saved the man’s life.
The man brushing his horse slipped onto its back, trying to run from the charging warrior. Unbar turned his blade flat and used it to knock the man off his horse. He crashed to the ground in a heap, but was not done. He rolled a few feet to his pack and stood, bearing his sword with a wicked grin on his face.
The men began to circle each other, testing the skill of the other. I recognized some of the forms, but they were done with a quickness and skill I didn’t think he could ever match.
“I give you one chance, surrender and live.” Unbar retreated a step, lowering his sword.
“Do you think me easy prey, Unbar the Magnificent?” The man gave Unbar a look of derision. “Your woman child was lucky in Jurulus. You stand before a master of the blade.”
The man pulled his collar aside, revealing a tattoo of a rose on his left collarbone. “It is you who has one chance at surrender, Traveler.” The man whirled his sword in an array of forms I would have thought impossible.
“Mardel, can you end this before Unbar gets hurt?” I asked the wizard standing close by.
Mardel shrugged, “I will if you order it, but you must understand, he would be deeply offended. “This isn’t Covington, Tommy.” The wizard said under his voice. “He is quite capable of dispatching this coward without a wizards help. I only prepared in case they had a trap set or had more men than we could handle.”
“What do we do with this one now that we have captured him?” I turned to look more closely at the prisoner. Aoki’s eyes were lit by a fire I had not seen before. She scared me. The man sat very still. Aoki stood over him, an arrow aimed directly at his heart. When I looked at the man’s face, I understood Aoki’s reaction. It was Hezel Strong, the man who almost killed me. I half wished I had allowed Aoki to put her arrow through the man and be done with him. When I approached, he spat on the ground by my feet, a look of hatred clear in his eyes. I smiled at him, knowing it would enrage him further.
“Tie him up tight,” I instructed Aoki.
The sound of steel clashing and the grunts of the sword fight came to us through the trees. The fight had moved out of sight. I heard Unbar’s opponent laugh and then a bloodcurdling cry went up. The sound sent a cold chill down my spine. Time seemed to freeze. Aoki stood from her task, looking in the direction of the fight.
Hezel Strong used our distraction to his advantage. He jumped up and kicked Aoki, sending her sprawling. He pulled a knife from his boot moving in to finish her. I knew I should do something but at first didn’t know what.
I yelled “Mardel!” and jumped on Aoki, rolling with her on the ground as a knife swiped just above her head.
Hezel stepped forward again, not thinking of escape, his eyes promised death. I lay on the ground shielding Aoki from the thrust I knew was about to come when dozens of flaming darts flew over us, piercing the man’s chest. He cried out in agony and rage as he sank to the ground, trying to stab at me with an arm that no longer held the strength to obey. The expression of hatred froze forever as he stared at me. His eyes glazed over, unblinking.
Aoki and I lay on the ground together, I could feel her trembling. She whispered, “Thank you, my hero.”
She brushed a kiss across my cheek and pulled herself out of my embrace and to her feet. I followed, standing with my back to Mardel so the wizard wouldn’t see the red in my cheeks I was sure was there.
“It took you long enough!” Aoki turned on Mardel, “A couple more seconds and he had both of us.”
“My apologies Mistress Aoki,” said the wizard, bowing. “In the future I will rush my spells. They will not work of course, but my father always told me to never upset a lady.”
“You’re getting as bad as Unbar,” was her only reply. At the mention of the warrior’s name we remembered our big friend and were just about to go in search of him when we saw him walking towards us, his long sword swinging as he walked
“I tried to take him alive, but he just wouldn’t cooperate.” A wide grin split the warrior’s face.
Unbar pulled out a silver flask and took a long pull. “Two weeks hard ride since Jurulus and now we’ve avenged our quest giver. Let’s take a night to celebrate and head out to find the gauntlet tomorrow.”
I wanted no part of camping in the same place where so much death had occurred.
“There is still a little light,” I said. “Let’s make a few hours before setting up for the night.”
The wizard gave me a knowing look. Unbar groaned.
“So we just leave the bodies for carrion?” Unbar looked at the crumpled form of Hezel Strong, “Not that I care much, but it seems against your nature, Tomeri.”
“Just leave them,” I said. “Once we find the scroll, we go.”