Chapter 9: On the Trail

The quiet of the forest was broken only by the babbling of the stream and the soft calls of a bird. Virpan felt reinvigorated by the calm. She passed under a roof of tree branches, feeling at home once again. A berry bush, which looked like the one she’d seen earlier, grew just ahead. Without hesitating, she began plucking berries; first cautiously, then as many as she could eat once she was positive it was the same. This new jungle would teach her its secrets, she thought.

Then she heard the sounds of something approaching. Virpan jumped behind the bush, then turned and peered out over the trail. Soon a figure came into view, panting from his exertion. After leaning over by the stream to take a drink, he walked over to the bush. Virpan blinked, realizing it was Howngthirr.

“H-Howngthirr?”

“Ach!” he cried, pulling away from the bush, “Spirit, I apologi-”

“No, Howngthirr, it’s me,” she said, stepping out of the bush.

“Oh, good,” he said, gathering himself once again.

“Is there something the matter? Did something happen with the caravan?”

“Nothing, no, nothing like that. I just  decided that I should accompany you, um, on your journey.”

“Alright then,” she said looking up the river, “I think it’s further up river than I first thought.”

“Great, just great,” Howngthirr said breathlessly, “I’m fine, let’s go.”

“If you need a rest, that’s perfectly fine.”

“Thank you,” he breathed, flopping down on the ground with a clatter of whatever was in his backpack.

He leaned against his pack for a time, getting his breath back. Deciding to get a little break herself, Virpan pulled off her boots and paced around the area; getting a feel for the ground. Several minutes passed before Howngthirr rose to his feet. He remained quiet during their trek, listening to the sounds of the forest. Just past the next bend in the river lay the rundown shanty.

Virpan stopped, feeling apprehensive. Her nervousness made Howngthirr uneasy. He tapped her on the shoulder and offered her a knife. She gladly accepted the weapon, holding the point out head of her. Arming himself with an ax, the two advanced toward the shanty, keeping a sharp eye out for anything suspicious. The quiet seemed hostile, the trees hiding places for foes.

The door lay ajar. She held her breath as she inched along the wall, reaching the edge of the frame. After one last glance with Howngthirr she lunged around the door and charged inside. It was empty. Her eyes fell down to where she had rested. The bed was a mess, the damp blankets starting to fall apart.

The chair Zhar’oth had sat in lay overturned on the floor, the timbers cracked and faded. With a final sigh, she turned to leave the small room. Then a beam of light fell across her path. She paused, looking back at the source. The sun was shining through a hole in the roof above the bed. She blinked, thinking back to when she had been paralyzed.

“The bed was dry,” she said softly, walking out of the cabin.

“Say what?”

“Give me boost,” she said, “I have a hunch.”

“Uh, ok,” he replied, cupping his hands together.

Virpan clambered up onto the roof, spotting a trail through the pile of ancient dead leaves. She ginned, examining the hole above the bed. With her finger, she traced the path of this new person and spotted where they landed.

“Have you found something?” Howngthirr asked.

“I think there was a second person up here,” Virpan called, hopping down. “And they landed right here, approaching where you are now, slowly. Then, they fell to the ground, and got up, dragging something.”

“So, there was someone else?”

“Yes, and, oh, no. They were dragging Risawal.”

“What does this all mean?”

“Risawal is still alive. Otherwise they’d have just left him or pushed him into the river. No, they must need him for the clue to the second scroll. It also means that Zhar’oth isn’t the only one on the trail of the Helm.”

-#-

“Please, stop that,” Risawal said quietly, shuffling along the forest path. “I’m moving as fast as I can.”

“Really?” She taunted, giving him another poke with her stick. “I doubt that, move faster.”

“Just what do you intend do to with me?”

“I need you to enter the temple, obviously.”

Risawal fell silent, feeling empty inside. Some chosen one he was turning out to be. It was only moments later when his captor grabbed his bound hands. He immediately lost balance and toppled onto his face. Then Ja’eshuk hoisted him aloft. Opening his mouth to protest only resulted in a gag being shoved into it. Dangling from a branch, silenced, Risawal was now completely helpless.

The sound of approaching hooves completed his panic. Just seconds after they were out of sight amongst the leaves, a troop of Mahlapren knights in full battle armor rode past, their destination the monastery. It was the only possible place they could be headed, he thought. For a moment he considered trying to break loose, but the idea of facing two dozen knights was less than appealing. As quickly as they had come, the knights vanished into the distance, leaving an odd ringing in his ears.

“Interesting,” Ja’eshuk said, lowering him to the ground. “What do you suppose they were after?”

Several lies flashed through Risawal’s head, though once he looked into her cold jade eyes they all fell apart.

“Probably sent by the sheriff,” he said. “He sends them up every few weeks.”

“Why is that?”

“They, uh, Sheriff Glusdan has accused Wanevap monastery of harboring rebels,” Risawal said uneasily, “Says that’s why his crime rate is up. Whenever he’s reprimanded he sends out the troops.”

“Is the monastery harboring rebels?”

“N-no, we’re not, uh, harboring anyone,” he stammered, staring at his shoes. “We are peaceful.”

“Hahaha! Oh, this is great,” Ja’eshuk said, clapping him on his shoulder. “You just made my day, boy, you just made my day. Now, get moving.”

Feeling ashamed, Risawal began trudging down the trail once again. After only a few minutes the sound of hooves returned. Frustrated, Ja’eshuk pulled them off the trail again. Another troop of knights rode into view, more slowly than the first. They were followed by a train of wagons. At least a hundred men and siege equipment followed in their wake. Risawal paled at the site. The idea of helping the rebels had never sat well with him, but he thought back to Father Tovipan’s words of wisdom.

“Sometimes, there are things of greater importance than those we can see ourselves,” he said quietly, recalling the inspiring speech. “The rebels serve a purpose, they are one facet of a mighty struggle. Our struggle. Though we might not approve of their methods, there are times compromises must be made to hold back the forces of evil.”

With all his mental might he forced those words into himself, even as Ja’eshuk snickered. The moment the Mahlapren troops had passed, Ja’eshuk forced him onto tiny forest path, apparently wanting no further interruptions. They pushed deeper into the woods, the trees starting to press in and block out the sun. Soon they were in a shaded twilight, the path ahead becoming more and more overgrown. As the trail vanished into the undergrowth, Risawal feared that they were lost.

The prodding stopped and Ja’seshuk took the lead for a moment. Without thinking, Risawal turned and ran headlong into the trees. A curse came up from his captor and the chase was on. Knowing the forest well, he took several detours hoping to lose her. Despite his best efforts she was gaining on him. Sweat began beading on his brow, a thousand panicked voices crying out in his head. The smell of smoke struck his nostrils. Hoping to find aid, he dashed towards the scent.

Out of the gloom appeared a small clearing with a stone statue of Valtor at its far side. Heartened, he rushed towards the icon. And there they were, four armed men huddled around a fire in the middle of the clearing. With his last ounces of strength he ran towards the fire, certain these men would help their chosen one.

“Friends, quickly!” he called, rushing through the bushes, “Help me, please!”

His leg caught on something and he fell headlong into the clearing. The men sprang to their feet, pulling out weapons. He looked up at them, his euphoria vanishing. The men were disheveled and smelly, the largest eyeing him with contempt. A spilled bag of coins lay by the fire. Risawal gulped, glancing at what exactly he had tripped over.

Beneath his feet lay a dead man with his throat slit, a badge of the King’s Tax Bureau pinned to his shirt. The four men advanced on him.

“Uh-uh, listen, I am on a mission…”

“Quiet,” the man ordered, putting his sword to Risawal’s throat. “Now, boy, I shall send you to Valtor like that dog under your feet, unless you…”

He stopped mid sentence, somehow unable to speak. Without a whimper he fell backward into the fire, a dart sticking from his arm. The falling sword gashed Risawal’s throat. He gasped, certain he was finished. Gazing up at the men, he watched as they died one by one. A sword emerged from a bush, splitting one’s skull. A second dart killed another. The last was strangled on a thin garroting wire.

With his death, a terrible silence fell punctuated by the smell of burning flesh. Ja’eshuk hopped down without making a noise and walked over to her captive. She shook her head, before pulling out a bandage and treating the cut on his throat. With the bleeding stopped, she hauled him upright and leaned him back against a tree.

“Idiot, it almost cut your jugular,” she scolded, pushing away one of the corpses. “Really, if you wanted a break that badly, you should have said something.”

She settled in opposite him, pulling a loaf of bread out of a hidden stash. Perfectly comfortable amongst the dead, she began eating as though nothing were amiss. Teeth chattering, Risawal looked over the now deceased rebels and then to the innocent man they had killed. The words of his master rang through his head, each time more hollow than the last.

-#-

Howngthirr looked around uneasily, hoping Virpan would get a move on. She was carefully examining the ground near a fork in the road while an assassin was on the loose. From tree to shrub he looked, trying to figure out which was a more likely hiding place. Finally Virpan rose up, shaking her head.

“It’s no good,” she sighed, “the ground here has been trampled by…I couldn’t even guess how many hoofed beasts.”

“So you don’t know where they went?”

“No, let’s just continue along the river,” she murmured, staring back down the trail. “We do have one advantage.”

“What’s that?”

“We know where they’re going.”

They continued walking down the river path, knowing that if they had chosen wrong, one life might be forfeit. Soon a bridge came into view, which gave Virpan hope. Perhaps the trail might reemerge on the other side. She hurried towards it, hoping the animals had stayed on one side of the river. The stone bridge rose before her, supported by two squat arches.

An odd feeling hit her as she stepped onto the span. Howngthirr brought up the rear, looking nervous. The moment they arrived at the center everything went wrong. With a crash, three men appeared ahead of them barreling out of bush. Another two ran from under the bridge and completed the trap. Penned in, Howngthirr and Virpan desperately drew out their weapons.

The attackers advanced, forming a solid barrier on two sides. Just before they were within range the bandits halted. Two looked up river nervously as a noise approached. A troop of men was rushing down the road, a pair of knights on horseback heading the bunch. One drew out a crossbow and let and arrow fly, striking the bandit nearest Virpan in the chest. He fell, mortally wounded, to the deck.

Seizing their opportunity, Virpan and Howngthirr lunged at the two bandits in front of them and bashed them into submission. The pair went down easily while the others fled into the woods. The troops approached the bridge, four crossbow armed men in helmets aiming at Virpan and Howngthirr. Not wanting any misunderstandings, they dropped their weapons and held out their hands.

Satisfied, the troops dashed past them after the bandits, Virpan watching as they took down the slowest of the runners. A pair of pike-men approached the downed men, clapping two in irons before hauling the dead man into the woods. The troops parted as another mounted group approached, four armored knights flanking an important man. He towered over them, the sunlight glinting off his shiny head. He stroked his enormous red beard while appraising the two helpful strangers.

“Ehem, hail, the honorable sheriff Glusdan,” one of the knights called.

“Uh, hail, master Gilustan,” Virpan said quickly.

“Greeting to you, young lady,” He replied in a gruff voice, eyeing the two captives. “I take it you beat these, men, into submission?”

“Just doing our civic duty,” Howngthirr said quickly.

“Ah, well, Krakthirr my good man,” Glusdan said, turning to one of the knights, “I think these youngsters have earned a reward.”

“Indeed,” Krakthirr said, pulling a coin purse from his saddle bag and counting out a small sum, “here, take this to the two young heroes.”

“Thank you, sheriff,” Howngthirr said, accepting the sum.

“You earned it, he said, gesturing to the two prisoners. “Luring out those rebels made my life that much easier and the forest that much safer. In fact, this forest is about to become much safer indeed.”

“That’s good to hear,” Virpan said brightly, “uh, sheriff, you might be just the person to assist us.”

“Oh, how so?”

“I was ambushed earlier, by a man known as Zhar’oth. He may be moving westward.”

“This is an outrage. All the more reason to clean out these woods. Can you provide a description?”

“He was fairly tall with straw colored hair.”

“Hmm, I’ll tell the men to keep an eye out, but you won’t be the first to have lost someone here.”

“Well, hopefully you can change that.”

“Indeed. If you wish, you may ride back into town with these prisoners. A wagon should be along shortly.”

“We shall, thank you.”

“No thanks are necessary. Now, come men, these woods shan’t be safe until the last rebel is dangling from a rope. You three, guard these prisoners. The rest of you, with me. Onward!”

With that, the troops rallied into line and marched across the bridge, a group of pike-men waiting with the prisoners for the next wagon. Virpan watched them go, glad to see some law and order in the world. Knowing that any trail would have been obliterated by so many people and animals, she leaned against a tree and waited for their ride. Virpan hoped that Zhar’oth might be headed to the same place and since he wouldn’t be looking out for her, she might just get the drop on him.

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