Whisper of the Wilding Woods: Chapter 8
Fishing. A pleasant lunch. Unexpected guests. Desperate measures.
By the time Kaeleth woke, the fire had burned down to nothing but bone-white ash that wasn’t even warm when Kaeleth held his hand over it. He’d added more wood two or three times in the night, but must have fallen into such a deep sleep he’d not woken even after it had gone out.
Nearby, Aline lay still and silent, her cloak wrapped in such a way as to cover her face. For a moment, Kaeleth worried she’d succumbed to fever in the night, but then he saw the shallow rise and fall of her side as she breathed. The morning light was still pale and thin, and the lingering night chill made the air feel heavy. Droplets of dew clung to Kaeleth’s cloak. The kindling had gotten damp overnight, but when Kaeleth used a stick to dig down into the ash, he was happy to discover a few small coals still smoldering away. He used these to light the fire anew. It would have been nice to have some meat to cook and a little extra to smoke for the days ahead, but he was warm enough and mostly dry beneath his cloak. There was water nearby, berries to give him energy to forage for more food, and plenty of daylight ahead to decide whether it was worth staying another day and setting some traps or wiser to instead press onwards while they still had a lead on their pursuers.
Kaeleth was just considering using the first light to attempt to fish when Aline stirred and roused herself.
“How are you feeling?” he asked as she rubbed sleep from her eyes.
“Well enough as can be expected. I think my fever has broken, though I still feel quite parched.”
“We can go to the creek together and I’ll make more idrus tea. It will help with the hunger pangs while we forage for some proper food this morning.”
“Will we stay here a little longer then?” she asked hopefully. “It is a far nicer place than that wretched tree we slept beneath the other night.”
“I haven’t yet decided.” Kaeleth considered his next words carefully. “The men chasing you are ruthless killers. If you say you don’t know why they’re after you, I’ll accept your answer. But anything you can tell me might help us understand how they might be shaken from our trail.”
“I honestly don’t know what reason they could have for chasing me so intently. If I did, I would tell you. You have my word.”
There were truths, half-truths, and outright lies. Kaeleth was certain this girl spoke at least somewhat false, but there was no denying the fear in her eyes. He considered that she might just be simple-minded, too ignorant of the ways of the world outside her father’s house to understand that a certain kind of man wouldn’t hesitate to hold a merchant’s daughter ransom. Yet he couldn’t quite believe it to be true. Such a man wouldn’t track her through the forest for so long or over terrain even half as difficult as that which Kaeleth had led them. Something bigger was at play here. Either the girl was as good a liar as any traveling actor, or she truly did not know who these men were.
And realistically, it didn’t change anything. The men would come and Kaeleth and the girl would run. It was the only way. He couldn’t fight five men with swords. He couldn’t fight even one should it come down to it. Perhaps with a bow he could draw and a few dozen yards of distance between them, things might be different. Even then, he could not kill five men with six arrows before they ran him down.
Kaeleth made his decision. “I’ll show you where to forage some plants and I’ll fish until mid-morning. We’ll cook and eat the fish, then go further up toward the mountains.”
Aline looked disappointed to be moving on so soon, yet she nodded her agreement and followed Kaeleth to the creek where they both drank their fill. Aline collected berries, while Kaeleth returned to the fire to make their tea. While they took turns trying not to burn their lips on the hot tin cup, Kaeleth spread the remains of the fire with a stick and stirred in a handful of loose dirt to extinguish it. Good as the site was for cooking, it would not make sense to return this way if they were heading still deeper into the forest.
Neither spoke until they reached a place near the stream where Kaeleth began pointing out edible plants for Aline to collect. He showed her which mushrooms they could eat and which would kill. Closer to the stream, he discovered a patch of bittercress. It was unpleasant to chew on its own, but more palatable when stuffed into the belly of a fish roasting over a fire. He showed her how to differentiate garlic scapes and ramps from similar yet inedible plants. There were fiddleheads as well, and although they would sour the gut if eaten raw, it was possible to cook them over coals until they became tender and delicious.
Once Aline knew enough to be left alone to her work—with a stern warning not to eat anything she found until Kaeleth ensured it was safe to consume—Kaeleth scoured the forest for just the right type of tree. When he found a suitable hazel tree, he used his knife to cut off a branch that was twice again his height. Branch in hand, he went to the edge of the stream and sat on a rock where he cut away all the smaller branches, then carved a notch at the top to which he tied the thickest end of the fishing line. While he worked, he watched the water’s surface, paying attention to which insects were active and where tiny ripples indicated fish rising to the surface to have a nibble. With only three hooks to choose from, he picked one that had been decorated with carefully tied brocket hair to give the appearance of wings that imitated the mud flies zipping around the stream.
Fishing pole in hand, Kaeleth crept to the water’s edge so as not to cast a shadow over the water that might spook any lurking fish. The light was soft and filtered enough by the trees to prevent the glare that might otherwise prevent him from being able to see below the surface. After pulling off his boots and rolling his trousers up to his knees, he waded into the water and began using the pole to flick the line and hook into places where fish liked to hide. He let the hook rest on the water only a moment, kept buoyant as it was by the brocket hair, then snapped the pole back, forcing the line to whip in a graceful arc that allowed him to drop the hook in another spot. It was slow work, but it was easy to give himself over to the steady rhythm of casting over and over again. The feel of the pole flexing beneath his hand each time he pulled back to deliver the hook to a new spot was satisfying, as was scanning the spaces behind submerged logs and rocks where fish liked to hide. By playing the currents, he let his hook drift downstream before snapping it up and dropping it farther up the current.
It took only a few minutes for the first fish to bite. Kaeleth saw the rise before he felt the line pull tight, and he yanked his pole back quickly to set the hook in the fish’s mouth before it realized it had been tricked into biting a piece of sharpened steel. Careful to maintain tension, Kaeleth lifted the pole high above his head, then lowered his arm to give the fish its head before yanking it back again. After a short fight, he was able to pull the line in close enough to grab it, revealing a two-handspan speckleback selpie. Kaeleth was so pleased, he caught himself planning future trips to the upper forest with more fishing line and hooks before remembering that he’d burned down his home and had no idea when he’d even be able to return to Daurendale. Momentary elation thoroughly dashed, he knocked the fish on the head with a smooth river stone, then tossed it to the riverbank so he could catch another. This took only slightly longer than the first, and even with the time it had taken to untie his line from the pole and wind it back up to go in his pouch, Aline was still collecting ramps.
“Did you catch both of those already?”
“The gods must have favored me this morning,” he said, unable to keep a bit of pride from spilling into his voice. “Though my father always said I had a special talent for fishing.”
“I’ll be happy to eat something other than these plants. Should I help gather wood for a fire?”
“Yes, but not too much. We won’t be here long.”
Aline followed him to a somewhat sheltered patch of dry earth near the stream where she deposited her foraged bounty. She’d done well. There was more than they could eat, and the mushrooms would serve as a cold supper since there wouldn’t be time to do more than pick a few berries before nightfall. It wasn’t yet mid-morning, and Kaeleth wanted to be gone within the hour. He went to the stream so he could slit the fish open and scrape their innards clean with his knife, then he tossed the guts into the water, gave the fish a quick rinse, and left them on a rock near the plants and mushrooms. That done, he cut two short branches from a young tree, peeled the bark away, then cut the ends into sharp points. If he’d had more time, he’d have gathered several broad occus leaves in order to bundle the fish and cook it gently in the smaller coals, but time was a luxury they could ill afford.
Instead, he stuffed the bellies of the fish with bittercress—more to make the cress palatable than for the bright herbaceousness it would impart on the fish—then skewered them with the branches. Aline returned just as he’d finished, arms full of firewood no larger than the thickness of a thumb.
“Might I try your fire stone?” she asked. “It would be better if I could learn so that we might more effectively divide our labors in the future.”
Kaeleth was about to protest, but he quickly conceded that she made a valid point. He couldn’t do everything to keep them alive. And he appreciated her willingness to learn. Besides, he could spare a few minutes of watching her struggle before stepping in to take over. After discovering how difficult it was, she’d surely appreciate him that much more.
“It’s called a sparkrock,” he said. He handed it to her along with his knife, then pinched off a bit of the waxed yarn.
“Oh, no thank you,” Aline said. “I’d like to try something if you don’t mind.”
Kaeleth snorted a little huff of air, then placed the tinder back in his pouch. This should be entertaining, he thought as he sat back and prepared for the inevitable string of curses, or whatever it was merchant daughters did when they were frustrated.
Then she did not one, but two things that surprised him. From within a folded bit of leaf she’d tucked into the band of her trousers, Aline plucked a wad of fibrous white fluff that Kaeleth recognized as cobbrettail. The plant grew on long slender stalks near water, and though he’d never thought to use it in such a way himself, he knew immediately how clever it had been to pluck some for use as tinder. Cobbrettail fluff in place, Aline stacked the smallest of the kindling in the same way Kaeleth had arranged it the night before. She then bent low, positioned the back of the knife against the sparkrock, and made a long confident stroke that sent a shower of red sparks onto the cobbrettail.
“You’ve done this before,” Kaeleth said as she blew on the sparks to create a flame.
Aline made sure the twigs had caught before sitting up and stacking slightly thicker pieces of kindling around the blossoming fire. “First time.” She bent low again to blow on the fire. Her breath was long and slow, making the flames rear up instead of blowing too quick and hard, which could easily extinguish such a small fire. “I saw how little of that special fluff you had left, and then when I noticed the plant by the stream had a similar appearance, I thought it might serve in place.”
“It won’t work nearly so well if it’s damp, but we should collect some before we leave. I can keep it dry in my pouch.”
Aline continued to feed sticks into the fire, sitting on her heels and smiling contentedly over her discovery. “Can you show me how you prepared the fish and how to cook it?”
Since it would take a few minutes yet for fire to produce enough small coals to roast the fish without charring it, Kaeleth explained how he’d gutted the fish by the river, caught off-guard by the numerous questions Aline asked at every step. She’d wanted to know where he’d made the first cut on the fish, which direction he’d slit the belly, and how he’d removed the innards. She’d asked about the age of the tree he’d cut the branches from, if soaking them might help prevent them from burning even if they had been cut from green wood (to which the answer was yes, provided one had the time to spare), and how he knew the correct height to place the fish over the fire so that they could cook evenly. At first, he was annoyed by her interruptions, but with little else to do but prepare the ramps and tend the fish, he discovered he quite enjoyed sharing his knowledge. Kaeleth had spent his entire life with his father, with whom the teaching had only ever flowed in one direction. Now that he was able to share some of that wisdom with someone who seemed eager to learn, he found himself anticipating her questions and giving more involved explanations of things like how to prepare the ramps so they’d be a succulent delicacy instead of the charred version he was cooking directly on the coals.
Aline watched attentively when he flipped them only once so as to limit the amount of ash they picked up from the coals. They weren’t altogether bad this way, and considerably more edible than in their raw state, but the quick cooking time did little to soften the stringy fibers that tended to catch between the teeth. The fish were done before he knew it, and Aline continued to ask questions even as they burnt their fingers attempting to pluck steaming hot morsels from the splayed open carcasses.
“Could you teach me to fish?” she asked. “Or how to use that bow?”
“The bow is beyond your strength.” He spent more time than necessary picking a bone from the fish before tossing it into the fire and adding, “I can’t even use it. I only took it because my father was so insistent. The draw is too heavy for me. I might as well not have bothered bringing a bow at all.”
“I’m sure he had his reasons.”
They ate in silence a while after that. Kaeleth and his father had passed many a meal without a single word. At times they’d gone days without speaking a full sentence to one another. Silence was a hunter’s closest companion, yet the forest seemed suddenly too quiet now. It was nice to have someone to talk to. Someone to whom he wasn’t related.
“I could teach you to fish, perhaps,” he said to fill the emptiness. “I’d have to fashion a practice line, of course. With only the one horsehair line, we can’t afford to break it.”
Aline’s face lit up and she clapped her hands together. “Truly? I would so love to try.”
There were grasses from which a practice line could be woven. Some of which grew in the meadows above the Devil’s Claw. The fishing was more difficult in the thin, cold streams of the meadows, and the practice line would not hold a fish, but it would serve to teach the rudiments of casting. They were perhaps a day and a half’s long walk from the edge of the forest, and with little to do in the evenings, there would be plenty of time for things like the painstaking work of weaving a line. Especially if Kaeleth showed the girl how to do it herself. It would only be fair, after all. His father had made him weave his own practice lines before he was allowed to fish with the horsehair line.
The air would be colder in the meadows, Kaeleth realized. There were few clouds overhead, and the sound of the stream, the smell of the grass, and the warmth on his face were like a last gift of summer. Even so, the higher they climbed, the colder the nights would be. The meadows would be tolerable for a week or two yet, but after that, they would need furs to line the ground and cover themselves with if they hoped to sleep without fear of freezing to death.
Kaeleth popped the last morsel of fish in his mouth and was just about to collect their uneaten mushrooms and ramps when the crack of a branch caught his ear. Thinking at first it was a brocket, he scanned the trees looking for signs of it in the hopes he might put an arrow into it from such a small distance. A stray hair fell across his face, dancing in the breeze that flowed down the stream valley. Kaeleth knew immediately that something was wrong. No brocket would approach a stream where humans sat upwind of its sensitive nose. A bear perhaps? He’d seen no spoor to indicate the presence of bears, but it was the only other animal heavy enough to make such a sound. A bear had no natural enemies in the forest. If it had caught the scent of their roasted fish, it wouldn’t be afraid. And even if Kaeleth had been able to fully draw his father’s bow, nothing short of a shot to the eye would dissuade the bear from charging.
A momentary glint of light reflecting off metal confirmed the one possibility Kaeleth hadn’t even thought to consider. “Run!” he whispered frantically, grabbing Aline’s hand and pulling her to her feet.
The girl didn’t hesitate. Though she was not half as quick or nimble as Kaeleth at a full sprint, she kept pace with him as he ran directly toward the stream. He only let go of her hand when it was time to jump a series of large rocks in order to cross the water. When he reached the opposite bank, he turned and gestured for Aline to follow.
“Hurry!” he hissed as five men with swords at their hips emerged from the trees not thirty yards away.
Aline was halfway across the river, teetering on a rock that sloped sharply to one side. One leg out for balance and arms flailing, she managed to regain her equilibrium and jump to the next. Only this time she was not so lucky. Kaeleth saw that she must have stepped on the muddy edge of the stream bank, because there was a wet slick on the rock where she’d pushed off for her jump. Having not managed the momentum she needed to clear the gap, Aline landed with only the toe of one boot on the next rock, falling to her knees with a cry of pain before sliding backwards into the water.
The water wasn’t deep, but it was cold and the current was strong. Kaeleth ran back along the rocks and reached down to grab hold of her cloak as she struggled to right herself. As he pulled her onto the rock, he saw one of the men nock an arrow and take aim. Another of the men shouted something, pushing the archer’s arm just as he loosed. The arrow whistled past Kaeleth and Aline, striking a rock and falling into the river.
“To the trees,” Kaeleth said, practically shoving the girl ahead of him. “Run for all you’re worth!”
The men reached the first of the rocks on the far side of the stream just as Kaeleth hopped onto the grass of the far bank.
“You can’t outrun us!” one of them called. “Hand over the girl and we’ll go easy on you, boy!”
Kaeleth didn’t know why they weren’t using arrows to attack from across the stream, but he wasn’t going to question the luck of the gods. If he had so much as an inch of grace from his pursuer’s sword, he’d use it to run. The stream had bought them a good fifteen yards, and the men were slow across the stream, weighed down by their gear and forced to cross the only bridgeable rocks one man at a time. Aline was in the trees before the first of the men landed on the bank behind them. Kaeleth overtook her a moment later.
“Faster,” he said, taking her by the wrist and guiding her along the path of least resistance. He didn’t know this stretch of woods very well, but he could read it like a scholar deciphered scribbles in a book. He saw immediately which trees had gnarled roots that were prone to tripping and how certain plants indicated boggy areas that would be impossible to traverse without sinking to the knee. When the terrain angled uphill, he pulled Aline toward the steepest bit where the faintest hint of an old hunter’s trail cut upwards.
Their head start and the dark green of their cloaks gave them an advantage in eluding their pursuers, and they managed to outpace them for a quarter of an hour or more. This became more difficult to maintain as the underbrush thinned on the steeper slopes. Kaeleth heard the men grunting and breathing heavily a short distance behind. What he did remember from previous visits with his father was that somewhere up ahead was a high-walled canyon with a rope bridge strung across it. If Kaeleth and Aline could get their first, they could sever the rope and buy enough time to lose the men higher up in the forest. All they had to do was reach it in time to cross before they were overtaken.
The slope began to lessen, soon flattening out completely. Kaeleth could no longer hear the men behind him. The trail veered close to the rocky edge of the canyon, and Kaeleth knew they were almost there. He nearly wept when he caught his first glimpse of the bridge up ahead. For whatever reason, the men behind had fallen back, most likely exhausted from having run all night and day in order to travel the long way to this section of the upper forest. Even so, Kaeleth could not believe they’d managed it. The men must be nearly dead on their feet after such a journey. The important thing was that they were nowhere to be seen when Kaeleth told Aline to cross first.
“Can we not both go together?” she asked, taking her first hesitant step onto the single rope that bridged the gorge. There were hand ropes on either side for balance, but the structure was far from stable.
“It’s just like the ladder on the cliff,” he said. “The rope will swing side to side. Two people at the same time will make one fall. Go quickly.”
Not knowing what else to do, Kaeleth hurriedly unslung his father’s bow and put all his weight into stringing it. Arrow nocked and ready, he prayed to Ormir, God of Virtuous Anger, that the men would not realize the bow was too stout for him to draw. He only needed to buy enough time for Aline to safely cross. If the men refused to use their own arrows, Kaeleth was confident he could outpace them even if they all followed him onto the bridge, which would make it swing like a feather in a windstorm. In fact, he almost hoped the men were stupid enough to join him on the bridge. With luck, he could shake one or two off before cutting the hand ropes and sending the rest into the rocky waters below.
“I’m across!” Aline shouted from the far side where she had collapsed to her knees.
Kaeleth turned away from watching the trail and immediately saw his mistake. Four of the men had anticipated the bridge and somehow crossed the stream down below in order to run up the other side of the gorge. How they’d known of the bridge, let alone covered the distance so quickly was beyond Kaeleth’s comprehension. It didn’t matter. One of them grabbed Aline by the arm, and when she hit him on the chest, he kicked the back of her knee and shoved her roughly to the ground.
Meanwhile, the archer was lining up another shot. This time no one protested and Kaeleth was saved only by diving to the ground at the very last second. The arrow thunked into one of the bridge support posts, passing through the space where his heart had been only an instant before. Kaeleth rolled to his feet and sprinted to the nearest tree, ducking behind it as an arrow skimmed the side of the trunk, catching the edge of his cloak on its way past.
Kaeleth panted for breath, pressing his back to the tree and trying to make himself as unnoticeable as possible. There had been five men. Where was the fifth? Kaeleth knew he’d heard one of the men behind them even after it was too dangerous to cross the river. Had he doubled back to join his friends? It didn’t make sense that they would leave this path entirely unguarded. He had to be here still, lurking somewhere along the trail, no doubt waiting for Kaeleth to blunder within range.
Kaeleth didn’t know what to do. His bow was useless, and his knife could not match the length of a sword even if he had the skill to fight. Kaeleth had never fought a man in his life. Not even with fists. Even if his bow had been more than just an attempt at intimidation, he didn’t know if he could harden his heart enough to actually kill a man. In every regard, he was at a severe disadvantage. His only option now was to run deeper into the forest and try to catch up with Aline and the men somewhere further down the trail. If he knew where they were going, he might be able to head them off. Short of returning to the lower forest, he hadn’t the first clue where they were so intent on taking her.
The wind shifted and Kaeleth caught the sour smell of sweat and old leather. He peeked out from the tree and saw the fifth man closing in. It was to be a chase then. The man didn’t appear to have a ranged weapon, and the trees gave him enough cover to stay clear of the archer on the other side of the bridge. Even tired as he was, Kaeleth was certain he could win a footrace. But then what? The soldier would eventually catch up. If he was to have any chance of rescuing Aline, Kaeleth would have to swing the odds in his favor. The only way he could see doing that was by risking a hasty plan that had been building in the back of his mind. He’d get only one chance to make this work, but if he could pull it off, there would be one less pursuer to worry about.
Crouched low, Kaeleth ran a curving path around the man. Thankful for the breakfast of fish and the strength it had given him to run quickly enough, he picked his way toward the trail leading back downhill to the stream. Trusting his ears and his instinct, he did not so much as glance back over his shoulder. It became easier as the trail sloped downhill, and Kaeleth used this advantage for as long as he dared before tossing his bow into a bush and stopping short behind a thick tree trunk with branches low enough for him to jump and pull himself up. Once high enough that the leaves would obscure him from all but the keenest eyes, he slipped his hunting knife from its sheath and crouched in wait. The trail veered within feet of the steep gorge edge here. All he had to do was wait for the soldier to pass below.
The rush of blood in his ears and the furious pounding of his heart were so loud, Kaeleth didn’t hear the man until he was almost directly beneath the tree. The soldier must have sensed something was wrong, because he was moving cautiously now, keeping to the shadowy side of the trail. Unfortunately, this was the side farthest away from the gorge edge. Kaeleth’s entire plan hinged on his ability to use the weight of his falling body to knock the heavier man over the edge, but that required his target to pass through a very specific spot. The soldier was a good three feet too far away, with no obvious intention of veering from his path.
Kaeleth was about to lose his only chance. The man was a step beyond Kaeleth’s hiding spot now, and in two more strides would be out of range for Kaeleth to leap onto him. Kaeleth considered simply waiting for the man to leave. It would be the easy thing to do. If he held back and shadowed the men for a few days, he might be able to sneak into their camp and free Aline under the cover of night. Unless they had horses waiting down below. Besides, though the men wore no obvious uniforms they were clearly seasoned soldiers. At least one of them, if not two, would stand turns at watch throughout the night. The more time Kaeleth gave them to get away, the worse his chances of rescuing Aline.
This internal debate took place in the time it took the man to take one more step. Making his decision, Kaeleth leaped from the tree, unable to hold back a battle cry as he landed on the man’s back, stabbing his knife down into the man’s neck. This resulted in little more than him bouncing off the man’s back with force his teeth clacked together on his tongue, spilling salty blood into his mouth. Instead of sinking cleanly into flesh, his knife had slammed into something unyielding and been jolted from his grip. Rolling quickly to his feet, Kaeleth saw the man clutching his shoulder and craning his neck to inspect the damage. He’d neither fallen nor taken the fatal wound Kaeleth had intended to inflict, but the force of Kaeleth’s surprise leap had been enough that he’d dropped his sword and stumbled closer to the edge of the gorge.
Kaeleth prayed it was close enough. He launched himself at the man, tucking his chin to his chest and thrusting his shoulder into the soldier’s belly. Had Kaeleth’s eyes been open, he’d have seen the man’s eyes widen in surprise while clawing desperately at the air for balance as he staggered backwards. What Kaeleth did feel, however, was fingers latching onto his cloak, yanking him toward the gorge’s edge. Before he knew it, he was being dragged forward as the man fought to keep from pitching into empty air behind him.
Kaeleth grabbed a handful of dirt and flung it at the man’s eyes, but the man only squinted and yanked on the cloak to bring Kaeleth within striking range. Kaeleth’s vision imploded when the man’s fist connected with his temple, neck straining against the ties of his cloak when his knees buckled beneath him, sending him limp to the ground.
Confident in his victory, the man towered over Kaeleth, feet solidly planted just inches away from the rocky edge at his heels. So self-assured was the soldier, that he moved to kick Kaeleth in the teeth. Most likely, he’d expected Kaeleth to be too dazed to move or possibly even flinch away, as any reasonable person in such a position would do. Unfortunately for the soldier, he hadn’t anticipated the self-destructive anger smoldering away inside of the slender boy. Anger that roared into a bonfire when he saw an opportunity to lunge for the man’s leg, intercepting it mid-strike.
Pain flared through one of Kaeleth’s fingers when it bent the wrong way upon contact with the man’s shins. Blinded by his rage over the loss of his father—for who else had killed him, if not these selfsame men—Kaeleth threw his full weight against the man, toppling him backwards into the gorge. So entwined was he with the man’s leg, he nearly followed. As it was, he only barely managed to catch himself with his chin and the palm of his hand while the other hand tried in vain to press back against nothingness.
Teeth and tongue aching from the knock to his chin, Kaeleth watched the man crash back first onto a blunt rock. He could not have heard the sickening crunch of a shattering spine, but his imagination provided him with a reasonable approximation as the man rag-dolled off the rock to land face-down in the current where he was carried swiftly downstream.
Only too aware of the men on the other side of the gorge, Kaeleth scurried back from the edge and found a safe place to catch his breath. When he’d assured himself nothing important was broken, save for the smallest finger on his right hand that was bent at an unpleasantly incorrect angle, he hurriedly retrieved his knife and bow. He contemplated running back up the slope to collect the two arrows that had been fired at him. In a way, it made sense to go back to the bridge to see if the men were waiting on their companion. Then again, these men had shown careful planning and ruthless efficiency at every turn. It was equally probable they’d arranged to take Aline ahead, and that the man Kaeleth had killed would be expected to catch up.
Serendipity saved him from his indecision. He was just about to return to the bridge so as to completely rule out that possibility when he heard a high-pitched voice shout his name. Aline’s voice. The cry had been cut short immediately, but it had been enough for Kaeleth to confirm that the men were indeed bringing her back down the trail on the far side of the gorge.
Kaeleth spat blood onto the dirt, then loped off down the trail. He knew exactly where the men would have to cross the river. The gorge was too steep to cross anywhere but the bridge, and the river flowed too swiftly to be crossed anywhere but the log bridge not far from where he and Aline had eaten their lunch. It was the very same bridge Kaeleth himself had planned to take rather than convincing Aline to traverse the terrifying rope bridge she had in the end been given no other choice but to cross. Kaeleth hadn’t yet figured out how he was going to separate Aline from the men, but if it was going to happen before they reached horses that might be waiting for them, he knew it would have to be someplace they could not leverage their numbers against him.
Running at breakneck speed and without the hassle of having to tow a captive girl along with him, Kaeleth arrived at the river crossing before the men. Had they continued on toward the meadows, they might have been able to take another looping path to the lower forest. Since Kaeleth had learned from Aline’s cry that they’d been heading downstream, they’d have no choice but to cross here, hemmed in as they were by another larger river that made up the fiercest of the Demon’s Claws. The difficult terrain was why Kaeleth had chosen to come this way in the first place, and it was about to work in his favor.
He scanned the bridge while breathing heavily to calm his heart after running. The water was higher than usual for this time of year, and the bridge was little more than rough-hewn logs jammed between rocks that were almost fully submerged. Water splashed over the logs, making the wood glisten in the sunlight. A guideline had been strung across at one point, but all that remained was a tattered piece of rope that drifted idly in the current where it had been fastened to a post on the near side of the river. Even the most surefooted would cross with great difficulty. Kaeleth didn’t envy the man who would have to carry Aline across, for he knew she wouldn’t walk willingly on her own.
He had other reasons to not envy them. The first being that each of them would die before this day was done. While only minutes earlier he had been uncertain of his willingness to take a man’s life, a pit of fury had been been stoked in the core of his being. He owed no particular allegiance to this girl, but these men had murdered his father. They’d left him no choice but to set fire to the only home he’d ever known just to have a chance at escape. Worse, they had almost certainly left other men in Daurendale, meaning Kaeleth could never return without fear unless he let these men take Aline. On principle alone, he couldn’t let them have her.
Kaeleth’s flexed his fingers on his father’s bow. He hadn’t taken the time to unstring and rewrap it so that he could carry it on his back, and as if seeing through someone else’s eyes, he was surprised to see an arrow in his hand when he looked down. The bow had been a ruse near the upper rope bridge, but now it was the only remaining option. Knowing he could not hope to shoot an arrow far enough to kill any of the men, he decided that if all he could do was send an arrow in their direction, he might frighten one or two enough to slip and fall into the roaring current. It was a poor plan, but he couldn’t conceive of better short of charging them in a suicidal rush that might give Aline time to flee.
As the first of the men emerged from the trees, Kaeleth stuck each of his six arrows into the ground in front of him. Hidden from view upstream, he watched and waited for his chance. He wanted as many of the men on the bridge as possible, and he hoped the man currently hauling Aline along by the wrist would fall back to the rear.
Luck was not with him. The archer eyed the wet log bridge, said something to his companions, then stripped off his boots. With these in hand, he stepped onto the flat-hewn surface of the log and began gingerly making his way across. The others all removed their boots, Aline included, and when the archer reached the end of the first of three logs, the man with Aline came next, shoving her ahead of him until she stepped unsteadily onto the log. The man drew his sword and used it to cow Aline into continuing forward.
Kaeleth didn’t know what to do. The archer would be across in moments, and his bow was still strung and slung across his back. If the man threw his boots to shore, he could have an arrow nocked and loosed in seconds. The archer had to die first. Kaeleth waited until the man was halfway out on the second log, then stood out of cover and raised his bow. Eschewing a prayer that would only fall on deaf ears like all the others before, Kaeleth let out his breath, then drew back on the bowstring with his next inhalation. Scarcely able to believe it and too afraid to question it, Kaeleth discovered that he was able to draw the bow to its full potential. Sighting quickly, he loosed the arrow before the powerful bow ripped the string from his overstrained fingers.
The arrow took the archer through the shoulder with such force, the man was turned sideways and fell into the river on his stomach, his surprised cry of anguish cut short when water flooded into his mouth. Kaeleth didn’t pause to watch or gloat. He simply plucked the next arrow from the ground, nocked it, and fired at the man behind Aline. This arrow entered the man’s ear, penetrating nearly to the fletching before the man teetered and wobbled soundlessly into the water.
Aline dropped to her knees and hands. There were still two men on the far riverbank. The braver of the two ran out onto the log in an attempt to grab Aline to use as a human shield or drag her back to the trees where they would have cover from bow fire, but he didn’t get the chance. Kaeleth shot him through the neck before he’d taken three steps across the bridge.
The fourth man tried to run.
As calmly as if he were tracking a spooked brocket, Kaeleth nocked a fourth arrow, sighted carefully with allowance for the man’s trajectory, then drew and loosed his arrow in one smooth motion. The arrow hit the man in the back, just left of his spine where it sank deep enough to puncture his lung. The soldier let out a gargled cry as he pitched forward onto his knees, but Kaeleth didn’t spare him a second thought. He’d die sooner or later, and if his screaming was any indication, he was in no condition to fight.
The harsh reality of what he’d just done washing over him, Kaeleth dropped the bow and stepped back from it as if it were alive. He should not have been able to draw the bow even once, let alone four times in such rapid succession. Without needing to test himself, he knew that if he tried to draw the bow again, it would not yield. Something dark and cold had overtaken him and given him a strength not his own.
Still grappling with the realization that he’d killed four men in cold blood, Kaeleth ran toward Aline.