The sun blinded Jorad when he stepped out of the shadow of the boarding house onto the road. It was just peeking up over the top of the Jagged Mountains. He ignored the chill as he took a deep breath, the air held a hint of pine from the nearby forest. He hadn’t slept much during the night. Between Ruder’s claims and the way Soret’s parents had treated him last night, there had been too much on his mind. As he tossed and turned, he’d hoped that the morning would bring greater clarity. It hadn’t. He still didn’t know what to think about any of it.
It had been dark long before they’d finished their walk the night before, so Jorad had walked Soret home. That had been a mistake. Barc Tedenhel, Soret’s fathers, had met them at the door. One look from Barc had been enough for Jorad to know that he needed to make himself scarce.
The balding short man had pretended that Jorad wasn’t there when he’d addressed Soret, demanding to know where she had been. Soret’s mother Hira looked over Barc’s shoulder—she was a head taller—and had glared at Jorad. Neither had spoken to him during the exchange and talked of him as if he wasn’t there.
Jorad had spoken up a few times, raising objections to being classified as a scoundrel, but he went unheeded.
Before going in, Soret had whispered a quick apology explaining that her parents still hadn’t gotten over her break up with Erro. Jorad wasn’t so sure that her explanation made sense. They’d treated him as if he had a terrible disease and that their daughter was at risk of catching it. There had to be more to it than what Soret had said.
“What did Soret do now?” Adar asked. A slight breeze disturbed the leaves of a nearby tree and Adar flicked at a bug that landed on the back of his neck. Afterward he touched the hilt of his sword. That particular nervous habit had sometimes landed them in trouble. There were places that if a man reached for his sword and didn’t follow through he’d be dead.
“It’s not about her,” Jorad said, he felt his face flush. Erro had been telling Soret’s parents lies about Jorad. It was the only explanation that made sense. Why Erro would do that, Jorad didn’t know. It seemed like every woman in town eyed Erro. Jorad had been unable to decide if it was because of Erro’s wealth or if they found him handsome. Had Soret broken up with him because her parents were pushing the marriage?
Jorad suspected that despite everything that happened the night before, Soret was still interested in Erro.
“Course it is, I can see the lie on your face.”
Jorad grunted. The morning bustle stirred as the various shops readied for the days visitors. Several horse drawn wagons drove by and he nodded to the drivers but didn’t recognize any of them. Such was life in a small town. In Zecarani, strangers often didn’t greet each other. Last time he was there, he’d almost been run over and had to jump out of the way of a fast moving carriage. The driver had laughed as he passed.
Adar and Jorad were heading out on patrol. It was one of Adar’s favorite things to do. It wasn’t uncommon to do more than five patrols a week. Adar always insisted that they did the patrols to keep their skills sharp, but Jorad knew the truth. He knew that Adar was paranoid that the Hunwei would catch them unaware. It bothered Adar to no end that he still hadn’t managed to figure out any of the weapons of their fathers.
Jorad inhaled and looked around. The morning sun didn’t do much to increase his mood. Even though he couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that the Hunwei had indeed returned as Ruder claimed, he wasn’t looking forward to traipsing around the woods. The only thing he wanted to do right now was to confront Erro about the lies he’d been telling. If Jorad did, he had little doubt that it would come to blows. Erro might be more manageable after a thorough beating.
“If you don’t take the lead,” Adar said, “she’ll walk all over you.”
Jorad almost stopped walking; the stories couldn’t have spread that quickly. He’d considered telling Adar about the confrontation with Soret’s parents. He didn’t do that though, because Adar believed it did a man good to have his weaknesses thrown in his face. No doubt, Adar would have come up with a number of different ways Jorad could have handled things and the last thing he needed was Adar taunting him.
“You mentioned earlier you had something to tell me,” Jorad said, eager to change the topic of conversation.
“I’ve heard rumors,” Adar said.
“About what?” Jorad asked, trying to keep his voice even. He failed. Adar noticed it. The last thing he wanted to do was to tell Adar about his encounter with Ruder. It would have been better to stay on the topic of Soret. Jorad knew where this would lead. If Adar had heard about Wasat, they would have already left town.
“What have you heard?” Adar asked.
Stupid! Jorad thought, wishing Adar couldn’t read him so easily. Enduring Adar’s taunts about Soret would have been better. “Nothing.” They walked in silence for a few steps but Jorad knew that it was too late and Adar had already made a connection.
“Spit it out.”
Jorad debated. Adar would know if Jorad lied, he always did. If Jorad continued to evade the topic, Adar would hammer away at him until his nerves were all ragged and he’d learned the truth anyway. It wasn’t a good outcome either way.
“Tell me about the rumors you’ve heard.”
“You’ll have to tell me eventually,” Adar said, ignoring him. “The more you resist the more interested I become.”
Was that thunder? Jorad looked towards the Jagged Mountains to the east where the sound had come from. It was barely audible. It couldn’t have been thunder, other than a small line of clouds, the sky was clear. Odd.
“What’s wrong?” Adar asked.
“Thought I heard thunder.”
Adar looked to the east. “Strange, there aren’t many clouds.”
They walked in silence as they left Neberan. They were approaching the forest when Adar spoke again. “I don’t know why you don’t want to tell me, but you can rest assured I’ll find out.”
Jorad didn’t answer as they plunged into the forest.
Adar’s demeanor changed as soon as they entered. Instead of walking the way a farmer might through a field or a traveler down a road, Adar moved like a cat hunting a mouse, careful where he stepped and alert to his surroundings. After years of practice and Adar’s stubborn teaching, Jorad had picked up the same skill and stalked forward as well, though perhaps not as quietly.
When Jorad was younger, Adar spent hours explaining various things about the forest, wildlife, and the land. When they came to something new, particularly if it was a plant that had useful properties, they had sometimes spent half a day while Adar taught. Afterward, Jorad would have to recite back what he learned. The educational sessions subsided as Jorad mastered Adar’s lessons. When the day came that Adar declared the lessons done, outings like this became more common. Adar was becoming restless and they’d patrolled almost every day during the last month.
The forest was much darker than the road. Both of them moved slowly to give their eyes time to adjust before picking up speed.
It was a long and grueling day. Jorad did his best to remain alert, but by the time the sun was setting, he was ready to head home. Adar on the other hand looked ready to go all night. Jorad was thinking about saying something when Adar stopped. Jorad didn’t notice until he was about to collide with Adar. He was grateful that he hadn’t let his thoughts wander to Soret again.
Because Jorad had lost track of the number of times that Adar had stopped, it took Jorad more than a moment to notice something was wrong. They were on a wooded hill and the sun was almost gone, plunging most of the forest into darkness. The birds that had been chirping were silent and except for a slight breeze rustling leaves overhead and the sound of gurgling water from a nearby stream, it was quiet.
Jorad looked around half expecting to see the eyes of a large predator. He reached over his shoulder for his sword but stopped when he realized what he was doing. Fool! Can’t have the last light of day flashing on my sword to give away our position.
They were half way up the hill; behind them the last light of the sunset was just visible. Or was that his imagination? Off to the left, the creek ended in a small waterfall at the base. He didn’t see any movement in the small meadow there. He made eye contact with Adar who motioned to his nose and looked back up the hill.
Jorad sniffed the air, how had he missed it? There was a distinctive, but weak, smell coming from the top. He didn’t recognize it but that wasn’t unusual. Here in the south he wasn’t as familiar with the animals.
A griz wolf? Maybe the mammoth bear that had been spotted in this area recently.
Jorad almost unsheathed his sword; it wouldn’t do him much good if a mammoth bear attacked them. They were notorious for stealth, despite their size, and they’d have little warning, if any. He wished for his bow as he remembered a time when Soret confessed her fear of mammoth bears. Hadn’t he laughed at her? The thought of facing a mammoth bear with a sword set his insides churning. They might have a chance, a slight chance.
Adar shook his head when he saw the question on Jorad’s face, and turned his attention up the hill. Adar didn’t recognize the smell, which was a surprise. That ruled out a griz wolf but not a mammoth bear. The trees and brush kept them from seeing anything useful. What other animal could there be that Adar hadn’t hunted?
They waited for sometime in the quiet of the forest, studying the top of the hill. Several times Jorad was sure that he’d seen a flicker of movement. After what seemed like all night, but must have been far less than a few minutes, the smell subsided.
Adar went up and paused, angling for a better view. Jorad followed, stopping every few steps to sniff the air and examine the ground. When they were almost to the crest of the hill, Adar stooped and motioned Jorad over.
By the scant light of the all but gone sun, Jorad made out a track on the ground. It was bigger than a man or any animal he’d come across. He cast his eyes around expecting to see the eyes of a mammoth bear. They were supposed to glow blue in the dark, even without moonlight. He shivered.
Jorad forced his attention back to the impression in the ground and felt the print with his fingers, there were odd markings and the track was deep. A man couldn’t have made this unless he was heavy and had large feet. The track felt like an imprint from a boot, except it was oddly shaped, with three toe like splinters poking out in front. They continued up the hill a bit more cautiously.
When Jorad emerged from a sudden opening in the forest at the top of the hill, he lay beside Adar. The other side of the hill was bare and didn’t offer any cover for them to descend. There was movement at the bottom where the forest thickened but it was too far away and dark to tell much more than that. Had Adar seen it as well? A glance at Adar’s face was answer enough and Jorad could almost hear Adar ticking off the possibilities in his head.
Jorad became more alert with the prospect of tracking the unknown creature. Adar wouldn’t pass on an opportunity to track something they hadn’t encountered before even if it was a mammoth bear. If they were careful and kept their distance, they’d be fine. Adar sometimes would spend hours tracking an animal if it crossed their path even if it was going the opposite direction and they weren’t hunting.
Jorad suspected that tonight would be different and they’d track the unknown creature until they’d confirmed that it was a native animal. Adar was too focused tonight to waste time.
They made their way across the top of the hill until they reached thicker vegetation where they slipped over to the other side. Jorad was aware of the greater need for stealth as they descended the hill and took care to move slower than he had before. This earned him an approving nod from Adar. That was rare enough that it caught him off guard and he almost tripped during a moment of self-congratulation. He cursed and was glad he didn’t loosen anything to go bounding down the slope to warn their quarry as they moved in a course to intercept the unknown creature. He avoided eye contact with Adar.
At the bottom of the hill, it took several minutes to find the large three pronged tracks. When they did, Adar pointed to a track that was bigger than the others indicating that there was more than one.
They hadn’t been following for long before Jorad could see shadows moving ahead. He stumbled when he saw that the shadows were walking on two legs and grabbed a tree for support. Even in the moonlight, Jorad could see the set of Adar’s jaw.
It took several hours for the shadows to reach the tree line that was parallel to the north road leading out of Neberan. The shadows had stopped several times and seemed to be conversing, but Jorad couldn’t hear anything. By the little he could see of Adar’s face from flashes of moonlight through the trees, he looked grim and determined.
On the outskirts of the forest, well within sight of Neberan, the shadows—he could see three distinct figures now—crouched and examined the town. Jorad had a sinking feeling in his stomach and wished that they’d found a mammoth bear instead.
Adar touched Jorad’s arm and motioned to the right where the forest was thicker. Jorad moved more cautiously than he had all night while keeping an eye on the shadows as much as possible. Other than a Hunwei, what’s bigger than a man and walks on hind legs? Whatever they were he didn’t want to find out by making a misstep. They hid in the middle of a big cluster of pine trees that was surrounded by thick grass.
The three shadows appeared to be talking and one motioned to the town multiple times. The shadows stayed at the edge of the forest for close to an hour and the moons were well into the sky when they moved to leave.
When the shadows turned, Jorad was glad that Adar had anticipated they’d return the way they had come. The shadows moved quickly, making more noise than before, if they’d made this much ruckus earlier Jorad would have heard them before noticing the smell.
When one of the shadows turned off the path and started towards their hiding place, Jorad’s heart began pounding in his chest and he reached for his sword but stopped at the last moment from drawing it. Maybe it was after something other than them. Pulling his sword now would give away their position for sure.
Jorad felt his self-control slipping away the closer it got, it was hard to slow his breathing. Whether the shadow had seen them or not, moving now would be disastrous. One of the other shadows snarled and the one closest to them snarled back.
Jorad stopped breathing. Snarling?
He’d half hoped that they’d been following men, large men, but the snarling ruled that out.
What were these things? Pushing away the obvious answer, he tried to think of anything else that would explain what they were witnessing and came up with nothing.
Jorad could smell it again, the shadow would be on them in a few more steps and he’d have no choice but to go for his sword. Without moving his head, he glanced at Adar and saw he’d already managed to unsheathe his sword, and was holding it to his side away from the prying eyes of the creature. When had he done that?
Jorad could make out the distinct outline of the shadow against the dimly lit forest. It was at least a couple of heads taller than most men and twice as wide. The other two shadows snarled and the third finally turned back.
Jorad moved his head to see where the shadows were going and became aware of his senses again when he exhaled with a quiet explosion. He hesitated, but the shadows where too far away to have noticed. He pulled out of the crouch and was glad to see that he could move. The fear hadn’t paralyzed him, as he’d feared.
Adar motioned for him to hold still and they waited until the shadows disappeared and then awhile longer. When they stood, Jorad worried that the shadows might have returned but the forest was still.
He sighed when he saw Adar’s determined look. The thing that Jorad had assumed would never happen and the moment that Adar had been preparing for since as long as Jorad could remember had arrived.
Text Copyright © 2014 Dan Decker
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