Glory – Part 2
Another section of my NaNoWriMo project so, again, there’s bound to be rambles and types. Hope you enjoy nonetheless!
“Will you relax, Finn? We are not lost.”
“We are too lost, Lia! We’ve passed by this grove of trees three times now! I told you we need a map.”
“Please, where’s the fun in that?”
“Where’s the fun—Not being lost is fun! Are you serious right now?”
“Hey, guys!” Ephraim interrupted the knight and the healer, positioning himself right in between the pair. Considering Lia was a head taller than he and Finn had a few good inches on him as well, it didn’t really hinder Finn from glaring at the knight. Lia, on her part, was gazing around at the treetops as if she were looking for a particularly pretty bird.
“Hello? It’s your prince speaking, pay attention, please.” Ephraim waved his hands up and down until the pair looked at him. “Look, why don’t we just retrace our steps? This grove wasn’t too far from the beginning of the woodlands, remember? I bet we can find the entrance again and start over.”
Finn was rubbing his temple – Ephraim lost count as to how many times the healer had done that on the journey thus far, but the prince suspected that Finn would develop premature wrinkles in the spot – and took a deep breath. “Eph, if we keep going in circles, how are we supposed to retrace our steps? Not only that, but these woodlands are pretty dry. We don’t have too many good areas for the horses to graze.”
Ephraim glanced at Phoenix, who appeared to be glaring at the nearest tree for, the prince guessed, not producing apples. Pearl was straight and tall, having been trained well for the frontlines and delivering messages, but her ears were flickering in nervous anticipation. Ivy didn’t seem to be bothered by too much, but her head was gently swinging around to look at their surroundings often.
“Alright, then.” Lia took out her sword and cut a gash in the nearest tree. “We’ll mark our path, then. If we pass by a mark a second time, we’ll know we’ve already been through the area.”
“Why didn’t we do this in the very beginning?” Finn demanded as he took Ivy’s reins. Ephraim followed suit, taking Phoenix’s reins in hand and leading his horse on foot. The trio had collectively agreed to give their horses a break from carrying them with all the supplies.
“Aren’t these the Dimirth Woods?” Ephraim said. “They’re supposed to be a straight path to the neighboring county.”
“Well, whoever told you that lied,” Finn said. “These are the curviest paths I’ve ever seen.”
Lia glanced back at the pair, her brows furrowed slightly. “I thought the Dimirth Woods were to the south of the castle… We went northwest.”
Ephraim heard a smack and didn’t need to look behind him to see that Finn had hit his own head with his palm in despair. “We’ll be fine. Think of this as a detour.”
“I don’t understand how both of you are just dandy with these kind of setbacks,” Finn said.
“Easy,” Lia called back as she cut another tree trunk. “You’re pessimistic enough for all of us.”
“For good reason,” Finn said. “We’re lost in some strange woodlands, already low on provisions for the horses. Do we know what woodlands we’re in? How big this forest is? Either of you know which plants are poisonous so we don’t eat them when we run out of food?”
Ephraim bit his lip and almost slowed his steps. “We could try going back—”
“We’ve already moved forward,” Lia said. She, however, did pause and look back at Ephraim. “Unless, Prince, going back is what you’d prefer.”
Ephraim took a moment before shaking his head and walking on. “No. We’ve already started in this direction. Thank you, though, Lia. And you, of course, Finn.” The healer looked up, his eyes wide, puzzled, at Ephraim. “Well, you’re right about everything you’ve just said. This journey hasn’t been long just yet, but it’s good think of any potential dangers. It won’t just be fun and games.”
“Haven’t I been saying that all along?” Finn deadpanned.
“You have,” Ephraim said simply and gave him a smile. “I appreciate it.”
Finn stayed quiet and turned his head to look forward once more. With Lia’s method, the trio only had to turn around twice on their path in order to find parts of the woodlands that were unfamiliar. They took a break around, what Ephraim guessed, to be midday, sharing a light lunch and some of the water from their leather skins with the horses. Ephraim hoped that they would at least be able to find a spring or a river once they were out of the woodlands to at least replenish their water.
“Hey, look, light!” Lia’s exclamation snapped up Ephraim’s attention a few candle marks later. He was able to see some sunlight streaming through the leafy treetops.
“Looks to be sundown,” Finn said, squinting his eyes against some of the sunbeams.
“At least the woods are getting thinner,” Lia said, continuing to lead the way out of the area. Ephraim took a deep breath, relieved, and swung back up on Phoenix’s back.
“Think we can ride out the rest of the way?” he asked. Lia complied, perching herself on Pearl’s saddle and Finn, after a moment or two, climbed up on the ever-patient Ivy. The pathway soon grew wider, lighter, as the trees gave way to more open lands.
“Whoa…” Ephraim glanced around the field they had found themselves in, overflowing with tall grasses and weeds, few paths, and a couple of trees scattered here and there. “This is… Are we still in the kingdom?”
“Assuming we’re still going westward,” Lia said with a small nod to the setting sun, “we may be close to crossing the border into the barren lands. There’s not much about these parts on our maps.”
“Really?” Finn asked. “We don’t even have maps to this place? What are we doing here?”
“Maybe we’ll create our own maps,” Ephraim said with a laugh. Giving Phoenix a gentle kick in the ribs, prince and horse sailed down the field, cutting through the grasses in delight. Pearl caught up quickly, the mare probably pleased at having the chance to give her legs a good stretch, and Ephraim glanced backwards to see how Finn and Ivy were fairing.
Ephraim, with a chuckle, slowed Phoenix down and called out, “C’mon, Finn! I know Ivy can go faster than that!”
Lia had turned Pearl around and the knight laughed as well as Finn shouted in reply, “No thanks! Trotting is fine with us!”
Ephraim shared a grin mixed with exasperation and fondness with Lia, but the knight did say, “Ivy may actually prefer trotting. She hasn’t been out of the paddock in quite some time, if the stable master is someone to be believed.”
“Very well,” Ephraim said. “I suppose we should be lucky we got Finn on a horse at all in the first place.”
“He’s been doing just fine with Ivy, yes,” Lia said, leaning against Pearl’s neck as the pair waited for Finn and Ivy to catch up. “Honestly, I’m surprised he hasn’t been complaining too much… Thought we’d be hearing nonstop about us going to our dooms.”
“I think he figured it wouldn’t matter considering we’re on the journey now,” Ephraim said. Glancing around the empty field, he added, “I do hope this journey will be good for us all…”
“It will be.” Lia flashed him a smile.
“You two talking about me?” Finn asked as he and Ivy eventually reached the others’ sides. Ivy nickered as she caught up, looking pleased with herself, and Ephraim allowed the older mare to set the pace for the horses, much to Phoenix’s impatience.
“Sheesh, Finn, it’s not all about you,” Ephraim said as they all rode once again.
Finn snorted, but his attention was on the empty field as well. “Alright, so we’re apparently in the middle of nowhere with the sun almost below the horizon. Are we traveling through the night? Do we actually have enough supplies to stop and sleep?”
Lia turned to Ephraim and Ephraim looked ahead as if a city would appear that would grant them shelter and replenished supplies. When that didn’t happen, Ephraim said, “We’ll stop for the night. We’ll find a clearing and make due.”
Lia and Finn merely nodded and, after a little longer of traveling through the fields, the trio finds an area near what used to be a pathway. Most of the grass was dead or flattened enough for them to make camp, and there was little ceremony in getting ready for the night. The trio relaxed for the most part, although Finn was a bit antsy. He seemed to calm after Ephraim began sketching the landscape around them, watching Ephraim’s pen scratch across the parchment. When it was time to settle down for the night, Lia volunteered for the first watch and Ephraim fell asleep quickly after.
Something was poking his side.
“What–?!” A hand clamped over his mouth and Ephraim’s eyes adjusted enough to the low firelight to see Finn hovering above him. The sky up above was inky and black with few pinpricks of stars. A faint snoring came from somewhere on Ephraim’s left that he guessed to be Lia.
Ephraim tore Finn’s hand away from his mouth and whispered violently, “If it’s my turn for watch, all you had to do—”
Finn shook his head. “I keep hearing noises.”
“Finn, we’re outside, it’s probably bugs or birds—”
“No, I mean, voices.” Finn’s gaze looked up and to the right, and Ephraim just noticed how wide his friend’s eyes were.
Ephraim sat up and remained quiet, doing his best to listen. After a moment or two, Ephraim did hear another voice, masculine, sounding as if he were saying…
“…Is he cursing?” Ephraim asked.
“I think so.” Finn, at least, sounded more confused than frightened.
Ephraim stood up from his bedroll and glanced at the horses. All three were looking in the direction that the voice was coming from, and Phoenix at least was pawing the ground. Pearl stood stock-still, yet Ivy was her usual calm self. The dappled gray mare didn’t seem concerned in the slightest and, in fact, soon went back to scrounging for some short grass to nibble on.
“Maybe it’s someone who needs help,” Ephraim said, hearing another muffled curse among a string of unintelligible mumblings.
“With what, hiding bodies?” Finn demanded as he gripped Ephraim’s arm when the prince had reached for his sword.
Ephraim raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“What if it’s some psycho?” Finn asked.
“What if it’s someone who’s lost like us?” Ephraim retorted.
“What if both of you shut and let a girl sleep?” Lia, eyes half-closed and her hair escaping from the braid she had put it in, was sitting up and staring at the other two. “What is going on?”
Ephraim put a finger to his lips and comprehension dawned on Lia’s face, effectively waking her up as she heard the stranger’s voice. In one fluid movement, she had gotten up, grabbed her sword and shrugged into her leather armor.
“Stay here,” she said and disappeared into the field of tall grass.
Ephraim’s sword lay limp in his grip and Finn’s knuckles were white from his tight grasp on his staff. The string of mumbles soon turned into a loud shriek of surprise.
“Do we go after her?” Ephraim asked, ready to sprint after Lia.
“She’s the knight, I’m sure she’s fine,” Finn said, voice high and quick, taking a step back from the edge of the field.
“Really, Finn? C’mon, she may be hurt—”
“I’m the one who’s bloody hurt!” The owner of the strange voice was hauled into the clearing by Lia. She had a grip on his leather collar with one hand and his feet just barely touched the ground as she brought him in front of Ephraim. Her other hand held a quiver of arrows and a bow.
“Here he is, Prince,” the knight said, not fazed in the slightest at the stranger’s twists and curses as he tried to break free. “What shall we do with him?”
“What?” the stranger squawked. “What did I do? Why do you need to do anything with me? You’re the crazy broad who attacked me! I did nothing and I demand you let me go!”
Lia merely shrugged and looked expectantly at Ephraim.
After a moment, Ephraim said, “Release him, Lia.”
She did as she was told and the stranger, not able to find his balance, flopped to the ground.
“Goddess’s tits, you couldn’t have been gentler, could ya?” The stranger sat up, dusting off his dark hair and mismatched clothes. “Mind giving me my bow back?”
“What were you planning on doing with your weapons?” Ephraim asked.
“Are you kidding—” The stranger gave a strangled groan. “Look, I had no idea I wasn’t alone in this field—Well, that’s not entirely accurate, I know those bandits are nearby—”
“Bandits?” Finn attempted to clear his throat after squeaking.
“I really don’t know what they are,” the stranger continued, undeterred by Finn’s obvious distress. “Thought they were regular thieves, but there’s not too many folks around here who could be victims. Then I heard some weird screaming coming from their base at the northern end of the field, so I thought I’d go check it out.”
“Why would you follow screaming?” Finn asked.
“In case someone was hurt?” The stranger, with a puzzled, raised eyebrow, finally looked up at Finn. “Would you seriously just let someone possibly die if you heard that person was in trouble?”
“Depends on who I’d be up against,” Finn muttered.
“That does beg the question, though,” Ephraim said. “Are you the type of person to just risk his life for a stranger’s?”
Their unexpected guest paused a moment. “I suppose I’ll go with his answer for that,” he said, jerking his thumb in Finn’s general direction. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve wasted enough time being manhandled by you lot. May I please have my bow back?”
Lia, after getting the okay from Ephraim, handed the weapons back, the stranger said a curt mutter of thanks, and was about to disappear back through the tall grasses until Ephraim spoke again.
“Do you need help?”
“What?” Both the stranger and Finn responded, but Finn’s exclamation was an octave higher of disbelief.
“Aren’t you a healer?” the stranger asked, whirling around on Finn. “Isn’t helping people supposed to be in your nature or something? Or is that just for show?” He pointed to Finn’s staff.
“It’s for inflicting goose eggs on the heads of people that annoy me,” Finn snapped. To Ephraim, he said, “Are you honestly offering to join him?”
“Why not?” Ephraim said. “If we can be of some help to people, that’d be fantastic. Not to mention that it’s kind of my job to help citizens of the land—”
“Prince,” Lia interjected, “we don’t know if we can trust this man.”
“I think he would have tried attacking by now—”
“Prince?” The stranger tilted his head as he took a closer look at Ephraim, as if seeing him for the first time. After a heartbeat, he shook his head and took a step further into the tall grasses. “I really don’t care if you folks follow or not, I’m going!”
“So are we!” Ephraim just about dove after the stranger, but he gagged when he was hauled backwards by Finn grabbing the back of his shirt.
“If you really want to trapeze towards what may be death,” his friend said, irritability dripping from every syllable, “fine, but shouldn’t we do something about the horses and camp first?”
It took them a bit longer than Ephraim would have liked to destroy their camp and pack up everything onto the most likely confused horses’ backs. They led the three horses through the tall grass, finding the stranger’s path of bent, broken, and trampled weeds rather easily.
“Stealth is apparently not on his mind,” Ephraim said at one point.
“Rather, he may be in a hurry because he was interrupted,” Lia said, giving Ephraim a smirk when he turned to her with a half-hearted glare.
“Hey, I didn’t ask you to go after him,” he said.
“Not just yet, you hadn’t,” she responded.
“Be honest, Eph,” Finn said. “We all know you would have gone after him if Lia hadn’t stepped up to do so.”
“Alright, I’m ordering both of you to shut up,” Ephraim said. Lia chuckled and Finn gave a snort of amusement, but they said nothing else as the group continued forward. Within a few moments, the tall grasses gave way to the edge of field and a natural pathway created out of dirt and rocks. The pathway led to a dark grove of trees, half of them with scorched trunks from fires long ago.
“Oh, that looks safe,” Finn muttered. “Can we turn around now?”
Lia shushed him as Ephraim glanced around the area. Hidden in an alcove of half-dead trees was the stranger, looking as if he was readying his bow for an attack. Ephraim, with a silent signal, told Lia and Finn to leave the horses where they were and to follow him toward the stranger.
Ephraim did his best to be quiet as they caught up with the stranger, but they still startled him enough to whirl around with an arrow ready. Lia had jumped in front of Ephraim, her sword out and aimed at the stranger until he lowered his weapon.
In a violent whisper, the stranger said, “What the hell is wrong with you people?”
“We just want to help,” Ephraim said.
“You’re all mad,” the stranger spat out before facing forward again and resuming his vigil. Looking beyond the stranger’s shoulder, Ephraim saw a base created of stone and wood, the top of it nearly reaching the same height as the treetops. A short shriek emitted from one of the upper floors before silence rang out again.
Glancing at the trio, the stranger said, “You really want to help?”
“Yes, we do,” Ephraim said.
“Why not?” Ephraim asked back. “If you can go out of your way to help someone, so can we.”
“This isn’t a contest,” the stranger said. “I’m around these parts because I’m looking for a friend. Why is a supposed prince out here?”
“I’m of the Tavalon Kingdom,” Ephraim said, “and I’m on a journey—”
“Ah, that place.” The stranger nodded, apparently oblivious to Ephraim’s frown. “They really let the heirs wander around the lands, eh? Sounds like a recipe for trouble if you ask me.”
“We didn’t ask you,” Finn spoke up, “but, see? I’m not the only one to think that.” Finn smacked Ephraim’s arm as he turned his attention to the prince with that last remark.
“What’s going on here, then?” Lia asked, directing everyone’s attention to the task at hand, and Ephraim thanked the gods for her attention span.
“Not too sure,” the stranger said. “I keep seeing rooms flicker with light, not sure if they’re candles or someone’s doing magic, and hearing random screams here and there.”
“Do you have a plan?” Lia asked.
The stranger shrugged. “Not really? I was just gathering some courage to storm in there.”
“With just a bow and chicken-feathered arrows?” Finn asked. “And you called us mad.”
“Well, it’s all I have. It’s better than a stick, at any rate.”
“Now you have us,” Ephraim interrupted, placing himself in between Finn and the stranger. “I’m Ephraim. The knight is Lia and Finn is our healer.”
“Wylie’s the name.” Wylie gave the group a nod and, after a moment of getting themselves situated, led the way toward the dark base.