Thursday, July 25, 2013

Companions - Updated and unabridged

Recently one of my stories was published in the Niner Anthology 'We Had Stars Once'.

Though this story has appeared here before, I have decided to post an updated and unabridged version. On this blog I can expand my stories out to fill in my growing 'Divide' universe in a way that is not appropriate for a short story anthology.

----

Mountains rose out of stony planes, a long spine of earth and trees that stretched across the horizon. Waning sunlight cast the mountainside in a pale orange glow. Flat pine needles reflected the light, washing the forest in false autumn colors.

Cutting a path through the trees, overgrown with moss and creeping vines, was a steep dirt road. The stones that once lined either side of the trail had slipped away, succumbing to the incline. In their place ground cover slowly reclaimed the road. The rhythmic sound of hoofbeats against the ground was muffled by the dense trees all around.


Two men rode side by side up the twisting mountain path. Both were young, very close in age, and both had lean bodies shaped by training and hard labor. In the quickly vanishing sunlight they slowed their pace.

The taller man sat straight-backed in his saddle, watching around them as the pale white light of the moon replaced the sun. A shallow widow’s peak topped his square, serious face. His untidy hair was a deep black, and it continued down his face into a short beard. A long blue jacket, buttoned up to the base of his chin, covered his clothes; its long tales pillowed out on the saddle behind him.

The other man shifted his reins to one hand and twisted around in the saddle to examine the contents of a saddlebag. He brushed curly blond hair off his face only to have it slide in front of his eyes a few seconds later. He wore no jacket or coat over his brown linen shirt, and its sleeves were pushed up his arm, bunched around his elbows.

The tall man shifted in his seat, darting his eyes to his companion, then back to the road. After a moment he did it again, this time sighing in frustration.

“We should have reached it by now. We should dismount before a horse breaks a leg.”

The blond man did not look up as he answered, “The trapper said we should be able to get there before sundown.”

“That’s my point, Gipp.” The tall man stopped his horse.

Gipp looked up, pulling the reins of his horse, looking into the trees as darkness settled around them. He had noticed the sunset, but failed to process its significance to their mission.

“I’m sorry, you’re right, Faski. We should have been there by now.” He slipped off his saddle and resumed searching in his saddlebag.

“We should still press on rather than make camp. We’ll clear out whoever the trapper saw in the cabin, then stay there for the night.” Faski dismounted, his face showing no indication if his mood was playful or irritated as he watched Gipp “Is a piece of fruit really worth such effort?” He gestured to the saddlebag.

“Faski, it was a yellow plum from Daldurive, I haven’t seen one in years.”

“Then maybe you should have kept better track of it.” Faski said, turning back to the road.

The blond man looked up from his sack, scowling unamused at his friend. He put the sack back in place, abandoning his search.

“I don’t know why you have to be so serious all the time Faski, it wouldn’t hurt you to think about something besides our work.”

“What is there besides our work, Gipp?” He pulled at the reins that were still in his hands, guiding the horse to walk behind him.

The blond laughed as he too guided his horse up the steep road, “Friends, music, dancing. Family. Don’t you think about your family, Faski?”

“And what good would it do? Would it make me a better swordsman? Would it help me serve Eyila or face her enemies?”

Gipp rolled his eyes, “Sometimes I think you are beyond hope, Faski.”

“If it’s any consolation, Gipp, I often think the same about you.”

Both men grinned, though Gipp’s grin was wide and full of teeth, while Faski’s only turned up the very corner of his mouth.

“I was going to share my plum with you, you know.”

“I’ve had plums before.”

“Not like this.” Gipp’s eyes glazed over as he remembered the taste of the exotic fruit.

They stopped talking as they rounded another turn. The road before them narrowed, no longer wide enough for them to walk abreast. Faski went ahead, Gipp falling in behind. The road was almost completely worn away here, lost to roots; they had to concentrate to keep their horses on solid footing.

“If there is nothing up here worth the trip, then I think you will owe me yellow plum,” Gipp said after a time, not comfortable with so much silence.

“What, Gipp, you don’t want to stop and enjoy this mountainside for its inherent beauty and splendor? All you can see is our goal at the end of this winding path?”

“You’re not nearly as funny as you think you are.”

Faski’s grey eyes twinkled in the moonlight, though Gipp could not see them.

Both men halted; their horses shifted, sensing tension from their masters. Faski sniffed the air.

“Fire.” Gipp said, “close.”

“Too close, we should have smelled it before, seen smoke.”

Faski looked up to the sky, the bright field of stars unobscured. He pulled on the horse’s reins, hurrying it up the path.

“Is it wise to charge ahead?” Gipp called, even as he too hurried his pace.

“This is no coincidence, Gipp. The trapper was right, someone is up here.”

After a sharp incline and a short series of switchbacks that cut across the mountainside, an orange glow appeared in the trees. A moment later the lowest stars in the sky vanished behind creeping tendrils of smoke.

Pulling his bow from his case, Faski dropped to one knee to string it before continuing into the forest. Gipp fished in his mess of saddlebags for his long scabbard, drawing the blade, then followed Faski into the trees.

Their horses stood together on the road, trained to wait for their riders to return.

Faski rarely took off his sword, so it hung by his leg as they navigated through the dense trees.  He gestured through the trees, indicating Gipp should approach whatever burned in the woods from the left.

“Don’t attack unless provoked, we need to find out who they are,” he called in a harsh whisper.

Gipp nodded and moved away, his eyes on the red-orange glow.

The trees thinned into a clearing, large enough that in the darkness neither man could see the other side. A small cabin was at the center, its inside filled with flame, smoke pouring out of the windows.

Faski stopped at the tree line and lifted his bow, steadying his aim. He watched the cabin down the shaft of an arrow, trying to find sign of who had done this.

Gipp left the tree line, aware that Faski remained in darkness, and moved slowly across the field. The heat of the fire hit him like a wave, making his skin feel pulled and dry. He lifted one arm in a vain attempt to block the heat.

The glint of light off metal registered with Gipp before he saw the form wielding the blade. He dodged the attack, taking hurried steps backward.

“Faski!” Gipp called as he raised his sword.

Faski pivoted and the arrow loosed a heartbeat later.

The attacker slumped to the ground before Gipp, an arrow through the side of his neck, a hatchet still clutched in his hand. Gipp’s sword was up in time to block the second man, who charged at him from the direction of the burning cabin. His wild, undisciplined hacking was easy to deflect; in seconds Gipp had disarmed him of his shortsword. The man came at Gipp with his bare hands but didn’t make it two steps before being cut down.

Gipp cast the fallen men a quick glance, enough to see that they wore no uniforms and had no distinguishing marks that he could make out.

When he looked up Faski was in the clearing, running after more figures. Gipp ran to join him. The heat grew more intense as he passed the cabin, and the sound of fire eating wood briefly overwhelmed his ears.

His senses were restored in a moment and he thought he heard Faski calling to him. He wanted to shout out to him, but realized it was not Faski’s voice he heard.

He slowed, looking to the cabin. The sound was clear, behind the crackle and pop of wood being consumed, someone was calling for help.

“Faski!” He yelled, but the man was already far away, past the cabin and almost vanished into the trees on the far side of the field.

Gipp thought for only a moment, weighing his choice. If he tried to save whoever was in the cabin Faski would face an unknown number of men alone. If he chased Faski, the people in the cabin might never make it out.

Trusting Faski’s superior swordsmanship, Gipp moved toward the cabin. The screaming was unmistakable now, multiple voices, high pitched and full of terror.

Smoke poured out the edges of the door. Before swinging it wide to whatever might be inside, he moved to a low window at the side of the door. Peering in, his eyes watering in the smoke, he saw flames eating one corner of the room. On the far side were three small figures, huddled together, unmoving except to lift their heads to scream.

He dropped his sword on the grass and opened the door. The wall of smoke that rushed out was more than he’d anticipated, slamming against him, stinging his eyes and clogging his lungs. He dropped into a crouch and coughed heavily, heaving out all the smoke he could manage. One wall gone to flames, and yellow-orange tendrils inched across the ceiling. He moved forward, pulling his shirt up to cover his mouth.

 “Please, help!” a choking call came from his left.

The three small figures gripped each other tightly, their faces covered to guard against the heavy smoke that filled the room.

Keeping his legs bent and his head low, Gipp moved quickly to them.

“Come here,” he pulled the shirt from his face, “I’ll get you out.” As he approached he reached to lift the closest figure.

Only one of the three lifted her eyes to him, a girl. The others kept their faces hidden but they were smaller than the girl, younger, children.

The girl shook her head and pulled at her arm. Gipp’s eyes darted to chains around her wrists, holding her to the ground. Each child had such a chain, and each chain was thick and held in place by strong iron bolts.

Franticly Gipp tried to think of a way to lose the chains. His mind fell to his sword, outside; he could use it to pry the chains from the floor. He was about to run for the sword when a crash sounded across the room.

A thick beam fell from the ceiling, smashing into what remained of the furniture in the far corner, and rolled to rest in front of the door. Flames leapt out, landing on yet unburned parts of the wall and catching light. The children screamed and Gipp threw his arms over them to block them from the falling debris. Ash and burning embers filled the air and landed on the exposed skin of Gipps’ arm and neck. His body tensed with each burn, but he fought back any other reaction.

Gipp grabbed the closest chain and yanked at it with his full strength, trying to rend it from the floor. He gave up after a moment, knowing it was too secure.

The girl looked up at him, her eyes pleading. He looked at her just a moment, his face unmasked desperation, before casting another look around the room for a tool. His eyes fell instantly on the fireplace where a simple cook fire burned. He was up and across the room as soon as he recognized the poker which had fallen into the hearth. Flames reached out as he crossed the room, catching his arm. He pulled back, ignoring the twinge of pain.

Heat radiated out from the poker, warming his hand so the skin turned red, but he gripped it tightly as he hurried back to the children.

He worked at the chain holding the smallest child, forcing the poker through the loop that held it to the ground. The loop spread open, but the child did not move, still clutched to the boy. Gipp freed him next.

The fire was over their heads now, embers flew in the air, burning the skin on the back of Gipp’s neck as they landed.

He pulled the freed children out of the corner, pointed them to the low window beside the now blocked door, yelling for them to get out. The two scurried for the window, the boy crouched over the smaller child to shield against falling embers.

In another moment Gipp had pried open a link and the girl was free. The fire worked down every wall now, and danced across the floor at them. Staying low and dodging lines of flames, Gipp and the girl crossed the room.

He lifted her up to the window as soon as they were close. She vanished from sight, dropping down on the other side. Gipp gripped the frame and lifted himself up. Then the air was pushed out of his lungs and the window disappeared as he was forced to the ground. His head rang and his back felt as if on fire. He tried to scream, tried to lift his arms to push himself to his feet, but his body was heavy and his throat burned with pain.

The last thing he saw was the world turning from bright orange to a shadowy dark.

--

In the woods, Faski steadied his aim. The first man was falling with an arrow in his back by the time Faski took aim at the second. This time the arrow did not hit center, but struck the man in the side. He lost his footing, falling, grasping at the shaft.

The third man was moving too erratically to track with a bow. Faski wrapped his bow around his shoulder and drew his sword to run the man down. He spared a thought to Gipp, who seemed to have stayed in the field, maybe dealing with more men.

Faski’s breath grew heavy as he ran, his eyes darting between the man ahead and the ground, avoiding any roots or stones. As Faski closed in on the man he let out a shout, a cry for help. Faski’s sword came down and the man dropped to the ground.

With the last man down Faski looked at his surroundings, how far he’d come from the cabin, which was now just an orange glow in the distance. He dropped to the ground, his knee sinking into a bed of rotting pine needles. He lifted the man, turning him over to see his face.

“What were you doing up here! Why attack us? Why burn the cabin?” He pulled the man’s face to his own.

Moonlight cut through the tree cover in long, thick shafts. One shaft illuminated the man’s face, now only a maze blood and skin, collapsed when it fell hard onto a stone. Faski dropped him, standing and wiping his sword clean on the man’s pant leg.

“Gipp!” He called out into the woods, turning back to the cabin and waiting a moment for an answer. When none came he called again, “Gipp, where are you?”

He slipped the sword back in its scabbard, taking hurried steps back to the clearing. A low moan sounded from somewhere to his left. He stopped to listen, then turned toward the sound.

Sprawled on the ground was a woman with a broken arrow shaft in her side, her blood leaking out, looking black in the moonlight. She was the figure Faski had downed. Both her hands were covered in blood, and blood dotted her lips. Faski’s arrow had hit between the ribs of her back.

“Help, please,” she said, her hand groping limply at the shaft.

He stood over her, his hand resting on his sword hilt.

“What were you doing up here?”

She looked at him, not lifting her head, but looked wearily out the top of her eyes.

“Magic-crafters, children, we took them, we wanted to train them to be ours. They were on the road out of Tavrulan, we took them, killed their escorts.” She coughed and frothy blood erupted out of her lips.

“Children? In that cabin?” He spun around.

“Our scout saw you coming, recognized you, Eyila little soldiers. We’d rather the crafters dead than in your hands.” Her next cough was halted, her eyes bulging as Faski’s sword slipped through her neck.

He ran, as fast as he dared in the dense forest. The roar of the flames hit him along with the hot air as he broke into the field. A short distance from the cabin were small forms, huddled together.

He ran to them, his sword up, guarding against another attack. When he saw their young faces, he dropped it in the grass and knelt beside them.

“Are you alright?” He asked, his hands moving from child to child, looking for signs of injury.

They pulled back from him, wary. The older children shielded the youngest child from him.

“The people that took you are dead. You’re safe now.” His features softened as he spoke to them, his grey eyes warm and sincere.

The two oldest children exchanged a look, the boy nodded and the girl pointed to the burning building.

“You have to help him,” she said, “he didn’t come out.”

“Who?” Faski turned to the cabin, the flames that ate at the roof so tall they blocked out the sky above.

He stood, looking around the clearing, seeing a long, metal shaft in the grass, a sword blade that reflected stars, flame and a cloud of smoke.

“The man, the one who got us out.”

“Man?” Faski didn’t know if anything could come out of that cabin alive now, then his eyes snapped wide, truly understanding the girl’s words, “Gipp!”

He ran to the cabin, the air so hot it felt like his skin was already burning. Fire danced in the windows, through the planks of wood; most of the roof had collapsed. The door was open, but burning debris blocked the opening. He pushed at it with his foot, trying to open a space wide enough to pass through.

Easing through, Faski ripped off his coat to beat back the flames that lined the doorway.

“Gipp!” he called, barely able to hear his own voice over the roar.

His eyes darted desperately in the haze of orange and red. A small sight caught his focus, rings of blond hair on the floor just to his left.

Splayed out on the ground beside the door was Gipp, a burning beam pinning him to the floor by the waist.

Unable to pull Gipp out, he wrapped the coat around his hands and pushed the beam. The effort strained his muscles and fire spread onto his coat, until finally the beam rolled to the ground beside Gipp.

He took his friend, holding him just under the arms, and pulled him toward the door. He kept his head low and walked backwards through it as fast as he could, flames jumping to his clothes as he passed.

When he was out in the field he kept walking, pulling Gipp as far away from the cabin as his strength would allow before he collapsed in a fit of coughing, slamming his hands into his shirt to put out the small fires that clung to him.

The cold air of the night felt good in his lungs, clearing out the smoke. When he could breathe again he turned to his friend, who was face down in the grass, his back a messy pulp of burns and blood. Kneeling next to Gipp, Faski inspected the wounds, not seeing the burns that covered his own hands. The firelight danced over the injuries, making them look swollen and fierce.

A small hand rested on top of his. He looked up into the round, oval eyes of a young elf. The suddenness of it shocked him, it was rare to see an elf at all in this part of the world, let alone a child, who should rightly be in some protected grove of Matron Wood.

“She might be able to help.” It was the boy speaking, standing just behind the young elf. Shackles hung from his wrists as he gripped his arms to his chest.

“She can use her craft,” the girl said, “Rhi can do small healing. She’s cured fevers before.” She stood next to the elf, her hands on the small child’s shoulders.

“Craft...” Faski said haltingly, as he recalled what he’d been told, “you’re all crafters.”

“Not really,” the girl turned her head to the burning cabin, “We’ve not learned anything, we were just starting to practice when those people took us. But Rhi is an elf,” she squeezed the elf’s shoulders, “she knew a little healing to start.”

Faski nodded, looking to the small child as he gripped affectionately at Gipp’s shoulders.

“Please try, I don’t think he’d survive the ride back down the mountain.” A hot tear ran down his face, clearing away the dirt and ash.

The elf nodded, her spindly fingers moving in the air over the long red gash that ran from the middle of Gipp’s shoulder blade down to his waist. The strain of it was obvious, the smooth, graceful lines that made up her round face twisted and bent in pain.

Faski watched and his hands dug deeply in the fabric of Gipp’s shirt. One wall of the cabin collapsed, the crash sounded out, but it was ignored as all eyes watched the elf’s hands work.

Gipp stirred, jerking his head around and trying to get his arms under him. Faski grabbed him by the shoulder, trying to gently hold him down.

“Don’t move, you’re hurt.”

“The children?” He managed to say, still straining to hold his head up.

“They’re here, they’re safe.” He put his hand on Gipp’s head, “Lay still.”

Gipp put his head down and closed his eyes, breathing heavily, but steadily. Faski ran his hand over Gipp’s dense blond curls and looked at the wounds. Though still extensive and deep, they were no longer inflamed.

The small elf sunk to the grass and the other children surrounded her. The boy sat cross legged and lifted the elf to his chest. Her eyes were closed and her head rested on his shoulder.

Faski closed his eyes and exhaled a long, deep breath and slumped to the ground next to his friend.

The remaining cabin walls came down. A huge puff of smoke, dotted with glowing embers, rushed upwards into the night sky, covering the face of the moon.

No comments:

Post a Comment