Part II. “The Stranger”
The blazing sun above hit with such intensity that it felt like Jaun’s eyes were on fire. He lay on the coarse mud of the riverbank in an immeasurable amount of pain. It felt like his body had fallen through a wall when he hit the water. That was the last thing he remembered before waking up here – the feeling of bones breaking. His left leg had hit the water first, now protruding through his pants was a splint of blood encrusted bone. He wanted to die on the beach. He had floated several miles downstream before he had washed up on shore. The only reason he could tell he had floated that far was because the bluff was merely a speck in the distance. This was the farthest he had ever been from home. As a matter of fact, he had come so far downstream that he was nearly out of the woodlands. Only a couple of miles separated him from the boarder of the forest. If he didn’t hurt so bad he would have crawled to the water, dunked his head in, and just breathed the water into his lungs. It would do the job. It would end the pain.
That was not to be. The pain made it impossible to move. For nearly an hour he laid on the bank and waited for something to happen. He waited for death, or for his enemy to appear and gut him like they did Vulden, but no one came. Instead he tried to lay as still as driftwood and closed his eyes, hoping that this was all a bad dream.
It was as he did this, that Jaun heard a rustle in the nearby bushes. From behind the tall grass came an ominous figure with giant shoulders and huge arms. He wore the skin of a bear and wore the bear’s skull for a helm. The man gripped his sword tightly. Jaun knew he was just as dead with him as he was with one of those beasts. He was a marauder.
But something unexpected happened; before Jaun could beg for a quick death the man dropped his sword and rushed to Jaun’s side. Quickly the bandit scooped him up and hustled into the tall weeds. They laid prone, sandwiched between the thick foliage and a rocky outcropping that laid behind them. Before Jaun could figure out what was going on, he saw the creature. He could see over the bearskins that covered him what the man was hiding himself, and Jaun, from. On horseback on the opposite bank of the river was the being’s silhouette. It was one of his pursuers, and he could see through the shadow, the creature’s lone red eye, scanning the horizon. It was the very same beast that he had stabbed with Vulden’s dagger. After what seemed hours, the rider slowly trotted off again, believing the area to be vacant.
The man rolled off of Jaun and sat down with a satchel at Jaun’s side. Out of the bag came a tough looking piece of leather, a small spool of gauze, and a small jar. He handed the piece of leather to Jaun.
“Bite down on this.” The stranger’s voice was gruff, like he made a habit of swallowing rocks and hadn’t drank water in days.
“What are you doing to me?”
“Saving your life.” The burly man shoved the leather into Jaun’s mouth, and with a swift jerk the man pushed Jaun’s leg back into place. He grabbed a fallen branch and broke it in half; each half was placed on either side of his leg. He quickly dabbed a strange balm on the outside of the wound. It smelled like alcohol and tea that had been left out so long that mold had begun to grow in what had not yet evaporated. It burned as the man wrapped the gauze around it. If Jaun had not been biting down on the leather he would have bitten off his own tongue. The man then wrapped some extra cloth around the branches and braced his leg against the splints. He put the satchel over his shoulder and then pulled Jaun to his feet. The pain immediately shot through his leg. He leaned back against the rocks behind him and kept his foot from touching the ground trying desperately not to cry out.
“Who are they?” Jaun asked while putting all his weight on the other leg, his breath short from the small task of getting off the ground.
“The Avatars,” the strange man replied as he picked up his sword. “They are hunters; the elite assassins of Mazaroth.”
“Why did you help me?”
The man smiled, “The Avatar would have killed you if he had seen you, and probably while you pleaded for your life you would have said you saw me.” Jaun nodded, it was a reasonable assumption, but a wrong one. Through his tone Jaun caught the notion that this man believed that he was the target of their hunt. That was good; he didn’t want anyone to think he was the object of their ire.
Being the only other human Jaun had ever seen, he had no idea how ordinary or extraordinary this type of pragmatism was. The man was stocky and broad across the shoulders, with a ruddy, weathered face and shoulder length brown hair. His gear seemed as weathered as his skin. Much of it was beaten up, rusted, or lacked the luster it once had at its birth. The only thing that seemed to have survived his travels well kept was his sword. It was a broad bladed long sword that appeared well oiled and cleaned. It was much less intricate than the sword on Jaun’s belt, but it was probably the best weapon this man had ever seen.
“I have to go. I have to get out of here.” The stranger gave him an inquisitive look and almost belted out a laugh.
“Do you think I’m going to let you loose in these woods with the Avatars about; you must be insane,” He chuckled as he grabbed the boy by the arm. Jaun tried to shrug him off, but his grip was far too strong. “Besides, in your condition, if the Avatars don’t find you, some other animal will.”
“Well,” Jaun huffed, resigning his fate to this stranger, “If I have to travel with you, may I know your name?”
The stranger nodded as he tossed Jaun’s arm behind his shoulder, “My name is Fel Brook.”
“My name is Jaun.” The man smiled and began to hack through the thick brush.
* * *
They had traveled for nearly half a day and had not met another one of the assassins. As they trekked they had, some hours ago, broken past the last line of trees of his forest and were now trudging through the tall grasses of the Marui’r plains. The whole time there were no breaks and no conversation. The two of them reeked of musty sweat, and the humid temperatures did not help the situation. By hour six, Jaun could no longer take the pain. Even though he was keeping his left foot off the ground, he could see that his leg was swollen to three times it’s normal size and the wrapping was half soaked in blood.
“We have to stop. I can’t take it anymore,” Jaun cried out as he clutched Fel’s shoulder violently to distract himself from the pain. Fel laid Jaun down in a bed of tall grass. The land here was flat, but gently sloped in two directions toward two separate mountain ranges in the distance. As they walked they had aimed for the gap between those ranges, and Fel now crouched in the grass beside Jaun staring at that distant gap.
“Damn, we’re still four days away, and in your condition we’ll never make it.”
“Where’s there!? I wasn’t asked to be taken anywhere!”
“Keep your voice down boy,” Fel shouted back in a whisper. “Gods know where those monsters are? Do you want them to find us here? Do you know what those things are capable of?”
Jaun wanted to shout back at him, he wanted to scream at him that he knew all too well what those monsters could do, but he said nothing. Instead his eye’s smoldered in anger, but he said nothing. It occurred to him while he lay in the grass and felt his leg throb, that this man was also running from the Avatars, but the man had never said why.
“Why are you hiding from them?” Jaun finally spoke.
Fel looked behind their position and toward the woods. As best he could tell from lying behind the tall grass, Fel appeared to be scanning the horizon for the Avatars. After a few minutes Fel sat down in the grass. He was short enough that the grass came over his head.
“I was leading an expedition into the forest.”
“Why? What were you looking for?”
“No one’s ever lived there in all of recorded history, yet the thing is impenetrable. Not a single settlement. Now many would think that is why no one has lived in it, but not me. I happen to know that those woods were not always like that. No one’s been able to get into it for nearly twenty years, now why is that you may ask? The damn thing is surrounded by hundreds of feet of ironwood. Do you know what that is?”
“It’s elf magic. The elves used it to protect their assets from prying eyes. It makes even the smallest vine as tough as iron. It can be twisted and bent, but at great effort. The only way you can cut through the stuff is with an elf blade.” A million thoughts and emotions swirled through Jaun’s mind. He never knew the barrier was magical. Did Vulden create them? Was it to keep people out or keep him in? Prime among all these questions was one; did this man lead the avatars into the forest? If so, he was just as responsible for Vulden’s death as the things that killed him, but he would need to know more before he could make that judgement. He had to find out why he was snooping around in the woodland.
“How did you get into the forest?”
Fel tapped onto the hilt of the sword at his side, “Yours truly managed to acquire a bona fide elf blade a few weeks ago from a peddler.” Jaun didn’t have to be a scholar to know that based on what Fel wore that he was not a wealthy man, and that if it was so hard to get through ironwood because you had to have an elf blade meant that those weapons must be expensive.
“Did you steal that sword?”
Fel’s face immediately changed from stoic to amused. “You can’t steal something from someone who didn’t own the thing itself.”
“It was the peddler’s sword and you took it. Where I’m from that’s called theft and that makes you a thief.”
Fel jumped off the ground and onto Jaun’s chest. He used his knees to pin Jaun’s arms and pulled a short rust speckled knife out of his boot and pressed it against Jaun’s throat. “Maybe I should just slit your throat and be done with it, cause only people who call Mazaroth king would think what I did was theft.”
Jaun tried to struggle to get unpinned, but he was still far too injured to do more than glare at Fel.
“Mazaroth is no king of mine, but when you take something that’s not yours it’s stealing.”
“That man paid taxes to Mazaroth. He sold goods taken from the hands of murdered elves. Do you know what Mazaroth did when he captured Crolan? He had his generals lock the gates and let the Berin eat and kill as many of them as they could find, and when they were sleepy from the bevy of meat they’d feasted on he set the place on fire. It burned for a week. It was so hot the stones used to build the place melted. Anyone who condones that doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as I do.” Never before had Jaun heard someone speak with such intensity and conviction. He could see the seriousness in Fel’s eyes and the carefully tended hatred that danced behind them. It was the fury and arrogance of self-righteousness that would blind anyone to seeing what was truly right and wrong. The news about the atrocities committed by Mazaroth were new. Vulden had never went in depth about the brutality of the attack, and it made him feel immediate sympathy for Fel’s opinions, but he kept thinking about the man who was selling Fel’s sword. Did this man have a family? How did he come by the sword; had he actually known the history of this item? Was it gained by this atrocity or had it come into this peddler’s hands by some legitimate means? Worst of all, was he responsible for the destruction of the elves? The answer, of course, was no. Even if the man had been a part of Mazaroth’s army, could he have been culpable for his General’s commands? That would depend on the nature of the man’s life and the circumstances around his years of service, but the chief thing he kept coming around to was that Fel could not have known this man’s history and the full context through which he attained the sword to pass a judgement of such gravity. He had murdered him and stolen the sword for his own ends, and those ends were still unknown to Jaun.
“Why do you care so much about what happened to the elves?”
Fel’s stare was full of shock and complete despair as he spoke, “Because it’s wrong. Because every good and decent person in this world should know it was wrong. Why don’t people understand that?” Fel got off Jaun’s chest and sat back down in the dirt. He carefully slid the knife into his boot.
Jaun sat up by propping himself up by his hands. “Fel, my I call you that?” He asked, half forgetting that this was their first real conversation.
“Of course,” the bandit responded. His eyes were almost looking past Jaun. They were aimed in his direction, but they were looking somewhere else. He seemed to still be reeling from the question the teenager before him had asked.
“What were you doing in the woodland?”
“I could ask you the same question,” Fel’s gravel filled voice took on a sinister note, as if the revelation that he was a murderer and a thief wasn’t frightening enough. “As I said before, no one’s ever lived in those woods, nor has anyone else but me and the Avatars gotten past those ironwood thickets. So, boy, what were you doing in those woods?”
Jaun couldn’t simply tell him the truth, mainly because he was gaining the foreboding sense that he was the thing those barriers were meant to protect. He had no idea why Mazaroth had sent his minions after him, but it must have been for some important reason, and he had to find out why. He had to get to Unidor, the city that lay on the Incantian Plains, and find this Berethor. He remembered the name from Vulden’s journals. He was the former commander of Anaroth’s paladins. The only problem with getting to Unidor was that one of Jaun’s legs were broken, and there was no telling if an infection would set in. He had no food, no method to transport himself, and everything he owned he was wearing. If this man before Jaun had killed someone just for having an elf blade, what would he do to someone who had a paladin’s sword?
At the same time, Fel had rescued him from the Avatars. He was obviously capable of killing someone if the need arose, and self preservation is a powerful force. Things would have been easier on him if he had killed Jaun on the riverbank, that way he wouldn’t have to waste resources and time lugging him around, nor would a dead man be able to tell the Avatars where Fel was, since he was obviously still working under the assumption that the Avatars were after him and not Jaun. Yet, Fel had taken the time to scoop him off the bank, patch him up, and was carrying him out of the forest. Sure, the man seemed misguided, but he seemed to have a good heart.
“What does it matter why I was there?”
“Because you shouldn’t have been there. You can’t be a sailor cause that river doesn’t have any towns or trade posts on it. You can’t be a hunter because their’s little game there, and there wasn’t a bow in sight when I found you. So once again, why were you there?”
“I am a hunter, and there’s plenty of game in that forest. Many of the animals know how to get through the ironwood, and I follow them. Besides,” Jaun spoke as he pulled Vulden’s dagger out of its sheath,”I have an elf blade too.”
“Where did you get that?”
“My father was an elf.”
Fel’s eyes darted to either side of Jaun’s head and had the most curious look plastered across his hairy face. “You don’t have pointed ears, so you can’t even be a half-elf?”
“He adopted me. I’m a war orphan. My parents died during the siege of Anaroth. My adoptive father and my blood father were friends. I have assumed both were enemies of Mazaroth. My adoptive father was Vulden Markai, he was a member of the Knight Order of the Oak, we lived in these woods and I watched him die last night.” Jaun figured a half truth is better than a lie, especially because this way he could still hide the full scope of truth from this bandit. “The Avatars murdered my father, and I barely escaped with my life.” The tears helped to express the truth in everything he said. He wasn’t accustom to misleading people, but it was necessary until he gained a better understanding of who Fel was. He knew enough from reading Vulden’s journals to know not to trust too easily.
“They killed my men too. If I hadn’t been scouted ahead they would have cut me down as well.” Fel wasn’t looking at Jaun as he spoke, his eyes drifted up into the sky, almost as a reflex to keep tears from flowing down his cheeks. “I watched them butcher my friends and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.”
It was in the midst of all of this that Jaun heard his stomach rumble. It was louder than he’d expected, and it reminded him that he had not eaten since before Vulden died.
“When’s the last time you ate anything?” Fel chuckled, his eyes now clear of tears.
“Yesterday evening.” Fel reached into his satchel and handed Jaun two thick strips of dried meat.
“This should hold you over for a while.” The bandit looked up to the sky and around at the horizon. The sun was dancing lazily toward the tops of the trees behind them. It would be dark in a few hours. “I’m running out of food and I don’t know how long that balm will keep you from infection. There’s a town a few hours from here at the confluence of the Blue River and the Brinewater. I’ve got some connections there that can give us a good place to lay low while you rest up. We can’t have you trying to make the journey through Drogoth with a broke leg.”
The casual nature with which Fel dropped those names made his head spin. Vulden had focused much of his schooling on combat, literature, and arithmetic. Geography was hardly something they discussed. He got the gist of it though, he knew the names of all the continents, the kingdoms and capitals that were on them, and the mountain ranges, but he always had an issue with rivers. All he knew was that Drogoth was to the west of his home and was the natural valley between the Barrier and Black Ridge Mountains, and that the Blue River was the stream that cut through the woodland.
Fel stood up, and as he did he grabbed Jaun by the arms and brought him to his feet. “We need to get there quickly. Eventually the Avatars will figure out we’re no longer in those woods, and that town will be the first place they look.” The two hobbled south as fast as Jaun could allow and prayed that none of their enemies would find them.