The woods were melding into one. His blurred vision make it seem as if they were wavering in the wind like rye in a field. He wanted to fall into them and rest but he knew to do so would be to die.
He had so much left to accomplish this night.
"Master Valdrin, this is madness. We should return to the field camp."
A young squire with a bandage upon eye was goading him to return to his war camp and his useless physicians. He knew the way was through these accursed woods. A myth, a legend, but one he knew had to be try. It was his only hope.
"Help me, Kio. I have to speak to the druid of these woods."
The two of them stumbled through the Fallrayvn Hinterlands. Bright vicious eyes watched them through the night. The alpha went to fetch the guardian of the grove. The pack following him as others howled into the night.
They paced through the forest, leaping over fallen logs and weaving through the treelines. To find Nell, kneeling at a stream washing her feet. She smelt their presence and looked up inquisitively.
They snarled at her and barked a warning but she did not heed their requests. She simply pressed her hand to the earth and a great elk nearby came to her call. She gently brushed the majestic animals flank and fluidly mounted it.
"If you must, come and protect me. But few seek sanctuary wish to do it harm, no matter their past."
The wolves lowered their heads and followed her back the way the came.
* * *
"Leave me here, Kio. I can travel no further."
Resting him against the rock, Kio looked at him worriedly. His master face was sunken in and his skin was opal in color. His eyes milky.
The guardians of the grove were suddenly upon them.
"Child who is this?"
Startled the young servant look up at the most beautiful woman he'd ever laid eyes upon. She had long fiery red hair, a slender build with a athletic tone to it. Her face was like that of the angels he'd seen painted upon temple ceilings. Her body covered in vegetation like that of an elf yet her ears were rounded. Almost forgetting to answer, he blurted.
"This is Syr Valdrin of house Ossek. The strongest, swiftest, richest and most powerful man this side of the Tamsin river. Are you a healer?"
"Yes, though his wounds are beyond me. He will need to be brought into the heart of the woods. Their he will be taken care of."
"Please, help him."
"Very well, what is your name?"
"Well Kio, help me get him onto Sokk here."
The both of them lifted the wounded knight onto the elk. Then Nell placed her hand on the flank of the beast and vines came around it to form a saddle for Kio.
A giant grizzly appeared and roared uproariously. Frightening young Kio, but Nell merely laughed musically.
"You are not late Bo Bo, just on time. Come we must see Rion."
The three of them travelled through the woods at a swift pace. The wolves along the flanks and Kio and Nell through the center. Kio had many questions but the brushing of the wind and sound of the forest would not allow him to voice anything.
When suddenly they came to a stop outside a dense treeline. At Nells hip were several instruments. A pan flute, a horn and a small metal drum. She brought out the drum and laid it upon a flat stone and hit it resoundingly. The notes came out like a chime from a clockwork music box.
"Nell?" A dryad came through the thicket. Her bosom fully exposed. Her hair flowing and long to her hips were her equine body met and her face was elvish in features.
Kio embarrassed looked away. He was only but a boy of 16.
"Essa, I must see you're father."
The dryad looked over to the corpse-like Valdrin with disdain.
"Why have you brought this filth here Nell, you know my father."
"It must be done."
"No it mustn't, think upon this sister of the woods. He has slaughtered thousands of our own and cut down a third of our home. He will not stop until he has everything for he has the appetite of a demon."
"I know that may be so, but it changes nothing. I will bring him if you do not."
"If he harms my father Nell, I will have your heart."
"It will be the way of woods, Essa. And I hope it won't come to that."
The dryad lifted the fallen man with ease onto her own back and galloped into the grove. Bo, Sokk, Kio, Nell and the Alpha wolf Casq followed.
The Wellsprings was the home to ancient Rion. A being so old that he had become one with a great oak tree. His body hidden beneath the roots and his head melded into. His free hand was his left which he used to heal the sick and injured.
"Daughter why that scowl."
"Nell has brought something for you, but please father do not give in to your instincts."
He chortled heartedly.
"Why I would have lived half as long if I did that. You must listen to your heart and your gut and together they form what you desire. Sometimes it will not be welcome, but it is what you need.
And Nell it is good to see you."
"You as well, Rion. This is Kio the wounded man's familiar. The man is named Valdrin.
Rion smiled and Kio who meekly waved. And frowned with concern at the wounded man upon Sokks back.
"It has been quite sometime since Bo, Sokk, Casq and Nell have been brought together in some time wouldn't you say, daughter.
Essa looked uncomfortable pacing her hooves from side to side while absently rubbing her elbow. Her eyes not meeting her fathers. She feared so deeply for him. And didn't want him to see the worry.
"Very well, Kio & Nell mind laying him before me. Sokk kneeled down allowing the boy and Nell to bring forth Valdrin. He was heavy with armour. Kio best suited for this removed his iron suit. He was heavily bandaged beneath.
They removed it with care and he groaned with the pain.
Rion lay his hands upon him and the wounds began to mend. Once the bleeding had stopped. Rion turned to the ancient beasts. Casq bit his tongue and offered his blood. Bo swiped his paw and Sokk was cut by Nell who also cut her own hand to offer her tribute. They turned to Kio.
"Me too, but I'm just a boy."
"Precisely child, you blood is worth more than ours in fact for that very reason." Replied Rion. Who then turned to his daughter.
"He must be welcomed into our woods or how will we ever expecting him to welcome us into his world my dear."
"Father he is like a vampire."
"Is a bat only as dangerous as you imagine him to be?"
"There is no imagination, he has wrought suffering wherever he has set foot."
"You have been wandering I see. Nell and I know nothing of this man, how have you learned."
Embarrassed, Essa turned away.
"Perhaps a question for another day, very well your offering will be forfeit, but the gods will not be pleased."
Using a mushroom funnel. They poured the blood into Valdrin's moth. He swallowed halfheartedly nearly coughing.
"Now place him in the well for a moment to heal completely."
Nell and Kio once again brought him up and placed in the pool at the center of the glade. The water was iridescent and an ancient willow grew at the center were there was an island.
He could hear creatures and voices. Muddled or gurgled. He felt light like floating and glided up. His eyes opening wide suddenly. Shocked he saw the gathering around him. And inwardly he smiled. I made it.
"What is the meaning of this?" He asked the procession.
"They saved you master, they really saved you." Kio said as he went to help him out of the pool.
Such loyalty, it was why he had chosen Kio among all the other slave boys. As he rose out of the well he realized all he had were undergarments and suddenly he felt very exposed.
"Where are all my things."
"I have your armor, that much my father allowed and your axe, Valdrin." Essa said to him.
"Here I have some clothes you may wear," Nell offered as she wove with reeds a shirt and a pair of pants. Intricately designed, loose and breathable. "I hope it fits."
The knight don the clothes. And looked back apprehensively at Essa. He knew the legends of Rion. If Kio would drink of his blood he would be come the most powerful healer in the land. And at the same time the weakest. For legends say that Rion is also cursed.
"What can I give in thanks for your services, legendary one." He asked the old man.
"Your thanks is enough, young knight."
"And pray tell is it true that you cannot heal. That if you were to be wounded that you would die a slow and agonizing death."
"This is true."
"Very well then, Kio."
The young boy beared his fangs and drew two sharp daggers, and one he let fly to Rion's head.
Meanwhile Valdrin vaulted over to the dryad who brought her spear to bear. He ducked underneath the strike and retrieved his battle axe. He felt more alive than he'd ever felt before. The stamina of an elk, the speed of a wolf, the strength of a bear, the vitality of a vampire and the power of a guardian coursed through his veins.
The dagger flipped through the air, but Sokk was quick it deflected the blade with his antlers and it bounced into the air. But just as quickly, Kio emerged before the dagger, grabbing it out of the sky with a dark trail of smoke behind him as he dived down with both daggers into the skull of one of the ancient beasts.
Kio's red eyes flared with hunger at the site of the blood soaking down. Everyone else around him moved in slow motion and he savored the moment. When suddenly he was bashed in the face, knocking him out of his revelry.
"Stop this now Valdrin, you know not what you're doing?" Rion protested.
"Ha, of course I do, old fool. I'm killing your daughter and maiming these woods once and for all. No more spells, no more magic, no more mysticism."
Bo charged toward him. He was knocked of his feet, but held tightly to his axe and got up quickly kneeling as the Casq pounced from his flank. Spinning on his knee he let loose a wicked thrust splitting the wolf neck. The blood trail splattered onto Rion. And the look of horror on his face was priceless.
"Valdrin, help." Kio's voice meekly let out.
The knight looked over to his squire to see Nell with a staff pressed against his head. He was pinned down.
Valdrin tilted his head at the beautiful creature. How could she have bested the fastest vampire he'd ever seen. Not too mention one of the deadliest. But soon he will find out.
"Stop now Valdrin or I'll kill Kio."
Bo and Essa were reading for another attack.
"I care nothing for him." He lied. As Bo charged and Essa bounded forward.
Kio tried to look up at Nell but she had him pinned. He could sense her lifting the staff to crush his skull so with all his effort. He jolted to one side as she lifted all the way. She stumbled ever so slightly enough for him to break loose.
"Kio stop please," Nell pleaded as the boy flashed before her to strike, then behind her and then above her flipping with a kick which she dodged. "This doesn't have to end in blood shed."
The vampire boy had no idea how she was parrying his strikes. She had fractions of a moment to react but it was as if she was suspecting. Oooof.
Hit along his stomach he was winded and writhing in pain.
Valdrin ducked the spear strike and spun catching the back leg, severing hoof from her ankle. Essa toppled over. Valdrin admiring his own handiwork didn't have time to react to the incoming swipe that slashed across his face in a myriad of blood and gore. Anger welled in him and he struck Bo mightily with an upper cut. The bear toppled backwards into the well.
Dragging the axe behind him across the ground, he made his way to Essa. His broken smile upon a bloodied visage of a face.
"Well, Rion it seems your line ends here."
The sound of a skull cracking stops him in his tracks.
"You have murdered my friends, laid waste to my home and seek to end the only family I have. Valdrin. Forever will your name be remembered among woodlen folk as a bastard, thief, scoundrel and lowlife. May your soul rest in the deepest of darkest pits. Where it will reside among those of your ilk"
Nell stepped over Kio and challenged the knight.
"Big words for a berry bitch. How long have you been away from your true home among men, Nell. Centuries? You don't know what it is like anymore. Now come I'd like to fight someone able to defeat my poor, Kio."
The two squared off. Valdrin holding to his axe with both hands while Nell held her staff loosely. Defensively, Valdrin watched her graceful movements. And then she disappeared. Confused he looked around. And saw Essa holding to a notched bow. The arrow let loose.
He dodged and saw for the briefest of moments, Nell hitting the arrow with her staff and deflecting it straight into his skull. He toppled over instantly. Blood pooling around his face. His eyes vacant. A look surprise plastered on his face.
Essa breathed a sigh of relief. Rion was openly weeping and Nell was pulling the arrow out of his head. Barbed and poisoned.
There was sadness in Nell's eyes. Rion wiped away at his tears. And Essa hobbled over to Casq. He had passed.
"He has moved on."
"Father why did you not listen to me. I knew this was going to happen. Had I not been here or Nell as well. It could have gone horribly wrong."
"It is how it was meant to be. I chose this horror, but I must take responsibility for it. I gave him the gift of life to make a new decision. He chose as he desired. It may seem wrong to you, but you are still young and flexible. I have been ingrained in who I am and it is difficult to change. Please attended to the dead instead. I must contemplate."
"Your father is right and you are right." Nell spoke to Essa. "It is just unfortunate that people in the world can't see it that way."
Essa nodded Nell healed her hoof back onto her leg.
"Thank you Nell, for saving us."
"It is the way of the woods, Essa. Even this. But as you said your father is far too traditional. I will listen to you and no longer lead evil men into the grove against his wishes."
Suddenly out of the pool Bo Bo sprung forth drenched and gloomy.
Nell smiled and hugged her old friend. Then gently pried out the spear and healed his wound.
"We will go now. Take care Essa of Rion. May the gods smile upon you and your family. Pray for Sokk and Casq tonight. They will need your guideance. And perhaps you're father will see the light."
"I will sister. Farewell."
The bear snorted as she rode him out of the grove.
"No, I was truly happy to see you alive."
The bear growled.
"Yes, they are both dead and no we don't have to go far. Valdrin's camp is just this way."
She brought her horn and blew upon it loudly. Calling all the predators in the area.
"It has been centuries, let's see what people have been up to lately."