The wind howled and the storm crept its way across the sky, thunder cracking as it neared. I staggered away from it as fast as I could, clutching my bloodied side. The tall pines surrounding me rocked back and forth in the rough wind. It was dangerous to be caught outside during a summer storm, especially in this region of Dunamis where the cold mountain winds mixed with the convective valley heat, creating super storms that have been said could toss a delivery wagon off its wheels. I hadn’t personally seen this happen, but this was a mysterious land that I knew little about.
Another clap of thunder flashed and the rain started, coming in sparse, fat drops. My heart beat fast. The pain in my side flared up in a hot torment. My eyes anxiously sought shelter, but from what I could see, there was nowhere to hide. My best bet was to find a sturdy tree, build a hasty lean-to, and hope for the best but. . .
A blood-chilling howl sounded from somewhere deep in the forest. The heart-pounding noise came from everywhere, enveloping me, yet it also sounded like it was directed at me!
Direwolves. . .
If there was a devil, he most definitely created the Direwolf. Weighing in at over 300lbs, they were the apex predator of the north and preyed upon anything they could sink their fangs into. The Bestiaries I read in ranger training described how during the summer months, they would drag their prey back to their den, alive, so its young could learn to kill for the next hunting season. A cold shiver ran through me. Death by a thousand nibbles was not the way I wanted to go.
But what choice did I have?
Trapped between the storm and the beasts, I braved the woods, desperate for a place to hide. The wound in my side was screaming at me now. Every step was pain.
Why the hell did I take that mission? I knew it was foolish to push that deep so early in the fighting season, but before I could offer any input, the paperwork was signed and authorized by the commanding officer.
“Learlin, you and your team are the tip of the spear,” my well-dressed captain had said. “We must know what those barbaric tribesmen are up to so we can gain the advantage over them. ”
My gut told me to tell him to wait until Fall to send us that far north but what could I say to a guy who spent most of his time in a tent peering over charts and priding himself on how many medals he had. How things worked in the real world meant nothing to him. All I could do was salute and say, “Aye, aye sir.”
It wasn’t a surprise to my team then when an Oreabi warband ambushed our listening post two days into occupying our position. I still wasn’t sure how I made it out alive, especially after being stabbed in the gut by the tip of an enemy spear, but here I was, limping my way through—
My foot caught on a stray root and I toppled over. My torso twisted and my wound flared up like I had been stabbed there again. My first thought was to cry out and vent my pain, but I knew that this could be a death sentence if heard by the wrong ears. Instead, I bit my lip—drawing blood—and as soon as the pain subsided, I attempted to stand.
I heard a snap, felt an awkward feeling in my left shin, and then my foot twisted onto one side, taking me over with it. A sudden dizziness overcame me, amplified by the swaying of the wind-swept forest. I didn’t even feel myself fall back down to the ground. A bright light flashed followed by a booming clap. I heard the howl again and it turned my blood to ice. It all proved too much and I surrendered myself to fate. My vision shrunk and darkness claimed me.
I awoke in complete darkness, groggy and fatigued, and it took me a second to realize that the pain in my side was gone.
Was I dead?
I reached where I had been stabbed and felt a fresh bandage wrapped around my waist. It was then that I realized that I was no longer in the forest but in a soft bed, dressed in nothing but my linen undergarments. I sat up and went to move my legs but found that my left foot was splinted in place.
Pulling the covers back, I confirmed this to be the case. Though it was hard to see, I could tell by touch and feel that the splint was expertly applied. My eyes went past my feet. There was a table beyond the foot of the bed. Upon it, I saw that my leather jerkin, ranger cloak, and trousers; were all neatly folded and awaiting my use. Beside that were my leather utility belt and boots.
Reaching forward, I grabbed my belt. I felt along its length until I found my adventurer's pouch, which I opened and rummaged through until my fingers wrapped around my small, crystalium orb. I pulled it out, and in one motion, hit it against the wooden bed frame with just enough force to lightly crack it. Wisps of golden light emerged from where the crystalium had split, rising like glowing smoke. The dim light filled the room and I looked around for the first time.
I was in a dormitory of some sort, with rock walls and rustic furniture. In the far corner was a wooden table that had an assortment of tools and vials upon it that I assumed belonged to the man who bandaged me up.
Was he a medicine man?
Then it dawned on me that I was too far north to be rescued by friendlies and that the man who brought me here was undoubtedly the enemy. A quiet terror gripped my heart as I realized that I was now a prisoner of the Tribes. My stomach flopped at the thought. I had heard one too many stories of how ruthless the Votan was with those they captured. Those that were lucky to leave their custody in a prisoner exchange came back looking emaciated and broken, with scars tattooing every part of their body.
Footsteps approached from beyond the leather hide that acted as the door to the room. Without thinking, I unsheathed the hunting knife from my belt, threw the belt back on the table, and hid the blade beneath the sheets just as a large figure swept aside the hide and entered the room. The light from the crystalium orb barely reached him but he was large; easily over six feet and powerfully built. Underneath his loose tunic and tattered trousers was the frame of a man that had endured a rough and rugged life. He stared down at me, his face half-hidden beneath his course, peppered beard. Though he didn’t carry a weapon with him, his hands were massive, and I knew if he made them into fists, they could hit like iron hammers. My thoughts went to my knife, though I doubted It would do me any good against this giant.
He said something to me but he spoke in the guttural language of the tribes. After a moment of silence, he repeated himself, and when I didn’t respond for a second time, he took a step toward the bed. I immediately straightened my posture, readying myself for a fight. His expression didn’t change; passive and unreadable. He walked forward and, as soon as he was within reach, my hand moved quick as a Thunderbird. The metal of my blade flashed as I swung it in a wide arc but, to my surprise, I felt nothing but air. The big guy had dodged the attack!
Damn, he’s fast.
I brought the knife up and readied it for another attack. I expected him to lunge forward in an attempt to strangle the life out of me but instead, he just stood there, eyeing me with the same impassive stare. A few, tense seconds passed and then he pointed to my bandaged waist and then back to himself. In the heat of the moment, I hadn’t the wit to interpolate the meaning of this but when he repeated this motion a couple of times, I caught on to what he was trying to communicate. I lowered the knife just a little and then pointed to the bandage with my free hand.
“You did this?” I said and then mimicked the motion he made.
He nodded and then pointed to himself again.
“Rick’Ta,” he grunted.
“Rick’Ta,” I repeated. He nodded and pointed to himself again.
Reciprocating the gesture, I pointed to myself and said, “Me, Learlin.”
“Me-Leer-Lin,” Rick’Ta said, pointing at me.
“No, just Learlin.”
I shook my head.
He walked over to the wooden table, picked up a leather bladder, and handed it to me.
What was this guy up to?
I was cautious to take it from him so he drank from the skin and made a gesture like he was in pain and then gave me a thumbs up. He smiled and handed the bladder over to me again. I took it this time and sniffed the nozzle, immediately picking up on the fermentation inside. The Votan was said to make alcoholic a beverage using fermented mare’s milk, so I took a sip and almost gagged. The taste was awful but I did not want to aggravate my captor, so I gulped down a mouthful. I pretended to like it but the face I made after I tasted the drink gave me away and Rick’Ta laughed.
The light on my orb began to flicker and Rick’Ta made a face like he just figured something out. He said something in his language and the room was suddenly alive with the teal phosphorescent glow from the many small orbs fitted into the stone walls around the room.
So he was a Wizard. . . or a Druid as the tribesman called them.
Over the next few days, Rick’Ta took care of me and tended to my wounds, applying salves and using his magic to speed the healing process along. Though I still kept my knife within reach at all times, I did my best to learn his language, which allowed us to have small conversations. From these, I learned that he grew up in a village nearby and was chosen to be a Druid as soon as his lucid dreams began at the age of eight. He was then taken from his family and turned over to the village Elders who tutored him in the arts of healing, herbalism, magic, and alchemy. Most importantly though, they told Rick’Ta the history of their people as it was the Druid's duty to carry such knowledge for generations using their supernaturally long lives. During our conversations, he would speak of his people, a cheerful smile coming to his face as he recanted stories, myths, and more. Then, using my limited vocabulary, I would tell him about my people and he would listen, genuinely curious about what I had to say.
“Many things we have in common, Leer-lin,” Rick’Ta said one day after I finished telling him a story from my childhood.
I thought about this for a moment and then said, “I agree.”
“No. Not agree. Understand.”
“What do you mean?”
“We come from different places and have lived different lives. We look different and yet we breathe the same air and see the same sky. We all feel happiness and sadness. From this we understand.”
I shook my head.
“Our people have been at war for 15 years,” I said, “The Akronians and the Tribesmen are too different to live together in peace.”
“We don’t have to live together. Only understand each other.”
“The only thing we understand is how to fight and kill each other.”
“Those are only the men that are fooled into serving another man’s greed only because they do not believe in anything. They do not believe that we can understand.”
“Then take me to your people and teach me to understand.”
Rick’Ta went quiet for a moment, the corners of his mouth drooping slightly into a subtle frown as if I had just cut him with a small blade. Was that sadness in his eye?
“Where are your people?” I asked but Rick’Ta said no more. Instead, he quietly handed me some freshly made salve and said, “Sleep now, Leer-Lin. Dreams are good for understanding.”
Weeks passed and after that conversation, we seldom spoke until the day Rick’Ta deemed my foot good enough to walk on. He helped me through a few weeks of physical therapy and eventually, I was up and walking around on my own. When I felt confident enough, I asked Rick’Ta if I could take my leave. To this, he shook his head.
“Why not?” I asked.
He led me to the circular, wooden door to his cave dwelling and opened it to reveal that it was mid-winter.
My God! Two seasons had passed!
Large, snow-covered pines extended endlessly out in front of me, with the sunlight reflecting off of it like it was coated in silvery dust. The cold from the outside world easily wove its way into my linens and chilled my skin with its touch. Though I knew it wasn’t a smart idea to travel during the winter, I still felt like I was overstaying my welcome if I stayed with Rick’Ta any longer than I already had.
“Can you take me to Ravenswood Gorge? The journey home is safe from there.”
“Yes, but traveling is not a good idea, Leer-Lin.”
“I must return home,” I said and made up an excuse. “I have a family that probably thinks I’m dead.”
We argued for a bit, but eventually, I convinced Rick’Ta to take me to Ravenswood Gorge and we left the next morning.
Our journey was silent, awkwardly silent. Rick’Ta had that pensive stare about him whenever he had something on his mind so I trailed behind him and gave him his space. It took two days until I finally felt the need to say something.
“I really do appreciate what you did for me, Rick’Ta,” I said, “I would have died alone in the woods if not for you.”
Rick’Ta nodded and said, bluntly, “It was my duty to do so.”
“Yes, but still. Thank you. I just wish there was a way I could repay you for the kindness you have shown me.”
“Live your life, Leer-lin. That would repay me greatly. I—”
Hidden by the forest, there was the sudden twanging of a bow followed by the whistle of an arrow that found its mark in Rick’Ta’s chest. Two more followed it in rapid succession, each finding the same mark.
“Great shot!” A voice called out in perfect Akronian.
Too stunned to move, I watched in horror as Rick’ta stumbled back toward me, clutching at the arrows. After a few steps, he fell backward—gasping for air with labored breaths.
“No!” I shouted and dove forward to catch him before he collapsed but was too slow and his body collapsed into the snow with a soft crunch. Quickly, I was at his side still horrified at what I had just witnessed. Blood pooled out the sides of his mouth as gargled choking noises escaped his lips. Footsteps approached, crunching snow underfoot.
“You bastards!” I shouted, “He wasn’t even a threat! He was helping me!”
The Akronian Rangers said something back but I focused my attention back on Rick’Ta. I carefully touched his wounds and then hastily dug into my adventurer’s pouch for the healing salve.
“No,” choked Rick’Ta. He grabbed my hand in his. Even in his dying moments, his grip was powerful.
“I must save you!” I said, “You must live!”
“No. My time. . . has come.”
This was all my fault. If we didn’t go on this ridiculous journey. . . What was the point of this journey? Rick’Ta’s body shivered. Tears came to my eyes, blurring my vision. Then, suddenly, Rick’Ta became very calm.
“You. . . you carry the history of my people now. Mine are all gone. . . killed by Akronians years ago.”
“No. . .”
“Live well, Leer-lin.”
Rick’ta took his final breath and then went very still. If ever there was a most dolorous blow, it was this moment. I broke down, weeping over Rick’Ta as the Akronian Rangers surrounded me.
“Sergeant Learlin!” one of them said, “What a most glorious day that we find you. Those must be tears of joy knowing that you won’t be this beast’s prisoner anymore.”
I didn’t even look at the ranger. My attention was fixed on Rick’Ta. Even in death, there was soft kindness in his eyes.
“I wasn’t a prisoner,” I said, quietly.
“Well, whatever you were, we should go. Direwolves can smell blood miles away. They are bound to pick up the scent of this stinking animal.”
I was too numb to move on my own so the rangers got me to my feet and led me away. After a few steps, I looked back and gazed upon Rick’Ta’s body in blood-soaked snow. In that moment of guilt, sorrow, and shame; a flash of clarity came upon me. Though I never once uttered the word, Rick’Ta was my friend. I understood then that, though people have their differences bound by self-imposed borders and walls: kindness and love have no bounds.