Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Nellehseran, Chapter Two

By: Michael Akerman


(You should read chapter one first)

As the sun reached the midpoint of its daily journey, Kilrik began to feel a little peckish, but ignored his hunger as he normally did at lunch. Only a few moments passed before he heard a low, squelching groan from beside him. He turned to Nell, who had stopped in the road, blushing and glancing away as she grasped her abdomen. She looked sideways at him, smiling sheepishly. “Do you have any food?” she asked, scrunching up her nose and shrugging her shoulders.

Kilrik chuckled, pulling open his belt satchel as he looked around for a convenient place to eat. “Sorry,” he said, “I normally skip lunch. We’re in a nice, empty part of the road, though, so let’s just eat in the grass.” The stretch of road they were walking lay next to a low hillock rising out of the swamp. The land immediately surrounding this small dry patch was even less suitable for farming than most of the region, sinking in a stinking mire of drowning vegetation. As a result, the area lay uncultivated, the nearest farmers reduced by distance to animated dolls wandering about their toy farms. A small ditch separated the hill from the road, tracing an overgrown line of amber grasses that obscured part of the hill.

As soon as Nellehseran stepped over the small ditch to climb the hill, she stopped, arching her eyebrows. Sniffing the air, she clapped her hand to her face as she bent double, coughing and retching while she stumbled back out into the street. Rik ran over to her, gripping her shoulders in concern.

“What happened?” he asked, pulling her back gently until he could see her face.

Starting to regain her composure, Nell pointed toward the ditch. “Over there!” she coughed. “It smelled just… awful!” She coughed a few times more before wiping her eyes off. Breathing deeply, she staggered about in small circles, hands on her hips. Finally, she closed her eyes and, holding her breath for a few seconds, exhaled deeply. “I’m all right now,” she concluded.

Kilrik looked toward the ditch. “I’m going to go check it out,” he stated. Nell watched as he stepped into the ditch. The ground sank unpleasantly beneath his boot, squelching in the fetid marsh water. A pungent scent of rotting flesh rose to meet him from the tall grasses lining the ditch. Steeling himself against the aroma, Rik searched the grasses as he walked along the depression. Shortly, a sharp snap came from underfoot. Rik looked down at the broken arrow beneath his boot and parted the next clump of brush.

Within, in order of appearance, were a pair of leather shoes and a skeletal lower leg attached to a bloated thigh rapped in wool, over which crossed a similar leg in an intact woolen pant leg. These were followed by a swollen and broken torso, the chest marked with an excessive number of long-hafted arrows. A rib cage caved around a gaping, moist wound crawling with maggots, and a pair of skeletal arms with bits of still-hanging flesh splayed wildly across the ground. A skull wearing a leather cap grinned at a nearby quiver whose arrows spilled on the ground, their iridescent green flights caked in mud. No bow was to be seen, but a rusting short sword lay trapped under the quiver, pointing toward an iron kite shield laying face down in the marsh.

Kilrik stepped gingerly over the rotting corpse, frowning. Gripping the shaft of an arrow protruding from the body, he pulled, the flesh giving with a foul sigh. Holding the more malodorous end of the arrow away from him, he turned and picked up the shield before rushing back into the road, gasping for fresh air.

As he came up the slope of the road, he held up the arrow, showing Nellehseran the brown flights and the pattern of a broad stripe nestled between two narrow stripes painted on the shaft. “Some poor fellow is down there. Looks like bandits got him some time ago,” he explained.

“Any idea who he was?” Nell asked, worried. “Shouldn’t we tell someone?”

Rik threw the arrow back into the ditch before turning over the shield. Mud covered the surface, so Rik set to work on cleaning it off with a few splashes of wine from his wineskin and a rough wool cloth from his satchel. Satisfied, he held up the face of the shield to inspect it.

“Argent a dog sejant Gules over a saltire Or,” he mumbled, pondering. Nell frowned, furrowing her brow.

“What?” she asked when Rik failed to explain. He turned the shield toward her. A red dog sat in profile in front of a large golden X that crossed the silver shield.

“I think this is the coat of arms of the Provincial Guard,” Kilrik clarified. “There’s an office in the next town. If we take it there, they should be able to recognize it and send someone.” Gingerly, Kilrik tugged at the straps meant to hold the shield over the shoulder or on the arm. They crumbled beneath his touch. Kilrik rifled through his satchel with one hand, drawing out a pair of leather straps, eight iron nails and a small hammer. Through both ends of each strap he punched two holes which he lined up just next to the original nail holes in the shield. Pounding the nails in, he replaced his tools in his satchel, held the straps and vigorously shook the whole construction. Satisfied, he threw the shield over his shoulder.

Nell stared at him while he worked. Once he had finished, she grinned at him. “Wow. You’re really prepared!” she exclaimed. “Is there anything you don’t have in that little bag?”

“Oh, it was part of my training to carry the essentials,” Kilrik explained, somewhat evasively. “Speaking of which, let’s find a better spot and have a bite to eat!” Removing themselves a short way up the road, the pair finally lunched on the sturdy breads and cheeses Kilrik carried, washing it down with draughts from his wineskin and talking about everything inconsequential, carefully avoiding the subjects of corpses, pasts, large men with staves and scintillating golden spheres.

Sunset found the pair finally entering the Golden Forest, the thick woods that marked the Eastern edge of the Velindran Province. Surrounded by the close-growing multitude of the forest’s oak trees, the ancient trade road grew narrow, twining its way through the woods. Nellehseran stood closer to Kilrik, glancing about nervously at the dark groves of undergrowth littering the forest floor. Long shadows lent a looming cast to the surroundings in the light of the evening sun, dimmed by the thick forest. The rough surface of the dark trees stood as if in outline in the red light while the heavy upper boughs of the forest took on the appearance of flame.

The pair continued for some time, silent under the guarded cover of the oaks, the stillness broken only by their footsteps and the occasional sounds of forest creatures. Finally, Nell grasped Kilrik’s hand, leaning close to him. “I don’t get it,” she whispered, the pervasive quiet of the forest affecting her. “I thought this was the Golden Forest, but everything is dark and wet and dim.”

“Oh, you’ve never been here?” Kilrik responded with a lowered voice. “The name is just because of the trade road. Back when Halreln traded with Genream over land, this road carried tremendous amounts of wealth. It was probably a little bit nicer back then, though. There are tales of merchants who travelled this road in wonderful caravans, carrying fine goods through…”

Nell nodded as he continued, brushing her bangs out of her eyes as she looked around. “Pardon me, but Rik,” she interjected politely after a few moments, “can we stop soon? We’ve been travelling all day, and we really ought to find a nice, safe place to sleep together before nightfall.”

Kilrik blushed at her overt suggestion, turning away. “You mean to camp. Yes, well, there’s a stream coming up. We should be able to camp on the banks.”

True to Kilrik’s word, a small bridge crossed the road after a few minutes of walking. Here, the oppression of the forest’s dim canopy subsided and the slanting rays of the setting sun painted the black trees crimson. The stream’s steady murmur broke through the dead silence of the forest, lending an air of comfort unfelt elsewhere on the long trade road. Kilrik turned off the road, leading Nellehseran along the grassy bank of the little brook, following the water to a small level patch of land secluded by the trees.

“I’m going to get a fire started,” Kilrik said, setting down his satchel and turning toward the forest to collect wood. “There’s nothing like a hot meal after a long day!” he shouted back to Nellehseran, who was climbing down to the stream. She crouched beside the water, smiling at a startled frog that leapt away from her. Cupping her hands, she lifted the clear water to her coral-pink lips, slipping the liquid into her mouth through the thin channel formed between her palms. A trickle escaped down Nell’s chin. She giggled as it tickled her neck, then she wiped her face and neck and looked down into the stream.

In the pure water, small silver fish darted about, plying the current and chasing small insects. Nellehseran watched them swimming, mouth agape in her delight at the dancing delicate forms. A piece of fallen wood came floating downstream, turning gracefully in the eddying flow. The little fish scattered in panic, flitting to the banks as the log passed, then darted back. Nell stood, smiling, and looked back toward where Kilrik was collecting firewood. He had just returned, and was busily sorting the collected timber into tinder, kindling and fuel.

“Rik!” Nell called back to him. “You simply must come observe these little fish! They’re delightful!” Kilrik arched his eyebrow and walked down to the stream. Crouching beside Nell, he watched the fish. Panfish darted about in the stream, swimming between the rocks of the streambed. Nell grabbed his arm with both hands, her eyes fixed on the water. “Aren’t they pretty?” she whispered, pulling his arm toward her a little.

Kilrik smirked in surprise, caught off guard by Nell's excitement at the simple fish. He looked back at the stream, watching the tiny shapes move about one another, scales flashing red in the late sun. Their tiny bodies whipped back and forth, tails working against the current in a rhythmic monotony. “I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess they are,” Kilrik whispered to Nell, still looking at the water. “You know, I think I’ll catch some."

Nell’s face contorted with distress for a moment. Kilrik looked over at her. Her bright green eyes locked with his as she chewed on her lip.

“What, you don’t want me to?” Kilrik asked her.

“No, it’s fine. I just…” she paused. “Well, I suppose there are a lot of fish regardless. I don’t know, I guess it’s just because I know these fish.” She wrinkled her nose in distaste, looking off into the woods.

“Okay,” Kilrik said, sympathetically. “What if I move down the stream a bit? You won’t know those fish.”

"I guess that's acceptable," Nell replied, smiling thankfully.

Rik walked downstream a few yards and crouched on the bank. Placing his gauntlets aside, he cupped his hand in the water, holding it steady against the stream bed, for all the world like a hollow log trapped in the sand. Inquisitive fish soon grew accustomed to him, swimming carelessly next to his hand. As one of the panfish finally brushed his palm, he slowly closed his hand, slipping the fish from the water. Swiftly wielding a long belt knife, Kilrik pierced the top of the bream's head, killing it instantly. This he repeated until he had collected four fish. He carried the fish back to the camp by the tails, grasping two in each hand. Using a low rock as a table, he quickly cleaned the fish, tossing their entrails into the woods. Standing, he sliced four green sticks off of a nearby oak, spearing the bream from throat to tail. Piling his collected tinder, he jammed a thick piece of kindling into the ground at an angle, jutting the stick over the tinder. He leaned a small handful of kindling against this support, building an elevated lean-to over the tinder. Finally, he struck a flint from his satchel with his belt knife, the sparks catching in the tinder. As the flames slowly enveloped the kindling, he added small fuelwood to the fire and planted the fish on their spears around the little fire pit.

In short order, Kilrik and Nellehseran were sitting close by the fire, munching on the roasted fish and the hardy cheese and diluted wine Kilrik carried with him. They whiled away the minutes, chatting amiably, until Nell, unused to the wine, giggled, pointing at Kilrik's leg. "I just noticed, you have a wing on your leg!"

Kilrik suddenly grew somber. Nell grabbed his arm, apologetically. "What's wrong?" she asked. "I didn't mean to..."

"No, it's fine," Kilrik interrupted. "It's just... a mark from my past. Like this wing on my sword." He indicated the golden wing stretching from the hilt of his sheathed sword. "But that's all behind me, now," he said, wistfully.

They sat silent for a moment. Kilrik finished his fish, throwing the bones over his shoulder. Leaning back onto his elbows and looking out across the stream, he said, "Nell, I've been curious about something."

"Hmm?" she responded, taking a bite of the fish.

"Why are you running?"

It was Nell's turn to grow somber. After a moment, she sighed. "It's my father. He's always been controlling, but he locked me away when my hair and eyes changed colors."

"Changed colors?"

"Yes, when I was about eleven, I think." She paused for a moment. "I stayed until today because I had no one else. Recently, though, I found a book in his collection, and I learned why he had locked me up. He wanted to..." She inhaled deeply, her voice quivering with rage. "He wanted to Subdue me."

She spoke the word as if it was capitalized. "Subdue?" Rik asked. "What do you mean?"

"Well, he wanted to break me, to control me because-"

A rough baritone echoed from the woods as Kilrik and Nellehseran turned in shock at the sudden looming shadow that fell over them. "Because her gift was meant for me!"

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman