One of these days I feel sure I'm accidentally going to skip a number...go from seventeen to nineteen or something crazy like that, without even trying.
I had slight difficulties this week. I obviously made all the options too good and some people couldn't decide *cough cough*. So we ended up with three votes for both option 1 and 3. But as my mum is better at deciding these things than my sister *cough cough* is (apparently) she voted (or rather, told me her 'vote') for option three, so I'm going with that.
(But, having said that, some people are also very nice to be reading their dear sister's writing and even commenting. So I'd like to say thanks to some people and also to everyone else who reads this. You guys are great. :D)
Jack pulled me to my feet. “Don’t say anything,” he breathed in my ear. “Just stand still and don’t yell, or scream. Don’t say anything.”
I froze, not daring to move. I almost asked what was wrong until I realised that that would be doing exactly what Jack’d just told me not to do. A small hut crouched before us, the windows dimly lit by a single candle flickering on the sill.
I couldn’t see what the problem was.
Jack’s eyes darted around the brush surrounding us, the bushes to the far right shook a little, and he dragged me into the bush behind us. I stared at the shaking bushes, something was there, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what it was. I could stand it no longer.
“What is it?” I hissed to Jack.
He winced at the sound of my voice. “Shh,” he returned. “No noise.”
“What if the others come through?” I asked.
His eyes widened and he bit his lip. “Forgot ‘bout them. You stay here. I’ll warn ‘em,” Jack replied in a low whisper.
He slipped out of the bush slowly, creeping toward the slightly visible gap. A snarl stopped him in his tracks. I covered my mouth in horror as wet nose and a pair of glinting eyes emerged from the leaves, followed closely by the rest of the wolf.
Jack stayed perfectly still in his crouched position, eyes fixed on the brown wolf. It snarled again, showing a mouthful of sharp teeth. I tried to shrink back further into the shelter of the bushes, but found I couldn't move. My heart beat faster.
The wolf stepped closer to Jack.
Any moment now and it would attack. It just needed a reason.
“Oi, Jack or whatever your name was! You ready for us to come through?” Ana’s voice came from the other side of the shrubs.
With a growl the wolf leapt.
Jack made a desperate movement to get out of the way, but the animal moved like lightning. He fell as the wolf slammed into him.
A scream tore from my throat as the white teeth clamped down on Jack’s upraised arm. His yell of pain joined my cry of terror.
I scrambled backward, away from the fight, falling over a dead branch on the ground. My thoughts steadied and I gripped the branch. I had to do this. Standing, I took a shaking breath.
Refusing to think about my actions, I charged forward, and swung the stick as hard as I could at the wolf’s head. It hit with a hard crack and the dead stick snapped in half, leaving me with a small stump as the other part spun away to land in a pile of dead leaves.
The wolf released Jack’s arm and turned on me before I could make a move to run. My back met the ground with a thud that drove the air from my lungs. I gasped for breath, staring up at the blood-smeared mouth above my face. The wolf’s forelegs were planted on either side of my head and its bared teeth were but centimeters from my eyes.
A piercing whistle came from somewhere to the left, and a voice followed it. “Git off ‘er! Off, ye crazed brute!”
The wolf looked up and I was suddenly able to breathe again.
“Off, I said!” the voice came again.
With obvious reluctance, the wolf stepped away, slinking backwards from the owner of the voice.
A clean shaven, middle-aged man came into view, bending down to offer me a hand. I stood a little shakily, taking deep breaths to slow my heart rate.
Ana appeared from the bushes, charging out with her sword in hand. “What is it? What’s wrong?” she bust out, her gaze scanning the clearing.
A low moan stopped me from answering. The man turned away and hurried to Jack. I took one glance at his white face and the red coating his shirt and felt my stomach heave. I looked away hastily, barely stopping myself from throwing up.
Ana took my arm to steady me. “The wolf over there. Did it…?”
I nodded, blinking to clear my vision. “The man only just stopped it,” I said unsteadily.
Ana turned as Maree emerged from the path, James appearing just after her. “It’s okay,” then she glanced at Jack and grimaced. “Kind of.”
Maree pressed her lips together and went to Jack. She looked at the man bending over him. “Do he be alreeght?” she asked.
“He’ll be okay after a little treatment,” came the reply.
I sighed with relief. A foggy wave swept over me and I shook my head, my vision was fading. My legs crumpled beneath me and I fainted.
I woke to a sense of warmth and safety that I hadn’t felt for what seemed like ages. People were moving about around me, and a wonderful smell wafted through the air.
I opened my eyes.
Ana was waving a bowl below my nose. She grinned when I looked up at her. “I figured that’s wake you up. Maree told us you hadn’t eaten for days,” she said.
I took the bowl from her, sitting up and taking in my surroundings while eating the warm soup. I was sitting on a low divan against the wall, and everyone else was scattered around the room, each with their own bowls.
The man and Jack were nowhere to be seen.
The food helped to clear my mind and I felt better than I had for days. I suddenly realised that the man must be Jack’s hermit. I blushed inwardly, glad no one knew that it’d taken me so long to work it out.
At that moment the hermit entered. He looked around. “Well, I’m sure you’re all eager to hear about me,” he said, rubbing his hands together. “We didn’t really get much time for introductions, sorry.”
He nodded at the door. “The wolf used to be a pet, but went wild. I should have driven it away, but…” he trailed off and shrugged. “I am, as you probably know, the Hermit of the forest. Jack has been a friend of mine for some time.”
“How is he?” I asked, unable to contain myself.
The hermit turned to me smiling. “Quite well, he wanted to get up, but I wouldn’t let him. I guess you’ll all be wanting to get on your way soon enough, what with all the soldiers around the place.”
“How did ye be knowin’?” Maree asked swiftly.
“A hermit sees more ‘an many ordinary people,” he chuckled. “I’ve a cart that will be quite suited to bringing you lot into the town. I’m also in need of my monthly supplies so it’s perfect timing.” He tapped his chin thoughtfully, “I’m runnin’ out of me grapes y’ see,” he explained. “They’ve got some wonderf’ly big ‘uns down in the markets.” He shook himself, “But never mind about that, what are yours names?”
“I be Maree,” Maree spoke up first.
“I’m Louise Conwell,” I put in.
James and Ana exchanged a glance, then Ana cleared her throat. “Well, since it seems we’ve got our lot thrown in with you, I guess it’s just right that you know our names,” she hesitated a moment.
I sat up straight, I’d almost forgotten that James and Ana were merely cover names.
“I am Leonora Maysdaughter. Lieutenant of the Royal Outriders of Eirerandil, in the service of King Azruen,” she turned to her brother. “And this is Eumin Quest, tactical advisor to the king and…” she shrugged and then finished, “My brother.”
The hermit was the first to break the silence. “I am honoured t' become acquainted with you,” he said. “Am I right to guess that your reason to be 'n Feâ Sirih is confidential information?”
Leonora lifted a shoulder. “Aye, we’re just looking for someone.” She glanced at Maree, “Same someone as two years ago, in fact. We know a bit more now though.”
I could tell from her face that nothing more would be said on the topic and I refrained from asking questions. I returned to my emptying bowl, spooning the last bit into my mouth.
“Am I allowed out yet?” A yell from the small room off to the side caught everyone’s attention.
The hermit sighed. “I guess so. If you must.”
“It’s only my arm,” Jack called back. “It surely can’t hurt to walk.” He entered a few seconds later, looking a little pale still, but smiling. He was wearing different clothes that looked like they were made for someone much older, but at least were clean, and his arm was wrapped in a bandage.
The hermit shook his head and went outside for some water for more soup. He returned sooner than expected and closed the door quickly behind him. “There’re soldiers scouting around,” he said. “I’m going to have to get you into the town now, before they start looking harder.”
My heart quickened as he led the way to a shelter behind the hut, out of the safety of the concealing walls. I immediately felt exposed, sure that a soldier would jump out from the bushes any second.
The hermit beckoned to us, jerking his head at the cart under the rough shelter. “Git in,” he hissed. He turned to the side, going toward a narrow track that led out of the clearing.
Leonora vaulted on board and I scrambled up behind her, using the wheel as a step. Maree scrambled up behind me, catching her foot on the edge and crashing into me as she tried to stop herself from falling. I staggered but kept my balance.
Jack tried to climb up but fell back, his face contorting in pain. Eumin hoisted him up deftly and followed. The Hermit reappeared, leading two donkeys. These he harnessed to the cart and then turned to us.
“Y’re going to have to lie down an’ I’ll cover you with these,” he kicked a bundle of animal skins on the ground.
An awkward scrambling ensued as we proceeded to do as he asked, lying down among the couple of boxes already on the cart. The hermit tossed the thick skins over us, fussing around for several minutes.
Jack’s face was close to mine and I could see him wincing every time he moved. “There!” the hermit said at last. “All set to go to town.”
The cart began to move. My shoulder jolted into a crate and I pulled my legs up to avoid kicking Leonora in the head. The cart rumbled on, the sound of donkey’s hooves clopping on the damp ground.
A particularly big jolt dragged a groan from between Jack’s lips. He lay with his eyes closed and I could see a trickle of sweat run down his forehead.
The road seemed endless, full of roots and potholes. The donkey cart just kept on going.
When I could hardly bear the stifling heat under the skins anymore a man hailed the hermit from the side of the road, calling for him to halt. I felt the cart slowly rumble to a stop.
Two trotting horses approached and I hardly dared to breathe.
“Were looking for three fugitives,” a gruff voice spoke. “Were having to search every cart that comes in or out of the town. Yours included.”
1. The hermit laughed. “Sure an’ go ahead. I’ve got a couple of fugitives in the back o’ this cart.”
2. “Aww, there’s not going t’ be anything in the hermit’s cart. He not right enough in the head to smuggle anythin’,” the voice of another soldier replied with a touch of scorn.
3. “Oh, ye’d better not look under the skins. I’m takin’ a sacred relic t’ the chapel, I am. Any man as touches it – or looks at it –’ll be fried like a steak. Unless, o’ course, they’re religious men, an’ that’s somethin’ you ain’t,” the hermit warned.
I must say, this fragment was slightly unexpected for me. I didn't really have any plan, but I just started writing. After all:
“At the worst times, the best plan was often no plan. And Ky excelled at coming up with no plan.” ~ Orphan's Song by Gillian Bronte Adams
On that note I'll leave you to decided which option/alternate future is your favourite.
Fare Thee Well!