Tragedy of the Raven Part 3, Chapter 6
By Prince Nightmare
A long, cold year had passed. Raven could hardly remember what a warm day in Guardia felt like, he was so used to the snow and ice of Gebenhahn. He could not remember what it was like to be so full he couldn't eat more, for finding food in the dense, harsh forests was hard work. More often than not in the winter, they were reduced to eating small rodents. Not even a frozen deer, overcome by the elements, was below their attentions. The savage north did not allow for a any finicky eaters, Raven was finding that out all the time.
Today, he and Vah'ryiah were trying to hunt down snowshoe rabbits that were pure white during the winter, and very hard to see. They had to rely on following the rabbit's tracks while trying to be as silent as they could. Then they would send the wolf Klaveer to sniff out the prey and chase it out of the brush. Vah'ryiah had just sent his shaggy protector off to flush out the game, and the two boys were waiting with their bows ready.
Vah'ryiah had taught Raven how to survive in the cold land that was now his home. Making bows out of green saplings was one of the first things he had learned to do. Their weapons were not the fine, polished war bows of the knights of Guardia, but long and crude looking weapons that looked as much branch as bow. They worked well, however, and using string made from tree bark and sometimes leather, they were especially durable.
Vah'ryiah didn't have to teach Raven much about stalking animals, for as a young child, he had often delighted in sneaking up on the deer, birds, and foxes that lived in the Guardia Forest. Years of silence helped, for Raven was not apt to break out into loud talk while hunting. The hardest thing that Raven had to learn was dealing with the cold. He was not used to such extreme temperatures and his blood was thin. He had to be especially careful not to get sick and learned the hard way to always repair clothing so no heat escaped.
Now, Raven was becoming more and more used to the climate and didn't suffer as badly. His body was becoming adapted and building up resistance to the temperature. He looked down at his fur lined mitts, complete with holes for his fingers, (it wasn't easy shooting a bow with mitts on...) and smirked. Last winter he would never had been able to go without full protection for his hands, not even for a short time. He glanced back at Vah'ryiah, who was crouched down just behind him, listening for the sounds of scurrying rabbits. He grinned a bit at Raven when he saw his companion look back at him. Silently, Vah'ryiah pointed to a small clearing between two thickets.
"Klaveer will get the rabbit to run through there, so be ready." the pale haired boy whispered to Raven as he inched closer.
Raven nodded and turned his attention back to where Vah'ryiah had indicated. For a few moments, he could hear nothing but his breathing. He flexed his fingers a few times to make sure they weren't stiffening up and was glad to find them still limber. From the distance, Raven could hear Klaveer yip in excitement. He must have found the rabbit's hiding spot. It wouldn't be long now.
It wasn't more than a few seconds later when what seemed to be a large ball of snow rolled out in the open. It was, in fact, the snowshoe rabbit, his camouflage so good he appeared part of the landscape. Startled, the small creature froze, knowing he was in dangerous territory with no brush to hide under.
Raven gasped, for when the rabbit froze, he seemed to actually disappear against the snow. But Vah'ryiah had been hunting rabbits for years and knew exactly what to look for. Without hesitation, he pulled back his bow and let an arrow fly. As usual, it found its mark and the rodent toppled over dead. Vah'ryiah gave Raven a playful punch as he stood up.
"Look for the black eye of the rabbit, then the outline will become more clear." he said, pointing to the dead animal. "See how the eye is the only thing that isn't white? That's how I tell where he's at." Raven nodded and hoped that next time he would remember that tip.
Vah'ryiah picked up the skewered animal and slung him over a shoulder. Klaveer came bounding out of the brush, looking satisfied with himself. He, too, had made a kill. A large rabbit was hanging limply from his jaws.
They decided to skin the rabbits right there and make a small fire to cook them over rather than hiking all the way back on an empty stomach. It took little time to make the almost smokeless fire and cook the small animals. Raven could hardly wait to eat. It had been nearly three days since he had anything but dried venison to chew on. Vah'ryiah was just pulling the rabbit off the stick he had been turning over the fire when Klaveer looked up from where he lay, growling deeply.
Vah'ryiah looked over at him, startled. "What do you smell, Klaveer?" the boy asked his wolf while the big beast continued to growl menacingly. Klaveer leaped up from his resting-place and began to pace nervously back and forth. Vah'ryiah looked at Raven and motioned him over.
Raven crept over on his hands and knees silently, staring towards where Vah'ryiah's eyes were looking. From behind the shrub and trees, he could see two men watching them. They had their bows and arrows ready, but were still too far out of range to use them. One motioned to his partner to circle around the boys. Raven held his breath in as he heard movement from behind him. Several more stepped out from behind the brush. The hunters had them surrounded...
Liegh wiped off the blood from her saber and grinned back at Petyr, who smiled briefly. The bounty had gone very well this time; the head of the traitor to the King of Guardia would be taken to the Royal Court and presented as a gift for the King's birthday. It was Liegh herself who had struck the final blow to the villain who had been found guilty of plotting to overthrow Lycadis and his Court. Just before his trial, the traitor escaped however, and a few of the members of the Brotherhood of the Three Stars was asked to track him down and bring him back, dead or alive.
"You did well, Liegh." Petyr nodded to her as he put a hand on her shoulder. He noticed that she had grown a lot taller in the year since he had first taken her in... Adolescence had made her hit a growth spurt and the once undersized girl was nearly as tall as some of her fellow bounty hunters now. At a glance, one might think her awkward, but Liegh moved with a quick, agile manner that bellied her gangly build.
Liegh sheathed the blade and put a hand on her hip. "He was a coward. He didn't even want to fight face to face, and thought I wouldn't see that poison tipped dagger he held beneath his cloak. I knew his game though."
She had learned much from the Brotherhood since Petyr had adopted her. They had different methods than the Ein'deresch, some might have even called them sneaky and dishonorable, but then again so where the criminals they were ordered to find. You couldn't always fight with honor... it was perhaps the hardest lesson Liegh had to learn about surviving in a harsh world. No longer was she protected by the namesake of the Ein'deresch order. She had to fend for herself now in a world where danger lurked in every Inn and evil lurked in the woods. True, it might not be the all consuming evil of Magus the Black, but cutthroats and bandits posed a real threat to many travelers as opposed to some long dead wizard. Not that she ever forgot her encounter with the young wizard in Guardia during the barbarian raids.
Liegh had vowed to herself to find him one day and she fully intended to show the Hunters that she was the most worthy of them all even if she was only a girl. Her success as a bounty hunter only added to her confidence that it had been the Ein'deresch that were wrong for throwing her to the wind. Women could be warriors too... there were many in the Brotherhood who had reputations for being incredible trackers and fighters. Liegh idolized them, even if some were of a somewhat shady reputation. It didn't matter to Liegh that she was female, she knew she would find the Son of Magus and bring him to justice...someday.
Thinking about this made her wonder. "Petyr...where do you think the barbarians went after the raids? Do you think they went back up to the Northern Continent?"
Petyr grunted as he readied his steed for the long journey back to town. "No doubt lass. They raided, took the food and slaves they wanted, and that was the end of it. They went home."
Liegh swung up on Alheid and patted the impatient horse on the neck. " Why didn't the King send anyone to find them? I bet the Royal Navy could stop a barbarian ship with no problem!"
"Aye, they could at that." Petyr agreed as they began to urge the horses down the dirt path that was a shortcut to the King's palace in the town of Guardia. "But what wisdom would there have been in doing that? Think girl. Why would a King risk his best ships for a few mangy barbarians and perhaps a dozen stolen slaves. It sounds harsh, but it was the right choice. If the barbarians come back to Guardia, we'll be waiting and ready this time."
"But what about the people they stole? Do you think they're alive? Aren't their lives worth it?" Liegh was perplexed. Certainly the world couldn't be so cruel. The Ein'deresch had always believed that life was the most precious of all gifts and should be defend at all costs... if not by the Hunters, then by the Knights of Guardia.
"Lass, no one I know has ever been to the Northern Continent, but rumors say it makes the worst of Guardia seem like paradise. Those people they stole to use as slaves or whatever...they're long dead. There's no way they could have survived up there... no one but those heathens can." He threw a glance at the girl, who had her jaw set in determination. "Why do you ask, lass? Why make it your concern?"
Liegh looked at him, the memory in her mind flashing of a day, more than a year ago, when she had seen the savages. As she rode off, she saw one of them pick up the wizard she had hoped to capture for herself. Her eyes narrowed, she was sure they had taken him to the North to harness his magic. She didn't realize that she had put a hand on her saber handle and was squeezing it tightly.
"Liegh? You all right girl?" Petyr asked, looking at her with alarm. She was a determined person, but rarely had he seen her so enraged.
"There is someone they took that I have to find, Petyr. Someday I will find him, even if I have to go to the North myself."
Only a year had passed and already Aria couldn't remember exactly what her mother and father looked like. Nor could she clearly picture Uncle Glenn or the one called Magus. Her old life was fading rapidly and she could only recall it in dreams. At first, it had been a lonely, frightening time for Aria, but she had begun to find happiness again, finally.
Aria did remember the day Uncle Glenn had left her with Rennard. She had screamed and cried as he planted a kiss on her cheek and then turned to go, saying only, "Be good, Aria. Remember your mother and father are watching, so make them proud." Then he left and she hadn't seen him since. Rennard had tried to comfort her, but he was a stranger and only scared the girl more.
Aria had been taken to work at the Inn, assisting the maids with bed-making and washing dishes. It had been a trial at first for the pampered four and a half year old, who had never known a day that wasn't filled with games and hugs from those she loved. Now she had to learn to work, and work hard, or else the head maid would yell and spank her mercilessly. Olga wasn't known for her patience with children, and she looked for any reason to punish Aria, whom she considered a spoiled brat.
In time, Aria learned that crying only brought punishment. It was better just to bite your lip and get to work; it kept the mind off sad memories. The maids taught aria. Soon she knew how to make beds so tight a gold piece could be bounced off the sheets. She learned how to cook simple things like eggs and pancakes, which she would carry out to the people staying at the Inn. Some of them, especially the traveling merchants that stopped a few times a month, were reminded of their own daughters at home and would bring Aria little presents as they passed through Lenstahn towards Porre. Olga was disgusted, but she said nothing because it seemed that the merchants loved Aria and as long as the customers were happy, Olga would put up with it.
Some of the maids had daughters who were, like Aria, learning to be serving girls and room tenders. One girl, called Breah, was only a year older than Aria. The two became close friends and spent their few free hours in mid afternoon playing together. The two became a familiar sight in the town of Lenstahn as they ran errands together for the Innkeeper, Wysellen, who would often ask them to go fetch him a firestone from the merchant, or a bushel of apples from the farmers. The townsfolk always grinned and waved as the two girls ran the streets to get their appointed tasks finished. They were a great favorite in Lenstahn, and everyone, save for Olga, thought them ideal little girls, friendly, happy, and pretty.
Rennard became like an Uncle to Aria and Breah, partially because he missed Liegh. The day Liegh had been exiled had hurt him more deeply than he cared to admit. Rennard was an honest, open minded young man who had believed in the Ein'deresch and what they had stood for. But after they had turned out a helpless girl, his faith had been crumbling. He never mentioned it to anyone, but he wished he had spoken in defense of Liegh that day. Perhaps he could have changed her fate... but he had been afraid. He hated himself for it now.
As it was, Rennard often asked Wysellen to send the girls out to the Temple for some small, insignificant task. In secret, Rennard taught Aria and Breah to use a dagger and a bow. He knew that if he was caught he, too, would be exiled from the Hunters. But in some way, Rennard believed that perhaps he could atone for his mistake with Liegh by nurturing the budding interest in the two young girls who called him "Uncle Rennie".
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