Chapter 1: A Small Fire

It was a small fire. But as he sat there, shivering and bundled in his woolen blanket and oiled overcoat, Chindren couldn’t help but smile at his success. He took a deep breath of the cold, damp air and let it out in a puff of breath as he rubbed his hands over the flame. In the distance, squirrels chattered and birds called out to their mates, beckoning them out of the rain. Chindren pulled a piece of hard bread out of his coat pocket and gnawed at it, his stomach growling with hunger. I must ration myself, he thought wisely, else I will not last long.

Though he had never ventured far from home before, he knew the area from the few times he and his uncle and cousins would come out this way in the cart to get supplies from the next town. In fact he knew it well. While his cousins would kill the time bickering amongst themselves, he would be staring off into the rustic scenery as they drove by, observing every nook and every cranny—every moss-covered rock or broken tree limb.

He had camped about a quarter-mile south of the main road—far enough away that he couldn’t be seen from the road, but not so far as to be out of earshot. He wanted to hear every cart and carriage that drove down the road, in case someone decided to try and come after him. He had toyed with the idea of not leaving Aunt Evelyn a note, but he knew if there was anyone at all in the world he could trust, it was her.

He had spent the first few days travelling down the East road, and camping in the brush not too far away from it, but he would travel no further by road now. It had rained the whole time, which he was partially thankful for, as it would help to conceal his tracks, but it was cold and miserable and he had almost forgotten what it felt like to be warm. This was the first night he had been able to start a fire at all. But the rain was letting up, and he had already travelled far enough on the road. He had no intention of going into town and so tomorrow morning he would set south towards the Minnoa river and onwards into the southern lands.

Even as he sat there, rubbing his hands together trying to catch a bit of warmth from the small fire and his teeth chattering in the cold, he had never felt so alive. He was filled with an invigorating feeling of empowerment and of being for the first time in control of his own destiny that he barely even felt the cold. Water dripped off his brow and hung like crystal earrings from his earlobes, dripping occasionally onto his slick overcoat. His leather shoes were completely soaked through and his feet were numb, but the constant walking had kept them warm enough to avoid any fear of gangrene, and at least his blanket was dry enough beneath his coat. He put the stale piece of bread back into his pocket and pulled himself under a haphazard shelter of felled tree limbs that provided at least a modicum of protection from the constant rain. The fire would not last long, he knew, but he was asleep long before it went out.

* * *

He awoke to the sound of a red-tailed hawk patrolling the skies in search of a much needed meal, and was startled to open his eyes to a clear sky. He shrugged off the damp remnants of sleep and arose from his slumber perhaps as refreshed as anyone has ever been after a night out in the rain. He stretched his arms high into the sky as he worked his tired muscles, tight from the scrunched form he had slept in to keep warm. Then he noticed the column of smoke in the sky trailing from the west southward.

So they were coming after him.

It was probably his uncle, he thought, out to save his own hide from the humiliation of having a child run away from his care. The rain and clouds had concealed it before, but the dark, tapering column was now plainly visible high up on the western horizon. They’re perhaps a half-day behind me at most, Chindren thought, and much faster on horseback than I am on foot. He got up quickly and did his best to hide the fire and broken tree limbs he had slept under. He grabbed his pack that lay beside the small patch of burnt ground where the fire had been and the bowl he had set out the night before to collect rainwater. He topped up his canteen, which was mostly full already, having had an abundant supply of rainwater from the previous night, and set out cross-country to the south.

The morning was crisp and cool, and though it had finally stopped raining, the air still had a bite to it that he could not seem to shrug off; but as he made his way through the rough ground and broken brambles he began to work up enough body heat to combat it. Unfortunately this did nothing to bide his hunger, and his stomach growled in reminder of this unfortunate state.

By midday, his hair was finally dry and he was beginning to feel in better health. He breathed in deeply the cool late-summer air as he looked out upon the land that was now his only home.

Then he heard something that made him stop dead in his tracks: a dog baying. He stood silent for a few moments to make sure he had indeed heard it and was about to shrug it off when he heard it again, from somewhere behind him to the north. They had found his trail. Fortunately his pursuers would have been forced to abandon their horses at the road as the terrain was far too difficult to maneuver with any speed on horseback, but with dogs tracking him he had little hope of outrunning them. He was wet and sweaty and they could probably smell him a mile away.

No, he couldn’t outrun them. His only chance was to make it to the Minnoa. He would swim downstream for several miles to where the river turned into Barrowgate Falls, and the rapids that preceded it, then pull himself to safety before the current swept him over the falls. The river would mask his trail from the dogs, but he knew they would probably pick it up again before too long, as there were not many places he could go between here and the falls, and swimming upstream was out of the question.

His heart sank at the thought of being wet again after only having just dried out for the first time in days, but it was the only option. If he merely crossed the river they would easily pick up his trail again on the other side. He needed to buy himself a few hours’ lead.

He heard the dogs bay again, this time slightly closer, and he took off at a slow run. He was already tired from having walked all morning without a break, but could not afford respite now. He scolded himself for not bringing more food, but there had been little in the house to take, and he hadn’t had enough time to properly prepare his escape. Luckily he still had a piece of hard cheese wrapped in oilcloth that he was saving for later.

Knowing his bread would be worthless after his pending swim, he pulled it out and began chewing on it awkwardly as he ran down the side of a rather large hill the other side of which he had spent the last hour gradually climbing. Fortunately the ground was easier here, and consisted mostly of sparse pines and a blanket of pine needles.

The same hawk he had heard that morning cried out. It was warning him. The dogs were close now. The river was perhaps another mile—he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. He needed something to slow the dogs down… but what? He couldn’t very well stop and fight. Just then, as he was nearing the bottom of the hill, he heard a deep growl and looked to his right as he skidded to a halt on the soft ground.

It was a huge black bear. The bear rose onto his hind feet and growled again, raising his snout to the sky and bearing his teeth. Chindren dared not move a muscle. The animals he had befriended in the forest back home were small critters, nothing larger than a fox. He had never in his life encountered a beast such as this. Chindren’s heart raced; he tried to calm himself down and find the inner peace that allowed him to commune with the animals, but he was so exhausted from running and his heart pumping with fear that he could not.

The bear fell back onto all fours and slowly walked towards him. Chindren was paralyzed. Breathing hard through his mouth, he swallowed hard. Slowly he held out the bread he was carrying as the great bear approached. The bear sniffed it twice and grunted his lack of interest, then bore his teeth again when the dogs barked in the distance.

Go, child, something in Chindren’s mind seemed to echo. Chindren looked at the bear. Could it have been him? No, her, it was definitely a her. Wait, how did he know that? He could feel her; he could feel the bear! It was unlike anything he had experienced before. This bear was wise—wiser than he had expected any animal could be—and old, and she was trying to help him!

Without another thought he took off. He was relieved, thankful, and frightened out of his wits all at once that he dared not stay another moment. He glanced behind to see the bear facing North, waiting for the dogs. His foot caught on a bramble or root and he almost went over, but luckily managed to turn around and keep his footing. He had completely forgotten about the piece of bread in his hand until he saw it flying through the air in front of him. No time for that now, he thought as he watched it fall into a leafy bush full of little red berries. Something about the berries looked familiar but his mind was on other things and he was too intent on escape to remember what it was… something his Aunt had taught him; that was all he could remember.

As he continued to make his way across land, which had now turned to a wide grassy meadow, he heard the dogs baying again behind him. Then the barking turned to a vicious barking and finally a yelp, then silence. He silently thanked his new friend, but hoped she had only wounded the dog and not killed it, for he knew it was not the dog that was his enemy. Then he heard a sound that made his blood run cold: a gunshot. He wrung his fists in anger as he ran across the field, as he thought of what they must have done to the bear. Tears streamed down his face as he ran, chilling his face in the cool afternoon air.

Why had they brought guns? Surely they had no need for a gun to capture and bring Chindren back to Willowbrook. Unless it was not capturing they intended to do at all. Chindren’s mind raced with the implication, but he could not fathom why anyone would want to kill him. Just as he had no friends among the townspeople, he similarly had no real enemies that he was aware of. He left them alone and they returned the favour.

The thought that these pursuers might be out to harm him had made the blood drain from Chindren’s face. Maybe they were just hunters thinking they’re on the trail of a deer. But surely the dogs would know the difference in scent of a human from a deer, and unless they were the poorest trackers ever, they could surely tell a bootprint from a hoofmark. Something just didn’t add up.

Despite his exhaustion, Chindren now ran in a cold sweat. He no longer ran for his freedom; he ran for his very life. He glanced behind him again and could see movement in the trees on the far side of the clearing, just as he was himself reaching the cover of trees on his side. He jumped over a thornberry bush and nearly lost his footing as he came down a small drop on the other side. They will be upon me any moment now, he thought frantically. Just as he was about to crouch down and hide in the ditch he had so accidentally discovered, he realized there was a faint whooshing sound, as if water falling over rocks. He ran a few more paces, through a think outcropping of trees and out into the open air, high atop a ravine that overlooked a great river, still churning an incredible amount of water despite the lateness of the season. He had made it to the Minnoa.

* * *

The majestic river flowed in a more or less easterly direction toward the deadly falls several miles downstream. Even here, the water was choppy and full of rocks and white water. It was also a hundred or so feet below.

As he stood there, looking out over the wide river at the tall bank on the other side and no apparent means to get there from where he stood, Chindren took a moment to catch his breath. He had precious few moments and had to think of something quick. Already he could hear the yelling of his pursuers behind him. Chindren looked down again. There were sharp jagged rocks not ten feet out from the point where the clifface met the river. The area in between looked sound, but he had no way of telling how deep it was as the angle he stood at and the motion of the water made it opaque. He knew the river was quite deep in places, but death by falling or a shotgun blast to the chest made little difference in the end.

He glanced along either direction along the tall bank but there were few footholds and in many cases trees and taller sections of cliff came right to the edge, making it impossible to traverse with the urgency he faced. Then he noticed a few paces off in the other direction along the bank an old tree’s roots had jutted out beneath the ledge and hung down like thick vines towards what looked like a small ledge, partially hidden from where he stood. With no better option presenting itself, he quickly but carefully made his way to the tree, being careful to keep a sure footing on the loose rock. He carefully lowered himself over the edge of rock that still supported the huge tree and dangled his feet below until he made contact with one of the thick, twisted roots.

Letting go with one hand, he turned his head downward to get a better view when his foot slipped on the root and, unable to hold himself up with one hand, he went down. Luckily he landed somewhat painfully on the large root he had initially stepped on, and grabbing another with his hands was able to save himself from ending up with some finality on the rocks at the bottom of the ravine. Just as he did so, he heard voices atop the ledge. Quickly, he pulled himself deeper into the tangle of roots that he now saw extended deep into what was almost a small cave, no doubt carved out by the thirsty roots over dozens of years.

Breathing as quietly as he could—which was no small feat unto itself, given his current state of exhaustion—he hugged his body as close to the deepest roots as he could in attempts to conceal himself from his topward observers.

“He came this way; I’m sure of it,” one of the voices said.

“Are you sure he didn’t double back and take off down the bank?” another said.

“Impossible. He wouldn’t have had time.”

Oddly, Chindren didn’t recognize either of the voices. It must not be his uncle after all. Perhaps they were after a criminal on the loose and had mistaken Chindren for a fugitive. But he wasn’t about to take any chances.

“Well he sure didn’t jump.”

“You so sure ’bout that? Why don’t you take a go at it and we’ll know for sure.”

“Always the joker, eh Clint? You better watch that lip or it’ll be you who goes over the edge, with a few ounces of lead in your chest for ballast. Don’t forget who’s got the gun.”

“Yeah I saw how you handled that bear. Sloppiest damn shooting I ever saw.”

“It did the trick.”

Chindren closed his eyes at the thought, barely able to muffle the whimper that wanted to escape his throat.

“Alright, you take East I’ll take West. He couldn’t have gone far. Wait a minute, what’s this?” Chindren held his breath, his heart pounding in his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut. Just then, from somewhere atop the cliff and out of sight he heard a familiar growl. Chindren’s eyes popped open just as a body came hurtling over the ledge, screaming as it plummeted toward its rocky grave below. Shouts and another gunshot sounded from somewhere above Chindren, then another growl, and another gunshot.

“Nooo!” Chindren yelled without thinking, anger and rage having replaced his fear. He pulled himself out of his hiding place as he frantically pulled himself up to get a view of what was happening above him. On the edge of the cliff lay a rather large man holding the side of his torso as blood pooled on the rocks beside him. He was breathing heavily but was mortally wounded and unable to move.

The shotgun lay several feet away from him on the other side of his body. Six or seven feet away beyond that lay a huge bulk of black fur, matted in places with dark red. The bear was also breathing heavily, but much more slowly. Chindren scampered up the ledge and quickly grabbed the shotgun that lay beside the big man. Chindren had never seen the man before.

He pointed the shotgun at him and demanded, “Who are you?” but the man remained silent. Still enraged by what the man had done to the bear, Chindren booted him in the side, which made him grunt, and demanded more sternly, “Who are you, and why were you following me? Answer me!” he said, when the man made no attempt to reply. He aimed the gun more deliberately at the man’s head.

“Sent…” the man finally managed to speak, “to find you, Heretic.” Chindren didn’t know what a heretic was and so let the man continue. “The Father of Mages knows…” He coughed a horrid gurgling sound, bright red blood trickling down the side of his cheek. “He knows of you.” With this, the man, clearly in a lot of pain, lifted his head to look Chindren in the eye. “And your father,” he said with contempt. With his final ounce of strength, the dying man managed to spit at Chindren, missing him but making his message clear. “Death to all you heretics. Death to you all!” His trailing words were drowned in a final gurgle of blood that spewed forth from his mouth as his head fell backwards with a thwack onto the stone. Chindren threw the shotgun down and went to the bear.

“Don’t die,” he cried, tears welling up in his eyes. “You saved my life.”

Do not cry for me, little one. Chindren felt the emotion more than heard the words, and knew them to be the true voice of the bear’s spirit. Still, it only made him cry more. I am old and my life has been long. You are young, but destined for things you cannot yet fathom. My life is but a small price to pay for the hope that lies within you. Seek it, and you will discover your true calling. There is so much you do not yet know, Windrider. Listen to the animals. They will guide you; but you must go. There are others who yet seek you. These were but two. I have bought you time, but you are not safe yet. Follow the hidden path and it will lead you to where you need to go.

“Please,” Chindren begged. “I will help you. I will tend your wounds. I need your help, I cannot find the way alone.”

You will find it, Windrider, if you seek it with your heart instead of your eyes. You have the gift. Know this. There is no time for me; I am already lost. But we shall meet again. Go now. Seek the path.

Chindren rose, tears still streaming down his face as he watched the great bear, his friend, take her last laboured breaths, steam rising from her open muzzle. Chindren bent and wrapped his arms around the bear’s huge form. “Thank you. Thank you great one, for saving my life. I will never forget you.” But the bear spoke no more. Her breathing continued to slow until it finally stopped altogether, and a final cloud of breath escaped the bear’s lungs to dissipate in the chill air.

Chindren stood and wiped away the tears upon his cheeks. “I will avenge your death, great one. Whoever sent these men will pay for your death in their blood. I swear it.” With a final surge of rage, Chindren picked up the shotgun and with a yell, hurled it off the edge of the cliff to crash into the white waters of the churning river below.

The story continues…

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 1:33 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hey buddy ^_^ Awesome story, I love it. Keep it coming 😛 🙂 … need a helping hand with programming sigh, I seriously dont understand it, so thats why I have started from the basics…… from a fat vb book.

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