Sunlight filtered through the branches as we worked our way along the crest of a ridge, staying just below the top to avoid drawing attention. It was summer, so there was an abundance of berries and fruits to be found as we went along. The girl also found wild potatoes, which she placed in a small sack along with the other food we’d collected.
Ahead, I spotted a group of rocks that would give us some cover while we stopped to eat. I approached the area carefully, since others could have done the same as I intended, but no one was around. When I was satisfied, I waved the girl over to me. We found a grouping of smaller rocks that would serve us as a table and chairs.
“I don’t even know what some of these berries are.” The girl laid the bag down on a flat rock and spread it open.
“These are blueberries, and I think they call these gooseberries. This,” I tapped an apple with my finger, “is an apple.”
She glared at me. “I know what an apple is...” She stopped and cocked her head with an odd smile.
I smiled, uncertain of what she was thinking. “What is it?”
“I don’t even know your name.”
“I am Ornthalas, the hunter. And you?”
“I am Vall.”
“Well met, Vall,” I said with a small bow. “Would you join me in this fine meal?”
Vall smiled. “Certainly, my brave hunter.”
We sat down, and I brought out my boot knife, and passed it to her. For myself, I took out my belt knife, and began cutting one of the potatoes into edible chunks. We ate in companionable silence, as we had covered a good bit of ground since morning, and we were both hungry.
“I think we may make it home this night.” I drank from my waterskin, and passed it to Vall.
“Do you live alone?”
“I do. It’s a sawyer’s hut, set out away from the settlement in the forest. It has but one room, which is enough for me.”
Vall nodded. “I’ve never had a real home.” She smiled sadly. “Sometimes, when I’d see a village, I would wonder what such a life would be like.”
“It’s not easy sometimes.” She glanced at me in mild surprise, and I shrugged. “People want to offer their own ways of doing things, even when it’s not the right thing to do.”
“Or, you don’t think it’s the right thing.”
“That is true, too.” I selected an apple, and set it down to cut it up with my knife. “Where will you go now?”
“I don’t know. I have no family, and I have never been so far east, so I cannot even guess at a destination.”
The words were out of my mouth before I even thought about it. “Come with me, then.”
Vall grinned. “I am coming with you. I have no choice.”
“No,” I shook my head. “I meant, stay with me.”
Her grin vanished, and she studied me closely. “Why would you want me to do that?”
“I like you,” I said quickly.
“Hm.” She picked up a gooseberry, and studied it for a moment, then popped it into her mouth. “Your people are humans? Elves? Half breeds?”
“All of these, and even a dwarf.”
Vall nodded. “And how many of them associate with orcs, even the peaceful ones?”
“We don’t turn them away, if that’s what you mean. To be honest, most of the older tribes have moved away.”
She shook her head. “Most of them have been depleted by the wars in the north. Some have moved, yes. Your elven friends; how would they feel?”
I sighed. “They don’t even really accept me, except for my grandfather. They all think my father took away centuries of my mother’s life.”
“Why would she do such a thing?”
“She told me once, that her husband, my father, was worth the battle with her family and friends. Their love, brief though it would be in her lifetime, was worth it.”
“Hm.” Vall feel silent, and went back to her meal.
I finished my meal, and I left the conversation alone. When we were done, I made sure to bury the remains of the meal. That done, I looked around for anyone or anything who may have found our hiding place, but there was nothing to see.
We moved off toward home. I would follow the ridge for a while longer, then cross through a small saddle and move downhill into a denser part of the forest. Some parts of the high trail were rocky, and the going was treacherous, but it was safer than the forest below.
The sun had moved further west when we reached the saddle. The earth had slid away here two summers before during a time of heavy rains, leaving a layer of loose rocks. It was impossible to walk quietly, but we only had to cross the ridge and then we would be back on the forest floor.
“Be careful,” I said to Vall. I reached for her hand without thinking, and she took it.
I glanced at her, and she pretended to ignore me, looking toward her feet instead. I turned my attention to my own feet, lest I fall and take her down with me. We stepped carefully over the treacherous ground; the rocks were flat, and they would slide without warning when we stepped on them.
We were halfway across the saddle when I heard some scrabbling feet on the rocks ahead of us. I looked up to see a huge, black wolf standing in our path. One look told me this was no ordinary wolf. Bare patches of sickly grey hide showed in its matted black hair, and it drooled constantly from a mouth full of yellowed fangs. Its eyes were nearly white, and they were fixed on us with a hungry stare.
I brought up my bow, and I nocked an arrow before the creature could take two steps toward us. Blue fire danced on the fletching as I drew back the string. I could her Vall stepping to my left, her feet sliding on the rocks. I dared not take a step; if I fell, the creature could be on us before I could rise.
Its claws scraping across the grey rock, the wolf snarled, a low rumbling in its massive chest, and stalked toward me. It took two steps, and then I let the arrow fly. The shaft hissed, and buried itself in the wolf’s shoulder.
The wolf snarled in pain, and then it charged. I instinctively stepped to the side while I nocked another arrow – and then my feet slid out from under me, and I went down hard on my left shoulder, smashing my head on the ground.
I rolled to my right, trying frantically to get back on my feet. The wolf scrabbled for footing, but it was still fast enough to reach me ... CRAAACK! A blast of red tinged lightning smashed into the creature from somewhere to my left, and the wolf howled in agony and went down on its belly. I rolled onto my knees, dropped my bow, and drew my sword.
Although it was hurt, the wolf was still intent on attacking me. It clambered to its feet, and I glanced at Vall to see if she had been injured by the lightning. She stood facing the creature, her feet spread for balance. She pointed her first three fingers at the wolf, and barked words that I heard, and then they faded form my mind before I could understand them. Three arrow-like shafts of reddish light burst from her fingers and lanced into the wolf’s body. The wolf howled again and crashed onto its side. It rolled several times, leapt to its feet, and raced away from us until it disappeared back the way it had come.
I was somewhat familiar with magic, and I used the healing arts myself, but I’d never before seen a combat spell used. “Thank you, it would have had me.”
Vall nodded and took a deep breath. “I thought so, too.”
I rose to my feet, sheathed my sword, and picked up my bow. The arrow was broken, so I picked another from my quiver and fitted it to the bowstring. “Can you do that again?”
“I, um, have one or two more spells, but that’s it for today.”
“We need to go before that thing comes back with his friends.” Vall and I moved as quickly as we could to cross the rocky ground. There was no point in being quiet, as the battle had been anything but.
Finally, we made it across the ridge, and down into the cover of the forest. It was darker on this side of the ridge, but I knew the area well, and I picked my way down a draw that would lead us closer to home.