Chapter 15: Encounter in the Forest
Styrkur breathed deeply in and out. The forest greeted him back once more into its depths like a beguiling mistress. He smelt fresh water from a stream not a few hundred yards away. He smelt the freshness of the undergrowth, crisp and preserved from weeks of snowfall. He smelt…his eyes narrowed slightly. He smelt a recently put-out fire.
So, there were
strangers in the wood.
“Boy,” he murmured.
A youth of no more than seven perked up from a set of tracks driven into the sludge of snow and mud. “Father?”
“There are men in the forest. Be wary.”
“Sir.” He looked back down at the mess, having decided they were useful after all, and then pointed in the direction of, he hoped, deer.
“After it then. Carefully
The boy rolled his eyes but nodded dutifully. He was really such a small thing next to his father, who stood a man and a half high, and just the same wide. His glare, his axe and his beard merely affirmed the image of an apex predator who had deigned to babysit a rabbit.
“Who do you think they are?” the child said suddenly, conversationally, as they walked together down the path.
“Dangerous, potentially,” Styrkur said slowly. “Do not think on it. Think of deer.”
“There’s a group of them up ahead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Good.” He knew it was so already, but the whole point of practice was that the boy was to learn. “Which will you shoot?”
“Uh…the male, like you said.”
The pair continued on, past a camp abandoned not a few hours before. Styrkur was surprised to see that the fire had been well made, well lit and then well beaten down by snow. Whomever wandered the woods, though they be no druid certainly, were clever in their craft. He frowned at the signs of clearly trampled and smoothed away snow. The strangers had covered their tracks as well. Most curious.
“Father, I found them,” his son manged to whisper and yell all at once. Styrkur roused himself from investigation and met his son. Yes, there were deer, quite a few in fact, just beyond them in the bushes.
“Move carefully, as you were shown.”
The boy nodded, and lifted his bow carefully. It was too big for him by half, at least, but he made do. An arrow was notched, a breath was taken, and a shot was fired. Clean, smooth, accurate.
The cry made him wince, but Styrkur could otherwise find no fault with his son’s method. Until he made his way to the animal’s side and found him still alive. Ah…then the lesson would be far harder, yet more impactful.
“You must finish him,” he said gently, crouching down next to the deer’s neck and holding the dying animal steady. He could see uncertainty, fear and sadness creeping into the edges of his son’s eyes like tears.
“Robin,” his father said, “this creature is suffering. End it.”
The youth sank to his knees and tugged at his belt, removing a small knife. It shivered in the cold air. It plunged a little untidily into the deer’s neck, such that a little more blood than necessary would have spat out onto his face. His father’s hands were quick however and spared him that. The lesson was important, but there was no need for rampant cruelty.
“There,” Styrkur said calmly, resting his unbloodied hand on the lad’s shoulder. “It is over. And it is alright,” he held the boy close as a few tears dropped, melting small amounts of snow. He raised his red-filled hand. “Robin, you must look at this,” he insisted, gently. “This is blood, this is life. You took it to feed your own, for your family. And that is alright,” he said, shaking the boy’s shoulder a little, “but never forget the price. Only kill for food, and for self-defence. In time, killing an animal will not seem so hard, but never believe killing men will be easy, even if it is necessary.”
Robin stared up at him with wide eyes.
Styrkur sighed and crouched lower, to below his son’s eye level. “It is not easy, being a man in this world. You will have to fight to survive, by yourself and with trusted others. It will hurt, it will challenge you in every way. But the struggle is
worth it. Everyone and everything you meet lives the struggle with you, and you must show respect for that. This creature’s path is over now, respect it.”
The boy nodded, then again more assuredly. “Yes father.”
“Good,” he cupped the small face and wiped a tear trac away. “Now, we can eat.”
As they trudged home, the young buck strung across Styrkur’s broad shoulders, Robin was solemn. His voice only returned to him when the woods began to clear and the sky shone brighter above.
“Father, do you really think it was right to kill that deer?”
Styrkur’s stride did not pause. “I do. The only thing you did wrong, was to fire before committing to the deed.”
“You shot the arrow. The deer lay dying. Why did you not kill it at once?”
The boy shuffled his feet awkwardly and said nothing.
“Think of that which you do, Robin. You aim your bow at a creature, man or beast, be prepared to fire and kill him. Do not do so merely because someone told you to, then back away from the deed afterwards. Such things are wicked and cowardly.”
“But you told me-”
“And you listen, not because I am an experienced hunter and we were on a hunt, but because I am your father and you love me.” He paused and looked at his son, “That is not wrong, but you obeyed for the wrong reason.”
“You said listening was important.”
“It is. To good orders and advice from those you trust. To everything else, take an ear but be mindful. Blind obedience, even to a cause you think righteous, has led to greater evil than the truly wicked men of the world.”
The foreign voice cut through the air like sharpened steel and even amongst Styrkur’s sudden thoughts of surprise and panic, he was proud of his son’s reflexes. An instant after the stranger spoke, a shaft shot through the air towards him.
Fire and ice flowed through Styrkur’s veins as he watched as his boy’s arrow flew true, and was intercepted at the last possible instant from embedding into the hooded stranger’s eye. He had caught it, almost casually, with a flick of the wrist.
Now, Styrkur had travelled far and wide. He had fought many monsters and menfolk from across the lands and seas. He knew what a man could and could not do. It was a somewhat popular carnival trick, amongst some peoples, for an archer and partner of great skill and trust to fire and catch an arrow aimed for the chest. But it was a slowly fired event, at a medium distance with forewarning. No man could effortlessly pluck from afore his left eye a killing shot like that.
He was dealing with something merely cloaked in humanity.
“Boy, run,” he spat out, as he let loose the deer corpse and handled his axe. Robin bolted obediently. He thanked whatever gods there were for that.
“Interesting,” the stranger said, cocking his head. “Now this, I was not expecting.”
“What do you want?” Styrkur growled. “Whatever it is, I do not have it.”
This was entirely the wrong thing to say, and the stranger paid for it quickly. A mighty blow from a great fist struck at the man’s head. In a flash, the stranger staggered backwards, gasping a little. Styrkur flexed his fingers and frowned. That had been too easy. Still, it was gratifying to know the threat was flesh and blood, at least of a kind.
“That’s a firm hand you have there,” the hooded man straightened. “Perhaps I was mistaken…” He tilted his head again, and as fast as a cold breeze blew across the space between them and smashed an elbow in the other man’s face. Now it was Styrkur who stumbled, stunned at the power behind the blow.
“Impressive,” the figure said carelessly, as his target regained his footing and smeared away a thin dot of blood. “Most impressive,” he said as Styrkur growled at him again.
“You do not want this fight.”
“Fight? My dear sir, this is mere play.”
It was at that point Styrkur began to feel a small twinge of fear. The being was far too confident in stance, in action. Whilst he was fully confident in his ability to kill this creature, he was now no longer sure it would not end him at the same time.
“Please,” he ground out, love for his family overcoming pride, “I
have no desire for this fight.”
The hooded stranger laughed. Loudly, coldly, like the ice on a river cracking in springtime heat. “You are everything he ever spoke of,” he said, almost fondly. “Have no fear, you shall not die today. But I would speak with your-”
“Never,” the father sprang into action again, bringing his axe down with almighty strength upon the man’s side, catching his arm that flung out to forestall it. With a roar, he threw the figure through the forest and away with all his power. The man flew through tree and rock, smashing through bush and causing a raucous of bird and beast screams as the peace of the land was disturbed. Finally, he heard the thud and crack of a distant rock ending the shallow flight. An owl, disturbed by the din, drew down upon a nearby branch and ruffled its feathers.
“Sorry,” Styrkur grunted, clearly not so.
The owl glared at him in reproach, before flying off.
A man in impossible white appeared shortly afterwards, his robes practically glowing in vibrance such that the fresh snow seemed dull.
“Was all that strictly necessary?” he asked calmly.
“He threatened the boy.”
“Ah,” the man turned and looked along the path of destruction, with eyes keener than any mortal. “You threw him quite the distance, but not far enough it seems.”
“If he dares return…”
“My dear boy,” the Father Druid said, turning back to him, “do you know who that was?”
“A demon, I think. Some dark and wicked thing.”
A dry, coughing chuckle came from the other. “Indeed,” he replied, “I must tell Rambunctious that one.”
“You know of him?”
“As do you. He was once the King in the North, and soon will be again.”
Styrkur ceased breathing heavily from his exertion, only to sigh in annoyance. “Of course,” he muttered, “it would be He.”
“No, it would be I,” the stranger returned, hood down, strolling through the forest as though his limbs were not dashed to pieces and his innards a pile of mush. “Frightfully good throw,” he shrugged, as he grasped his left arm and cracked it back into place. “If you’ve scarred my face, my wife will be on you like a hawk.” He glanced over at the being in white. “Hi Grumbles.”
Wumble-Grumble, the Father Druid, the last great pagan in the islands of Britannia, smiled and raised an arm in greeting. “Well met Elfwine, although I do wonder how your arm feels?”
“Murder,” the king said drily. “You son is quite safe by the way. Secret should have caught up to him by now.”
It was no comfort to the confused father when moments later the squealing delight of a child could be heard as a bear that dwarfed himself bounded into the clearing. He quickly withdrew Robin from the creature and pulled him safely behind.
“Really now,” Elfwine started, but the Father Druid shushed him. Secret snorted in amusement. “Yes, my arm is fine, thank you ever so,” Elfwine replied. “You kept him alright?”
The bear nodded solemnly, then nodded again at Styrkur before licking Grumble.
“Be off with you,” he swatted, smiling at the great bear. Secret smiled widely at him and sat down comfortably in the snow.
“Anyway, Secret and I were just passing through the woods on our way to intercept an Irish brigand. It seems some amongst their people take exception to Lancaster handling their affairs.”
“Astonishing,” Styrkur said flatly.
“Isn’t it? Anyway, the army left some time ago under Middlesbrough and Macclesfield to the southern crossing with Ireland. I cannot be away long from Lancaster when my wife is swollen with child, but my good brother joined them on their quest as he did once before.” The man smiled, and Styrkur narrowed his gaze on the sharp white teeth and cold eyes of the king that glowed ever so briefly when speaking of his kin. Even the wolf had a heart, perhaps.
“You think to match the Irish on their own?” he said, “and here rather than your own lands?”
“Certainly not!” Elfwine seemed affronted. “This is a Lancaster matter and we will draw them over to our lands first. Then again,” he glanced around the wood, “I am surprised this area is so peaceful. Is there not revolt in these lands?”
“I see,” the king peered at him with those eyes again, and Styrkur felt surprisingly violated under such a gaze.
“I would advise you to look elsewhere,” the old man said quietly. When Elfwine raised an eyebrow towards him, the Father Druid chuckled. “It seems the Irish are a little more determined than you thought. And organised. Your men are in Ireland but the enemy is over here, running wild through Anglesey.”
Elfwine frowned, “We had heard of a group coming through these parts?”
“They have, and moved south already to Lancaster. You are not so out of place that you cannot catch them before they reach the city, however North Wales is said to be aflame in many areas.”
The king thought a little to himself, then looked at Secret. “No matter, we shall be off. Though it was…interesting as I said, to meet you. And you,” he said to the pair of natives, before nodding to Grumble and setting off back through the wreckage of the forest.
“Bye!” shouted Robin to Secret, and the bear blinked at him softly and huffed a goodbye of his own.
“Well, that went well,” Grumble said happily, before vanishing to wherever it was he went. Styrkur looked after him dourly. Wizards were always so aggravating.
“Father?” Robin tugged at the man’s sleeve as he bent to pick up the forgotten deer. “Did he really know us? How exciting!”
“Yes,” Styrkur said, as they made their way home once again. Elfwine did seem to know…the boy. Now why was that, he wondered. And why did the air claw more icily around his chest at the thought.