Beasts of the Four Kingdoms: The Ash Tree
CAD BOLTED THROUGH THE FOREST, GLANCED BACK ONE OR TWICE. Good, Beck was still there. The arrows in Cad’s quiver jiggled and his arms ached from carrying his bow. Twice he’d tripped and fallen; the first time he had scraped his head from a holly tree and the bruised his hand on the bark of a sycamore.
“Beck, turn left,” Cad pronounced and leaped. He summersaulted into the roots of a large tree. It lay on its side, letting its root hang down, giving a shelter to anyone who needed it. Cad lay down his bow and moved around several branches that hid a small opening within the tree.
He slowly crawled in, leaving his bow behind as a sign for Beck to enter. He lay down and tried to catch his breath. It seemed so bizarre. Dragonites, raiding so far in the north? They usually stole from the villages in the south and even a little in the east. But in Nora? No one had dared raid them due to their nearby nomads: the woodsmen. Bandits, rogue knights and vagabonds hadn’t dared come near them with those barbarians patrolling the nearby woods.
And Alfrick and his cryptic message, foreseeing the disaster of the village.
“It’s a good thing Beck and I left or else-“
Where was he? Shouldn’t he have come by now? The thundering sound of hooves and the yelling had stopped. The Dragonites had at least been gone for ten minutes.
Cad crawled forward and stuck his head out of the tree. “Beck?” he said. He completely crawled out and checked his bow. Same place.
“Beck?” He called, grabbing his bow and heading back. It wasn’t hard to trail where the Dragonites came from. Trampled branches and leaves scattered all over the forest floor.
Cad’s echo left an eerie feeling seemed to hang air of the forest. “Beck where are you?” He yelled. Now he was getting desperate; Cad fumbled with arrow, preparing to aim for a glint of a shield or a Dragonite’s arm. He could never kill a human, even how wicked they were.
He decided this would be his last call before chasing after the Dragonites, just in case they’d made Beck captive.
“Beck, please answer me! Please Beck, answer me!”
Cad hung his head and slid the arrow into the bowstring, ready to head toward the village.
Faster than the twitch of a tail, Cad had the string pulled, his arrow ready to fly at the move of a branch. “Beck?” He shifted his eyes in the trees, behind a rock, watching for his friend.
“.. By the small ash.”
Cad quickly diverted his gaze to an ash tree about pace away from him. And they, lying on his back with an red mark around his abdomen was Beck.
Cad bounded his way towards the small boy and almost cried at what he saw. He could tell Beck was dying, and overwhelmed with pain.
“Here,” he said, giving something to Cad. What could it be?
It was an arrow, long and thick, a sharp and deadly head. Stained on it was blood.
“It’s the arrow of the dunghead that shot me.” Beck slowly blinked. “I was trying… trying to fire at his horse and was about to... about to slip away when he fired his at me.. He was good.” He grinned a weary smile. “But not good as you.”
Cad sniffed, and looked around for nearby leaves. “Listen, I’ll have to do is carry you back to Alfrick’s. He’ll have some herbs and a bandage for you. Come on.”
Beck shook his head. “Cad, you know and I know that it’s been over an hour... Alfrick’s gone...”
And then Beck said what Cad was despairing. “Leave me here, Cad.”
“Please. I want my last sight is to be the leaves of an ash tree.”
Cad felt the cold touch of a tear slip down from his eye, from his cheek and onto the leaves of the earth. Just like Beck will. No, Beck won’t be like that, he has to live! Cad glanced at Beck and saw he was staring out into the beyond. Cad closed the boy’s eyes.
~. . . .~
Cad had dug a shallow hole under the ash tree, placed Beck inside, then decorated him with maple, oak, walnut and, of course, ash. He was even sure he saw a chipmunk leave an acorn by Beck’s body and a wolf leave a green stone, both as a gifts for a honored hunter. Beck was buried with leaves from every tree and every plant Cad could find. As he knelt over his dead friend, Cad felt as if his insides ha d been ripped out and they had died- just as Beck had-he reminded himself, and were buried with him.
“Beck was my only friend,” Cad said to himself. “He died to show he could defend himself, to defend the forest.” He looked up and saw the wolf move closer and had licked Cad’s face. The boy didn’t smile. Instead, he roared with anger and dug his knife into the soil, pulling up dead leaves, dirt, worms and sticks. Dead, dead, dead! That’s all there’s left in this forest! Cad yanked his knife out of the dirt and hurled it at a nearby tree.
And then, he wept like he never had. Not like when he was called strange, not like when he had burned himself by a hot anvil, not even when Master Taron said he’d be a horrible son to any man. This was about his friend. His only friend.
The sad tones of the bloodsongs carried all along the forest. Cad took his knife from the tree and carved on the ash tree: BECK, SON OF TARON. FRIEND, SON AND HUNTSMAN OF THE KING.
Before leaving Beck for the last time, Cad carefully plucked the tawny feather from the hat that Beck had always worn.. He folded it up in a handkerchief and placed it in his breast pocket. And finally, he grabbed the Dragonite’s arrow and broke off the arrowhead. Held it in his hand and studied it. It was iron, coated with black paint as to hide its presence from light’s reflection; perfect for a night’s raid. On it was a symbol, of a dragon with large wings and its scales made of blue. It didn’t make sense to Cad since most dragons were either maroon or jade colored. Never had there been a blue dragon.
It would make it just as easy to find them, Cad decided. And so, paying his last respects, Cad headed toward the village to see what he could find. Even though he knew that everyone in the village would be dead.
~. . . .~
When Cad returned to Nora all he found was burnt houses, destroyed shops and even a body or two. It made Cad want to weep with grief and fear. But a fire inside told him not to, to show those brutes that their attack had no effect on him.
Cad walked to where the blacksmith shop used to be. All their equipment was gone, even the hammer than Taron had been teaching Beck to use. Cad brushed his hand against the burnt edges of the table where they sketched out swords, axes and spears that would be shipped to the Civic.
He walked over to the door that led to the family house, pushed it gently, making the whole frame of the door to go crashing forward. Dust and ashes flew from the ground, and then rained back down upon his head. Even with the rest of the village burned Cad gasped at the sight of the house.
It was totally rotten, it’s furniture broken, the cellar without food and the loft where Cad used to sleep had fallen into the kitchen. It was totaled. He walked closer to see if anything remained. All of Cad’s possessions were either gone or turned to ashes. Cad scooped up his remains and crushed it with his fist.
What am I going to do, Beck? Cad seemed to ask. I have no home… no friend… no mentor. Nothing. Cad released the ashes and let them shift in the cold wind that passed through the rotting house. Cad sat there, listening to the air, the wind and the sound of birds that flew overhead.
And then, remembered.
“No mentor.. Alfrick!” Cad whispered out loud. “Maybe I can catch up with him.” Cad leaped from the floor and ran out to the village. Before he could reached the remaining of the shop he tripped over one of the broken boards. He fell and skidded a couple inches. He muttered something foul and then eyed what had tripped him. The board was pushed back into the ground, as if someone had slid it out as if to retrieve a hidden treasure.
Probably Taron’s cheat money. Cad crawled over to the hole and gasped at leather sheath that contained a sword. Cad slowly lift the sword from the broken boards, carefully undid the leather and pulled out the sword.
It was beautiful, the most beautiful sword Cad had ever seen. Formed from the finest steel, it’s handle made of iron and red leather, the hand-guard was wide but slick. The blade was engraved with designs and lettering that Cad couldn’t understand.
“Maybe Alfrick can decode your secret,” Cad said. He checked the hole one more time and saw a scabbard that had been under the sword. He picked it up, strapped into his belt and slid the sword into its rightful place.
Cad stood and looked around him. This was his home. Now, armed with only a sword, a bow and a quiver of arrows, Cad knew he could survive.
The Dragonites might had tried to end him.
But his quest had just begun.