Beasts of the Four Kingdoms: Friendship
WHEN DAWN CREPT OUT OF NIGHT’S ROBES, SO DID IRIS. She crawled out of her tent and looked about the camp. All of them were sleeping. She turned and watched the slumbering Bear and noticed that the new one was missing. Maybe Stilicho sent him out to hunt, Iris thought. She slung her satchel over shoulder, tightened the laces on her otter furred boots and snuck her way into the depths of the forest.
A gust of wind broke through the trees, bringing forth smells of pine, oak and nadika. The sound of a small creek trickled to the east and a family of beavers having an early breakfast to the west. Iris heard a fluttering of wings and gasped at the sight of an owl, its heart shaped face peering down at her in curiosity and bewilderment. It alighted onto a nearby branch, blinked and then made a screeching sound. Iris wondered what it was doing and then saw a chipmunk, clinging to the trunk of a tree not two paces away.
Iris studied the owl, who watched the chipmunk, who clung to the tree for dear life. With a sudden movement, the flaps of the chipmunk opened, showing that it was a gliding chipmunk. Unlike their cousins, the gliding chipmunk was faster and more keen to gliding through the trees than their cousins the flying squirrels. The chipmunk soared upward, bursting through the clump of leaves. The owl took off after it, disappearing into the trees.
“Good luck,” Iris whispered looking up to the sky. After waiting for several minutes, Iris continued her way to an abandoned fox’s den. Inside was a bow, made of nadika wood and a quiver of arrows. Inside was also her father’s other letters. Those that date back to three, four years before; letters Iris knew by heart, letters that made Iris cry at night. Those letters were the last thing Iris had from her father, the last bit of her before she and her brother were taken in by the woodsmen.
The history of her mother, she didn’t know, though she fantasied, day and night of what she was like, because she was sure her mother was still alive. Iris would wonder about the sounds of her voice, her face even the touch of her hands; all of which Iris was sure she would become like that one day. I am only fourteen, she decided. I’ll wait for my beauty to spring up on its own.
On that day, Iris chose to block out all distractions and go out to hunt. Just for an hour, she told herself, or at least until the flowers start to open up. She tugged on the sleeve of her tunic, feeling the cold dew fall off the leaves of one of the trees. She finally decided on a good hunting spot, squatted down between the ferns and waited.
Her patience was tried and she was upset to have to wait so long on such a fine day as that. She was just about to give up and trudge back to the camp when she heard a flapping of wings and saw a small flock of sparrows pecking on some fallen blackberries on the ground. Pulling back her bow as far as she could, she was about to let the arrow go when suddenly a stone landed by the birds, igniting a fury of flapping feathers. Without a second chance all of the birds were out of range.
“By my father’s beard!” Iris shouted.
“And by your fury!”
Iris spun around and saw Cad, four stones in his left hand and sling in the other.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
“Pika gave it to me to borrow for a ‘special mission’,” Cad answered smugly. “And, if I might add, what were you doing?”
“I was trying to hunt!” Iris hissed.
“You were about to attempt murder.” Cad retorted.
Iris pulled a strand of hair behind her ear and clenched the bow in her hand. “I was not!”
“Then what were you doing? The Wolf Brigade has me to hunt for food and the cooking quarters has enough supplies already.” Cad gave her a firm stare. “Why are you trying to hunt?”
“Because,” Iris exclaimed, “I have no privacy to myself! Either Stilicho’s ordering me around, Alaric’s trying to protect me or Pika’s needs a mother of his own. I need something to do, something that I can be. Not a healer, nor a niece or a mother. I need to be me.” Iris sighed, both out of desperation and relief. She slumped down to the roots of a tree and shut her eyes, feeling tears beginning to come.
A crunching of leaves made their way to where she sat. She heard some of them breaking, and opened her eyes to see Cad squatting in front of her. His hand stuck out as if he were waiting for a long time. And then he said:
“I can teach you.”
“I can teach you about you.” Cad laughed. “I know it sounds a little strange but a dwarf once told me, ‘if you can’t seem to know about yourself, then let someone else teach you’. It sounds questionable when I say it but not when he does.”
Iris beamed, grasped his hand as he pulled her up.
“Now,” he said, “What do you want to learn first?”
Iris thought for a moment and then answered, “I would like to learn how to shoot a bow. It always fascinated me, watching the archers at home.”
“Why didn’t they bring any on this journey?” Cad asked.
“Julius was supposed to be but it seems that that was a lie and he can’t shoot more than I can lay an egg.”
Cad grinned and nodded, “I understand. First, you must learn how to hold your bow. Which do you use, your right hand or your left?”
“My right of course. The left hand is evil, according to a monk who came by our parish one day.”
Cad said, “Well, my mentor was left handed and I don’t think he’s evil.”
“Is he still alive?” Iris asked.
She could tell Cad was not sure by the way he hesitated. But he answered in a steady voice, “Yes, he’s still alive. Anyway, what you want to do is hold it in your right hand and then use your left to pull back the bow...”
For the rest of the hour, Cad taught Iris the basics of marksmanship: the use of the bow, meaning of the bow and work of the bow. He kept reminding himself not to get caught up in the past or they’d never get to training. He demonstrated
several ways to hunt with the bow.
The first was the stance, the second was the crouch and the third was branch. The branch was when you hung by your legs upside-down and fire an arrow at the un-expecting prey. Only to his knowledge could Alfrick do such a thing, especially since he was so small and could climb a large tree with ease.
When Cad was sure Iris had seen enough, he gave her his bow and several of his new arrows. He watched as she pulled the string back, the soft feathers brushing her cheek. And then with a strong hissing sound the arrow was stabbed into a tree. It wasn’t the straightest shot but it was better than Cad did when he first tried to shoot his bow.
“Well done,” Cad said. He retrieved his bow and slung his quiver over his shoulder. “Grab those three apples over there.”
“Why?” Iris asked.
“Just do it,” Cad groaned. Iris smirked, pulled a strand of hair behind her ear and obeyed her task. “Now, when I say ‘go’, you’ll toss each apple at that same tree. Understand?”
“Got it,” Iris replied. Standing next to him, Iris awaited the call of her assignment. She waited, glanced to see if the boy hadn’t fallen asleep on her, and when she was sure he was awake, waited patiently for several more moments.
Finally Cad yelled, “Go!” With the quickness of a squirrel, Iris chucked the apples that in a matter of seconds her hands were empty. But to her surprise and shock, each time she threw an apple, Cad would fire an arrow, slicing it in half and lining up with Iris’s arrow. By the time she let her hands touch her side, six apple slices laid on the ground.
Cad walked over, picked up two that landed on a large fern leave, sunk his teeth into one and tossed the other at Iris. She got it in her mouth, grinned and tasted the juicy taste a fresh autumn apple gives.