Beasts of the Four Kingdoms: Sacrifice
AS CAD AND IRIS RETURNED TO THE CAMP, Alaric was, of course, running around in a circle like a rooster with a missing head. As soon as he saw the two come out of the trees, Alaric ran up to them, hugged Iris close to him and glared at Cad.
“What were you two doing in there? Answer me!” He demanded.
Cad began, “I—”
“Cad was only teaching me how to shoot properly, and in turn I taught him which herbs were the best for headaches and cuts.”
Alaric scoffed and shook his head. “And why would a healer need to know how to shoot an arrow?”
“To protect myself from the beasts of the forests: bears, wargs, foxes and even from a horned rabbit. You understand, right?”
Alaric still looked suspicious but slowly nodded. “Well, in that case, take her out every day, Cad. I want to see her progress by the end of this week.”
“Yes sir,” Cad answered.
“Very good, now I must attend to the twins and their packing. You too should get a move on also.”
“Yes sir,” Cad and Iris said.
“I’d better wake up Pika from the tree he’s sleeping in. He was drooling all over Julius last night,” Iris laughed and whispered, “And I think the lad doesn’t even know it yet!”
For the rest of the morning, the band made their way south and by the afternoon they were only a day’s journey from Ezra, a town not too far from the Civic. Cad sat down by the banks of a creek, letting the water cool his boots. Pika was quickly taking off his shoes and leaping in the water, splashing and kicking, enjoying the chilling water on his burning neck.
Honorius and Darius both lay on the ground, their heads barely touching the water. Bear and Prudentius sat under a tree; the large one was taking a deep slumber while Prudentius carried a conversation with a jade wing. Julius was sent to scout out and see how far it was till the end of the wood, and Stilicho was rehearsing his speech to the King as Alaric was his audience. Iris watched her brother playing and then decided to join him. Taking off her circlet and undoing her boots and gauntlets, Iris dove into the water, splashing Cad as she went. The water felt good on his shoulders and hair, and the feeling of being cooled down gave Cad a peaceful feeling.
He felt sad to leave when Julius returned, saying that from a high cliff, Ezra was indeed in their reach by Lionfall. Stilicho ordered the men to get ready, awakening the twins who sputtered water out of their mouths and Bear, who bumped his head on a large branch, giving him a nasty lump and a severe headache. Iris gave him some willow bark and told him drink a lot of water, which Bear did hesitantly. He did love his apple brandy.
They continued on, stopping only if Pika had to relieve himself or Darius was very hungry and the surprisingly, Stilicho needed to rest. When they had rested the second time that day, Cad had to wonder what was going on.
“Iris, how old is the Baron?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t really know. Probably around ending thirties or dawning forties probably. All I know is that he wasn’t the Baron when I first came to the woodsmen.”
“Who was it?”
“A man they called Telemachus was the first Baron of the Wolf tribe. He was the one who appointed Alaric to be our guardian. Then during a battle against the dragon Oradon, Telemachus was burnt so badly that by the next morning he was dead.”
“But I thought the warrior Aquila was the one who battled Oradon?”
“He did. He did to avenge Telemachus, his uncle,” explained Iris. “That Lionground after his death, Stilicho was made Baron by the elders. It was a beautiful ceremony. A bright day with flowers and the forest smelling like pine and maple. I was only four then..” Iris became suddenly quiet. “It’s strange.”
“What do you mean?”
Iris wore a puzzled look on her face and placed a lock of hair behind her ear. “It’s only that, well, Telemachus didn’t know Stilicho. He had no reason to make him Baron. I always wondered why he didn’t choose Alaric.”
“But why?” Cad asked.
“Because Alaric was Telemachus’ son.”
After their talk, Cad pondered about the triangle webs that wove around reality and Alfrick’s stories. Baron Telemachus was injured by the dragon Oradon… Aquila took out the dragon’s eye… Aquila was Baron Telemachus’ nephew and Alaric was his son. Aquila and Alaric were or are cousins…Telemachus died, making Stilicho the Baron… Iris was there at the ceremony... And so was Alaric! A sudden flash of insight caught Cad so unexpected that he literally stopped and bumped into the person behind him.
“Watch where you’re going, lad or I’ll lose me pace!”
“Sorry Honorius.” Cad stumbled along the men until he caught sight of Alaric. His spear was held in his hand, not defensive but almost as a walking stick. Cad hurried to catch up with him. “Alaric!” he called. The man turned to look as Cad was suddenly beside him. “I need to talk with you.”-
“Well ask, lad. There’s no wall of wargs or fiery death to stop you,” Alaric responded.
Cad breathed and then said, “You rejected the place of Baron, so–so you could father Iris. Is that true?” Cad didn’t know whether he was going to be laughed at, slapped or both. But when he looked into Alaric’s eyes he saw a man who looked somber.
“Yes lad,” he finally said. “I did.” He sighed and looked up as if to see an answer written in the leaves. “I love the girl as if she was my own daughter, even if she doesn’t know, I still will never give up on her. Pika knows that because I haven’t told him yet, but, well she doesn’t because I have.”
“Is Pika her real brother?”
“Of course! Can’t you tell they’re of the same blood? The auburn hair, the blue eyes even the curious attitude.” Alaric smiled and chuckled. “I remember getting them when they were young. Iris was but four and Pika had just lived a whole year. My father asked me if I would watch over them till they found them real homes. I said yes, I would, with me dear wife’s help that is.
“I thought it was only going to be for only several moons or so but when my father died I knew I had to choose which. I knew my dear wife would weep if we were to shun them and give them to someone else. And I also agreed. I decided that we’d take care of them both, together.” Alaric blinked. “But then she got sick and died of the plague. Then it was me by myself to raise them. Iris again had no mother and I was distraught about what to do. But then, I read the Timber Scrolls one eve and realized that the two of them were special, that they were Zavia’s last hope against the evil pagans that fill this land. And so, right then and there I made a commitment. I pledged that I would be faithful to them, I’d never give up on them, no matter what they do, just like a real father.” And then Alaric started to laugh and point at Pika hanging by his tunic on a tree. “And it has been the best ten years of my life. Now I’m going to go help that boy before he starts yelling again!”
Alaric walked on a head, leaving Cad behind. Even though Cad didn’t understand most of what the man had said, he did know one thing for sure: Alaric was a true father.
Due to all the rest stops, the band didn’t make it to Ezra by nightfall. Instead they were to sleep on a hill which overlooked the town and a lea. The grass felt so comfortable and soft after a long day’s journey that Cad fell asleep without even undoing his pack. He heard a thud going here and there as the men fell on the soft bed of grass and fell asleep.
In reality it was hours. To Cad it was seconds. He was awoken in the night by the running of boots and the hissing of arrows and ‘thunking’ of hammers. He snapped his head to see a flying creature circling them over head and blowing out a pillar of fire from its mouth. The stars seemed to spin and the air smelt of smoke and fire.
Dragon! Cad gasped. He quickly undid his quiver from his pack, knocked an arrow into his bow and fired at the flying beast. Cad couldn’t tell if the arrow had struck it or not but he continued firing. Julius was standing a few paces off, looking like he’d never seen a dragon in his life. His aiming was off and the bow was crooked, someone had to do something before one of the men got hurt.
“Julius,” Cad yelled. The man glanced at him and continued firing. “Julius, stop shooting and give the arrows to me!”
“No!” Julius answered, aiming at the dragon’s wing. Cad felt a great fear rising in him.
“Stop, Julius! Stop—”
He didn’t get to finish, when a second dragon appeared out of nowhere, shot a flaming bullet at Julius. The man had just an instant to see it coming and leapt out of the way, the ground exploding where he’d stood. Dirt, grass and earth flew in the air and the second dragon shot up higher into the sky.
Cad himself was blown three feet from the missed fire and lay on his aching back. He saw the first dragon still spraying fire as it flapped its wings and the second dragon was circling its way back to the scattered men. Cad furiously looked around to see any familiar faces. Alaric? Iris? Pika? He searched until he saw a lone figure silhouetted by the large moon, standing up, holding a spear in its hand. Alaric! The man drew his spear back, aimed and threw it with the strength of a warrior. The spear missed its target but spunk so deep into the first dragon’s tail that the sharp end with all the way through.
The dragon screeched a loud moan flapped its large bat wings and was slowly disappeared. The second dragon that double-backed was coming nearer. Ca was sure it was going to attack but instead it just flew over them. Funny, Cad wondered, I thought I saw something on top of its back. But it didn’t seem to matter now that they had both gone.
Cad hurried and quickly found Iris, who held her bow in a firm and determined grasp. But her eyes betrayed her emotions and she breathed a sigh when Cad ran up to her. “Are you alright?” He asked.
“Yes. And you?” Iris eyed the bleeding cut on his arm. “See me in my tent tomorrow before we leave. You have a bad scrape, and I don’t want you to get infected. Alright?”
“Agreed.” Cad said. “Did you hit any of them?”
“I don’t think so. I’m bad as it is in the morning and probably worst at night,” She laughed. Iris noticed Cad looked a little sad when she said this, like a cat denied of milk.
Cad said, “So I’m guess you will train with your uncle in spearing them?”
“Of course not!” Iris said willfully. “I’m going to continue with you. For one thing the bow is easy than a spear and second is, well… I like you as a teacher better than Alaric.” She gasped and said, “Speaking of him, he looks like he’s hurt, come on!”
They travelled a short distance to see Alaric standing besides Prudentius as the men stood in a semi-circle. When Alaric turned to look at him, tears were swelling from his eyes and flowing softly down his cheeks.
“Uncle,” Iris uttered, “What is it? Where’s Pika?”
“With me,” Alaric said in a sorrowful voice, one Cad had never heard before. “But it seems one of us is dead.
“Who?” Cad was almost afraid to ask.