Beasts of the Four Kingdoms: Woodsmen
CAD EYED THE MAN THAT LAY ON THE GROUND. His hair was reddish blonde, his face bruised from the fall and a small cut on the side of his right cheek. His ax lay several yards away, lying in the muddied banks of the creek.
The man pushed Cad forward, making his knees land in mud. Cad turned his head slightly to the left and saw his kidnapper grabbed the other man by his hand and brought him to his feet.
“I thought you said that playing dead would work!” the man said as he stepped on his feet. He rubbed the back of his head and pointed to Cad. “If it weren’t for him, I would’ve been dragon food and the Baron would not appreciate that!” The kidnapper, which Cad realized was older, whispered something to the younger man. The younger man sneered and then walked over to the kneeling Cad. He squatted down and titled his head and said:
“So, my friend here says you are a failed assassin for the king. Is that true, huh?” In a blink of an eye a sharp edged dagger was at his throat. Cad, furious at being thought of as an assassin—even though he didn’t even know what that was—and this man, who he had saved was daring to threaten him. “Because, we don’t like when you maids of the king come to do his dirty work. ‘You know what we do to the king’s maids?”
Cad held his head high and stared dead hard at the man in his hazel eyes. If he were to do, it would be with his eyes locked onto his killer. It would leave him with a sick feeling in his stomach, just as it had with Cad. That was the reason why he shot critters in the eye. It gave him less nightmares.
“Nothing,” came a call from nowhere. The young man spun around and stood up. Another man was coming closer, a sword fastened to his back. “Julius, Alaric, what is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
“We caught another one of the king’s assassins,” the younger man said, pointing to Cad with his dagger “Alaric said that he’d failed his mission to assassinate the renowned warrior of the Wolf Tribe.”
The leader shook his head and rubbed his hand on his forehead. “Oh Julius, what’s gotten into you? Alaric, let him go.”
“He’s not even tied up,” said Alaric.
“So, there’s a reason why he might not be an assassin. He would have killed you both by now, isn’t that right? The leader diverted his view to Cad, who quickly changed his gaze to a water beetle.
“What’s your name, lad?”
Cad thought for a moment and then replied, “I will only answer if I’m allowed to stand and have my bow.” Cad heard the leader whisper something and then catch a hard object.
“Then rise,” said the new comer.
Cad stood and circled back to face the men. Now that he wasn’t near to death, Cad saw that Julius was the youngest of the three and wasn’t that much older than he was; probably around eighteen years old, or so. As of the other two, they looked like they were in their late twenties or early thirties.
“The name’s Cadmar, but everyone calls me Cad. My village was destroyed by the Dragonites not but one day ago and the lives of my best friend and my ally were also taken. I was only journeying to find my mentor when I heard your renowned Julius yelling like a griffin.” Cad eyed the lad. “I only hope one day he’ll be able to thank the one who saved him from death.”
Julius suddenly blurted out, “Why should we believe you?”
“Wait a minute, Julius,” said Alaric, “I think I remember hearing from a frostcall about a village being burnt not but nine miles from here.” Alaric had a concerned look on his face. “That was your village?”
“It was,” Cad answered. Then he realized something, “Wait, did you just say you heard from a frostcall?”
“As in it talked to you?”
“Indeed,” said Alaric.
“But how?” Cad asked. “Only those who have studied the Timber Scrolls can understand the tongue of
Julius scoffed. “Well why shouldn’t’ we? We are woodsmen, are we not?”
“Julius!” Alaric shouted. He grabbed the ax from the ground and swung at Julius’s head. Cad’s eyes widened as the rear of the ax fell heavily on Julius’s head. Julius’s eyes seem to roll in the back of his head and he fell, his head landing in the creek “The dumb lad,” Alaric mumbled.
“You could’ve killed ‘im,” said the leader.
Alaric clenched the ax handle and answered, “Sorry Baron but I couldn’t let the boy know too much.”
“Um, I don’t mean to bothe your but I’m actually fifteen as a matter of fact,” Cad said.
“Quiet!” shouted the Baron and Alaric. “Anyway,” said the Baron, “I doubt the lad would care about knowing he’s in the midst of woodsmen.”
Cad couldn’t stand it any longer and cried. “But the thing is I do care.”
Alaric scoffed, “And why is that?”
“Because I’m a woodsman!”
Both men stopped talking and watched in amazement as Cad pulled back his lock of hair to show them his ear. “And besides, would a woodsman be able to tell that the beetle in the creek is taking those raspberries back to its home or that a frostcall has up to five eggs in the spring months? Or even that bloodsongs are known for their mournful tones?”
The Baron held out his hand. “Greetings, lad. My name’s Baron Stilicho, Alpha of the Wolf Tribe of the woodsmen. My men and I are on a quest to plead for our territory from King Landon. My men and I could use a bowman like you. Would you join us?”
Cad felt as if he couldn’t; was this real? Were these men-his own kind-wanting him to join them? He’d had hoped, dreamed for this to happen, but now it was actually happening! He felt his heart bumping, his head spinning, his hands tingling. But all Cad could utter was:
“Uh, sure. Agreed.” Cad grasped Stilicho’s hand and shook it firmly.
“It’s finally good to meet a fellow outlaw,” Stilicho said smiling.
Cad also smiled and nodded, “Likewise, Baron, likewise.”
“What is this?”
The trio turned to look at Julius, staggering out of the water, mud dried on one side of his head and pointing with a swayed finger. He seemed to wince every time he stepped as if he had a severe headache. “You dare to let this newcomer join our group, just because he claims to be a woodsman?” Julius demanded.
“Why not?” Stilicho challenged. “He has nothing to prove that he’s not a woodsman.”
“Oh, but there is a way to test him,” Julius grinned with mischief. He pointed to a clump of trees, about fourteen paces away. Each had one nest of for every tree. “In there,” Julius said, pointing to of them three, “are live birds those nests. You have to be able to shoot every bird that comes out of those nests. Agreed?”
Alaric place his hand on Cad’s shoulder. “Listen, boy. You don’t have to do this; Julius is the most craftiest woodsman any prey has seen. Don’t be lured into his stupidity just to prove yourself.”
Cad nodded. “I understand. But I also understand that he won’t welcome me unless I prove myself.” Cad walked forward, his bow clenched in his hand. Julius took out his sling, placed a stone into the leather and sent the stone flying toward the first nest.
As soon as the stone hit the supporting branch, a bright red bird came soaring out. Bloodsongs. Cad fired at it, and satisfied when the bird plummeted downward, he moved to the next nest. Two flashy yellow birds were already almost out of range, but Cad’s aim was true and with one arrow and got the both of them.
“Yes!” Alaric exclaimed.
One more, Cad thought, pulling back the finally arrow. Then, when the last bird flew out of the third nest, Cad felt as if his world stopped. It was gray, dull and boring, the exact color that Julius had been looking for. Aiming slightly more to the left, Cad released, sending the arrow toward the bird, piercing it in its left wing. At first the bird dived downward and then fluttered awkwardly off into another direction.
Cad turned around to see triumph, all over Julius’s face. “Hah!” Julius taunted. “I knew you weren’t real woodsmen material. You didn’t kill the last one. And I for one will not let a fake be among my troop.”
“Wait,” Stilicho said. “Cad, explain your reasoning.”
Cad sighed. “I knew it was a trap as soon as I saw what kind of a bird it was. It was a jadewing, female. Males usually come in the color of green, lime or jade. But females are donned with gray or dull brown feathers. And everyone knows that to kill a female is against the rubrics of the Timber Scrolls.” Cad turned and smirked at Julius. “Especially a woodsman himself.”
Alaric clapped his hands, grinning. “Ah, a wise one we have here, aye Stilicho?”
Stilicho nodded. “Indeed.” He suddenly turned and started walking along the way he’d come, toward the south. “Come,” he said. “We return back to camp.”
~. . . .~
Cad followed the trio back to their camp, about a mile or so. It was in a clearing of large rocks. There were about nine men, included Alaric and Julius. He couldn’t remember all of them, but he did remember one of them, an elderly one named Prudentius and a very large and silent one they called Bear. He was huge, dark and at least seven feet tall.
“It’s rumored that he’s a grandson of giants,” Alaric whispered as they passed him. “His grandfather was the smallest of the lot and his grandmother was a strong shield maiden.” He pointed to two short men that were arguing over who stole who’s knife and who was handsomer than the other. “Those two are Honorius and Darius, twin brothers who are probably the swiftest of the group.” He finally led
Cad towards a large tent with scenes of animals stitched onto it.
“And finally, our last member, my—” Alaric stopped in mid speech. The tent was empty, the bedding
ruffled and wrinkled and smelling of leaves and dirt. Alaric narrowed his eyebrows and let a puzzled look crawl over his face. He muttered something to himself about the little squirrel and left the tent. Cad followed him.
“What is it you’re looking for?” Cad asked as they walked around the camp. “I can probably find it, I’m a pretty good tracker.”
“Pah, you’d never find this one,” Alaric said behind his shoulder. Then, someone yelled from the other side of the camp.
“We found her!” said a loud voice. The two men, Honorius and Darius strolled up to Alaric, dragging a young girl. Her chestnut blonde hair hovered over her face like willow branches and her arms seemed limp, as if they were part of a scarecrow.
When they’d reached Alaric, the girl slowly lift her head, showing a dirty but pretty face. “Hello Uncle Alaric.” She glanced at Cad and grinned. “Who’s this?” she asked.
“This is our new bowman,” said Alaric. “Cad, meet my niece, Iris. Iris, this is Cadmar of Nora.” Alaric faced Cad. “Iris is our resident healer on this journey while her younger brother does most of the packing, firewood gathering; the little jobs.”
Cad asked, “But isn’t he your nephew too?”
Alaric whispered closely. “Listen lad, everyone in the group has to know that they’re not really my
relations. I’m taking care of them for a friend of mine while he’s at war across the sea.” Cad nodded.
“I understand,” he replied.
“Good,” said Alaric. “Now, Iris, I want you to show Cad where he is going to be sleeping. We will talk about your punishment later.” He gave her a frown, and she sighed and nodded. Honorius and Darius had already released her, allowing Cad to pull her up by his hand.
“Is your uncle always stern with you like that?” Cad asked as Iris stood at her full height. To his surprise, she was only about an inch shorter than he was.
“Don’t call him my uncle,” Iris snapped. “He’s only doing that for show for Pika. But I know who he is. My father told me so before he left.” She dusted off the remaining leaves and twigs off the arms of her cloak before continuing. “So, how did they recruit you? Flattery? Importance? Threatening? Bribery?”
Cad shook his head in disbelief. “No, none of that. They said I was a good bowman and said they needed me for their journey. And besides, I’m also a woodsman,” Cad said, standing taller and flexing his arms.
“Good for you,” Iris answered, tugging on her satchel. “Now, let me show you where you’re sleeping.” They stepped about pots and kettles to where a small boy was stirring a hot bubbling stew in a large iron cauldron.
“Iris!” cried the boy. “I knew they’d catch you. What did Uncle Al say? A night without supper? No sweets for three days? A week without—”
“Hush now, Pika,” Iris shushed, catching her brother by the back of his neck. “This is our a new member of our group. Cad this is my brother Pika.”
“Hiyah,” Pika said, saluting to Cad. Cad smiled and felt as if he could see that he and Pika were going to get along fine. Another one to train, just like Beck, he thought. Except that no one could replace Beck; even if they looked or even acted like him.
“So why do they call you Pika?” Cad asked.
“They don’t call me that. It’s my name,” the boy replied. “It’s because of my sandy hair. Iris’s is prettier and nicer too, dontcha think?”
Cad nodded. “I think so too.”
“Okay, now that we’re off the topic of hair,” Iris cleared her throat and pointed to an old sack of potatoes filled with dead leaves and hay. “That’s where you’re sleeping.”
“No chance,” Cad scoffed. “I’m not sleeping on that. I’m sure a family of badgers wouldn’t even sleep on that thing.
Iris rolled her eyes and tugged on her satchel. “Well, you sure aren’t sleeping in the tent with me!”
Cad nudged Pika. “Where do you sleep?”
Pika pointed upward excitedly. “I sleep in the trees!” he exclaimed, showing his three missing teeth. He then pointed to a large hemlock only a couple feet away. “You could sleep in that one if you want. I don’t mind.”
“Sorry, Pika but I’m too big to be sleeping in trees,” Cad said. “I think I’m going to have to use the leaves for a bed and a nice stone for a pillow.”
“But won’t it be hard?” Pika inquired, looking worried.
Cad waved his hand. “No, I’ve done this before and it’s not as difficult.” He actually watched as the sun went down for Lionfall. He sighed and wondered how fast the day could have gone. Just that morning, he had no friends and no enemies. Now he had several friends, one enemy—that would be Julius—and one ally, mainly Iris. “Well, I should be getting some sleep,” Cad decided, heading over to the middle of camp to find a nice stone.
“Hey,” said Iris, moving behind him. Cad turned to look at her. “Listen, I’m sorry the way I snapped at you earlier.” She dug the toe of her boot into the grass and watched the interesting life cycle of the ant on the ground. “I don’t easily make friends and I just had a difficult day. Will you forgive me?”
Cad, who was totally surprised and taken aback, stumbled over his words as he answered. “Uh, yes I understand, I mean, yes I will forgive you, uh I mean I know how it feels to have a hard day.” Cad sighed. “I had one yesterday.”
“My best friend died and my village burned to the ground,” Cad replied. Cad thought he could almost hear sympathy is Iris’s voice.
“I’m very sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter anyway. I now have a new life and a better purpose.” Cad smiled. “Besides, I have more friends than I did before.”
Iris smirked. “Yeah, well don’t look too soon. Julius looked like he was about to rip your head off your neck when we entered camp just now.” They both laughed and then just listened as the men began laying their mats down to sleep.
"I better get going to my tent and say good night to Pika,” Iris said, walking towards the cooking
“Goodnight,” Cad called.
“Goodnight,” Iris replied, and then disappeared behind a tree.