“We’re lost, aren’t we?” Tulla’s annoyance was thick, her words laced with aggravation and the hint of a temper.
“No we’re not. I told you, we’re right here,” Dego said, planting a finger firmly in the middle of a forest. He drifted slightly to the side, then slightly down and eventually took his finger off before he added more fuel to Tulla’s rage. “We’ll be there soon.”
“You said that this morning. Two days we’ve been walking and not a sign of civilization in sight.”
Dego merely shrugged and pushed through the brush, making a fresh path for them to travel. He had suspected this was part of the problem, but he had been heading in the same direction for the entire time, he was certain. Well, he was somewhat sure. If he was perfectly honest, he had no idea where he was going. At this point, it was wiser to keep the map to himself and continue acting like he knew what was going on. Shem agreed, at any rate, and that was victory enough.
“I’ll tell you what, if we don’t find a hut or even a lean-to, I’m going to eat the first thing I see. I’m tired of eating vegetables.” Shem spat on the ground. “I swear you can taste the dirt on them, no matter how much you wash them.”
“Good luck with that. We haven’t seen anything more than a doe and some fawns. Killing a deer is a crime, apparently,” Tulla said with an eye roll, “and killing a mother or child is just plain cruel.”
“When my stomach grumbles, I’ll eat anything with flesh.” He clicked and winked at Tulla. “Even you. Better be careful.” His stomach growled like an angry mother bear awoken during hibernation. Tulla turned away and kept her strides as wide and brisk as possible.
Compared to the land on the island, the continent was flatter, though its forests were denser, almost shadowy by comparison. When they set out, Dego had thought to follow the mountains in the distance, since the map clearly indicated that Genio sat at the base of a small range, but he hadn’t seen those peaks since they entered the forest, and if anything it was getting thicker with every step. Shem’s stomach let out another thunderous growl, echoing through the forest. In the distance the flapping of scared birds could be heard.
“Good luck killing anything with that alarm going off every few minutes,” Dego sneered. Any element that made it more difficult for Shem to hunt was worth a laugh.
“Gurgh, this is killing me.”
“I’ll kill you if you don’t stop whining!” In a flash Tulla’s knife was wagging in Shem’s face and he nearly fell backwards over himself trying to get away, shrugging off Dego’s laughter. “Either do something about it or just be quiet!”
With a quick nod of his head Shem summoned Dego to his side. “Listen, we all know you have no clue where we’re going. We don’t blame you. It’s not like I can read either. But you said you knew and you’re going to make it up to me.”
“I’m not going hunting for you. You know I’m not going to kill anything.”
“You don’t have to kill anything. Either let Silverhide kill it or you can just hobble something for me to kill off. I can’t get close, but if it can’t run away, well…” He smirked, and Dego didn’t need to ask what method of killing he was contemplating. Shem was the kind to snap a neck rather than slit a throat.
“If I let Silverhide loose, there won’t be much left afterwards.” Shaking his arm, Dego managed to convince Silverhide to loosen its grip on his arm. If only the serpent were larger it could coil around his waist and keep the pants he had been given by Peri from sliding down. How anyone could prefer pants to a nicely treated animal skin, he would never know.
Considering his options, and knowing that the longer Shem was deprived of meat the more he would complain, Dego snuck up on Tulla and swiped her knife from the sheath she had fashioned for it, a wooden vessel modified from left-over scraps of firewood.
“What are you doing!” She spun around and just missed slapping Dego across the face, the little island boy wagging his tongue at her. “Give that back!”
“I just need it for a few minutes. I’m going to sharpen a stick and hopefully handicap a deer enough for Shem to do what he needs to.”
“And let you dull the edge? I won’t be able to cut air with it after you’re done, let alone anything of importance.” She made another swipe at Dego but he ducked it effortlessly and bounced back a couple of steps.
While Dego began to chisel away at a hefty branch he found at the base of a tree, Shem stepped in and tried his best to calm Tulla down. By the time she had finally relented, Dego had crafted enough of a point to at least puncture the side, even if it was only a shallow wound. He handed back the knife, sparking another tirade about his carelessness and poor skills. If he wanted to be berated, he would have stayed on the island.
Creeping from tree to tree, Dego’s head snapped from rustling bushes to snapping branches, more often than not the consequences of his own movements. On the island it was difficult to move more than mile without seeing at least half a dozen creatures, lean as they might be. Here, after traveling for two days they had seen only a few creatures not worth their meat. What was he hoping to find? The available wildlife on the continent was a mystery to him. For all he knew they had strange winged beasts that would barely feed an infant let alone a fully grown man or three people.
Looking behind him he could barely see Shem and Tulla arguing in the distance and he wondered how much further he should go. Finding a city was proving difficult enough; he had little hope for two people in this forest.
A sudden, soft hissing from Silverhide brought Dego’s attention back around and he saw a stag slink into view. Seven points dotted its antlers, indicating that its haunches would be healthy and likely enough to satiate at least Shem, if not both the boys. Tulla could eat her veggies for all he cared. He dropped low, carefully watching where he stepped to avoid scaring the beast off. The stag seemed oblivious to his presence, even Silverhide having the good sense to hush up as soon as Dego started moving.
Moving within three strides of his prey, Dego lifted the spear above his shoulder, his arm coiled to release the killing blow. Not the killing blow…the injuring blow. Not quite as definite, but he was fine with that. Taking careful aim, he pulled back, hesitating for a moment. He would have to drag the stag back to Shem, since his friend had failed to him. The boy could hunt, but he could use a few more senses about him. The Gods did not always share their gifts evenly.
Gathering as much nerve as he could, Dego brought his arm forward, ready to let the spear fly. Before he could release, a crimson blur dashed by taking the stag with it. Dego stumbled forward, catching himself and following the trail of blood that had sprayed out from where the stag had just been standing. Silverhide screeched sharply, piercing Dego’s ears and forcing him to cover them.
Hunched over the limp corpse of the stag was a creature unlike any Dego had seen before. Larger than a bear, it had a sharp golden beak that tore through the stag’s flesh, pinning the body down with talons large enough to completely grasp Dego. Crimson and brown feathers painted its body, sprays of blood getting lost in the pattern.
“What are…” Dego muttered, clasping his hands over his mouth when he realized the words were not in his head. The creature’s eyes turned to him in a flash; golden balls that burned like a midday sun and focused squarely on the island boy. A sharp squawk sounded across the forest, Dego turning and running as quickly as he could. In moments the beast was away and bounding across the ground, continuing to squawk a death rattle at Dego. He could feel fear gripping his limbs and slowing them down. If only Shem had accompanied him.
Tripping over a root Dego tumbled into the ground, dirt clinging to his face and causing him to cough violently. Looking up he saw the creature make a final leap, lunging through the air towards him and for a moment the cold grip of fear overcame him.
Wait! Silverhide! He thought, and he grabbed the creature tightly. “Come on! Make me metal! Do it!” He shouted. Silverhide just twisted its head and blinked.
As the creature came down upon him an arrow flew through its open beak, stopping it short of snapping at Dego and making it back off. Before he knew it, the creature had disappeared into the woods and Dego had the rest of his life to look forward to. Sitting up, he shook the dirt from his hair and spit the last few clumps out. A helping hand was extended for him.
“Thanks Shem. You didn’t need to cut it so close…” When he reached up to take the hand, he saw that it was not Shem’s, but belonged to someone else entirely; someone older and, if possible, broader and stronger. He was darker than even Galen’s, a deep brown that looked as if he had never spent a day away from the fiercest sun. A thin, black goatee outlined his chin and the broad smile he wore, and his eyes were a cold blue that sent a shiver down Dego’s back.
“I’m sorry I only just made it, although I am fortunate to have a stronger name than ‘Shem’.” The stranger hoisted Dego to his feet, shrugging to adjust the strap of his quiver and sling his bow over his shoulder. A dozen arrows rattled around. “Are you alright? That was close indeed.”
“Yes, thank you.” He looked on towards where the beast had run. “What was that thing?”
“That?” The man’s eyes flickered up and then back to Dego. “That was a rare creature, the piatek. Seeing one is meant to either be a blessing or a curse. I think you should consider yourself one of the fortunate ones.”
Dego wiped his nose and realized that Silverhide had roughed up his skin something fierce. He pinched the pet’s head and brought it face to face with him. “Bad Silverhide…”
“That’s a pretty pet you have there. Where’d you find a thing like that?”
“Oh, this?” Dego pulled what little there was of a sleeve over the serpent. “Found him on a shore back home. We’ve been fairly…tight ever since.”
“That’s good. Keep him close. There are men about who would do anything they can to steal a pretty pet like that. I’m sure you could sell it for a fair price.” He nodded back over his shoulder. “Looks like the piatek almost ran off with your dinner. Want to see what’s left of it?”
“Definitely. If I returned empty-handed, I don’t think I would be so lucky…”
“Must be a very demanding friend,” the stranger said. “I’ll help you carry it back then. Can’t imagine you could carry much with such a small frame.” The man laughed and slapped Dego on the back. “I’m Beros.”
“Dego,” the boy said, shaking Beros’ hand. “My friends are just back there some hundred strides.”
“Really? I can’t see them.” Beros squinted and scanned the tree line. “Maybe they wandered off.”
“They better not have. I told them not to move.”
The stag was absolutely shredded, it stomach spilling acid out on the ground, framed by several other organs that were unrecognizable. Beros scooped the mess into the stag’s shattered corpse and folded it in half to lift it off the ground, liquid dripping as he carried it.
“Only one hundred strides, eh? You better not be far off,” he staggered to say.
“I promise, it’s not far.”