The fire roared in the dark of the forest. The flames danced and cast flickering shadows on the trees surrounding the camp. The boar’s corpse turned slowly over the flames, licked by amber tongues as they hissed with each drop of fat that dripped off the meat. Beros sat to the side, rotating the spit and prodding the pig’s flesh occasionally with the tip of an arrow. Each time the arrowhead sank in with greater ease than before, but the hunter remained unsatisfied. When the fire seemed to be getting low he would reach in and sort the hodgepodge of twigs and broken branches by hand, protected by a pair of worn and dirtied golden gloves, red gems glistening on the back of each hand.
“What business do you have in Genio? The High Council is no place for barefooted wild-childs to be running about. Men get killed in the streets just for looking at someone the wrong way.” Beros was examining the map that Peri had given the children, commenting that he found it to be a crude depiction of the land. From his travels he knew the foothills and forests better than most, and the lack of such details troubled his reading of the chart.
“No reason, really,” Dego said. “We just don’t have anywhere else to go. Peri told us to go to Genio, since it was closest.”
“I suppose there is some sense to his reasoning, though if you’ve never set foot on civilized land, you should visit a town first. A city will overwhelm you. No sense throwing yourself in the middle of the ocean when you can paddle about along the shoreline first.” He pointed to a small dot below Genio, just outside the edge of the forest. “This is where you’ll find Daggerfall, the closest town to the High Council once you leave the Black Forest. You should head there, spend a few days getting used to the way of life before heading to the King’s city.”
Tulla rested against a tree, her arm resting across her knee. She dangled her knife by its handle and let it spin, watching the light dance off the naked blade. Beros had refused her assistance to cook the boar, and he did not seem to realize the offense he had paid her. Dego could see the air sour around her.
“How different can things be here? Men hunt for food, women cook the food and everyone gets drunk around the fire,” she said. “You wear strange clothes, but it doesn’t seem things are too different.”
“You stayed with a strange farmer who draws pretty pictures for a hobby,” Beros pointed out with a snide smirk. “On the continent, when you get a few people together, it’s not long before they’ve built a town with a wall, patrolling it with guards and trading amongst each other.”
“Sounds tedious,” Tulla said. “I can’t see why anyone would rather live like that than off the land. This forest seems like a decent enough place.”
Beros shrugged her words off and poked the pig again, finally finding it satisfactorily easy to slice through. Lifting it away from the fire, he used his feet to stretch out the hole-ridden indigo cloak he normally wore about his shoulders and laid out the roast. This seemed to be a well-worn practice, dark stains scattered across its tattered form. Aside from his quiver and bow, Beros had only his knife; the rest of his possessions totaled no more than the clothes he was wearing. His vest was brown; his shirt as well though he claimed it had once been white. “I’ve spent years on this land. The forests are no more difficult to navigate than going from the kitchen to your bedroom, but the people are lazy and want comfort and ease in their life.”
Pausing, he pointed at the trees around them.
“See these trees? They’re specific to this part of the forest that’s closest to the coast. For several miles the trees are of a hardier breed, more resilient to the cold winds that come rolling in off the sea. As you move further inland, you’ll find that the density is low and the trees themselves thinner in bulk and lighter in color. From Genio you can see birch trees that glisten in the sun. Learning that has taken me years. A townsman would rather just have someone like me chop down the tree and hand it to him than figure it out himself.”
“Have you been to Genio then?” Shem admired a club that Beros had given him, a smoothed piece of wood that could have been ripped right off a tree if he didn’t know any better. When Beros saw the ‘spear’ Dego was going to use to kill a stag, he felt nothing but pity and declared it was his ‘Gods given duty’ to arm the boys.
“Genio?” Beros echoed. “Oh yes, plenty of times. Some parts of the continent are fiercely contested by various kingdoms, but this far West there is only Genio. The mountains make it easy to divide the territories, though I’ve heard there used to be terrible wars in eras past.”
In silence the hunter divided up the meat of the boar, his as long as his forearm and just as thick. Dego found it humorous to even consider calling it a knife, but Beros insisted it was a knife. The boys were happy to pass the meal without conversation, though they had to make do with Tulla’s repeated complaints over the toughness of the meat.
“Never too tough. Properly cooked meat should always feel like your cheek.” She pressed her fingers against her cheek bones repeatedly. “This is like eating something that’s been out in the sun for days.”
“I find it suitably tender, myself. What can I say? I like it when everything is well-done,” he said with a smirk, biting into the haunch he had separated out for himself. “To each their own, though.”
While they ate, Beros constantly observed Silverhide, watching as it writhed over what remained of the stag Dego had been hunting. The creature seemed to be examining the situation, trying to decide what remained to consume. From time to time its tongue would run along an eyeball or an exposed bone. When it seemed a thorough analysis had been made, Silverhide squealed and dove between the rib bones of the stag, tearing through the organs with a terrible ferocity. Dego found it simply fascinating.
“You sure seem to come across strange creatures in your travels,” Beros said, nodding to Silverhide. “First this serpent, then a piatek…your friends are brave to travel with you.”
“It’s just a snake,” Tulla jeered. “Nothing frightening.”
“If that’s just a snake, then I’m just a simple hunter.” He held some fresh meat in his hand just over the ground, motioning to Silverhide and whistling. “Here, boy.”
The serpent lifted its head out of the stag, covered in blood and stomach acid, shaking it off with a quick shiver and almost leaping into Beros’ hand.
“I’ve never seen a familiar up close.”
“You know about familiars?” Dego tossed aside the bare bone he had been gnawing on. “Do you have one?”
Beros looked around himself, checking under himself and staring up into the branches.
“Right, I get it,” Dego said. “Still, I’ve had him for a couple weeks and all I know is that he eats more than the rest of us combined and he likes to squeal a lot.”
Silverhide closed its eyes and screeched gleefully.
“Familiars are not so rare, you’ll find.” Beros lifted the serpent up and tossed it at the boar’s corpse, the serpent diving in headfirst and setting about devouring what remained of it. “Still, you should keep it hidden while you travel. I’m sure more than a few men would be glad to get their hands on something like this.”
“…and you don’t?”
“Please!” Beros laughed. “I have more than enough to worry about as it is. You couldn’t pay me to take that thing off you.”
With Beros’ laughter ringing in his ears, Dego left the subject alone and returned to making a new spear, fashioning some of the thicker wood around them as the shaft and fashioning a spearhead from the antlers of his stag. He also cut off enough of the antlers to make daggers when he had better means and more time. By the time he finished constructing his weapon, the fire was a dim smolder surrounded by slumbering travelers.
The path that Beros led the children down was twisting and frail, overgrown by thickets and bushes that made it invisible to the un-keen eye. Tulla was happy that in one morning with this strange hunter they had made more progress than days with Dego as their guide.
“This was the Serpent’s Trail, a fairly common passage that was a useful short-cut until the high roads were created,” the hunter explained. He loved to talk about the land, explaining its history and the little details that he claimed few knew, or rather remembered. From time to time he would pause, holding his fist up suddenly to signal that they should not make a sound, and then would continue on as if nothing were wrong. The abruptions to their journey did not ease the children’s nerves.
“Why don’t we just find one of the high roads then?” Tulla barked. “We’ve been in the woods for days and I for one would be happy to get out of them as soon as possible.”
“You don’t want to travel on the high roads these days. Brigands and thieves make their marks on the high roads. A path like this is light on traffic and danger the same.”
Tulla tried to argue for the easier road, but she knew that her words held no weight. She was a stranger in this land.
Beros drew his dagger and made a quick swipe at some low hanging branches, tossing them aside to clear the path. He perked up suddenly, motioning for the children to follow and breaking out into a full sprint through the brush. The children followed as best they could, thorns tearing at their bare skin as they rushed through it. Tulla winced at the pain but she knew that if she stopped she would be lost forever in this gods forsaken maze of nature’s making, and she couldn’t stand another minute of it.
When the children finally caught up to Beros, they realized that the forest was finally finished, a thin line of trees separating it out from a wide dirt road that screamed with wagon wheels and travelers.
“Oh thank the gods,” Tulla cried, falling to her knees and kissing the road. “I shall be happy to never set foot in another forest again.”
“What is that?” Dego asked, pointing up the road to a collection of buildings that seemed larger than even his own hut in the village. Unrolling the map he began scanning it over. His head popped up and down as he tried to match what was in front of him to the drawing he held, but he seemed unable to reconcile the two.
“That is the town of Daggerfall. It’s the closest town to Genio you’ll find. You should rest up there and get some food before heading over. It might be a good idea to see how people on the continent live. I can imagine it’s not at all what you’d expect,” Beros explained. He pulled his hood up over his head, looking both ways down the road. “I shall have to leave you here. I believe it was fortunate that we met, and hopefully our paths will cross again someday soon.”
Without another word he stepped out onto the road, disappearing into the groups of travelers.
Alone again, the children followed his example and headed for Daggerfall, joining the throngs of travelers that made their way to and fro on the high roads.