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The Way of the Hunter - Indecision (Chapter Thirty-Four)

Alya Elvawiel
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He picks up the harness and urges the horse away from the grassy verge, all the while daydreaming about the bounty he is about to collect, imagining all the ale and wenches that amount of coin could buy. And who knows? With the monk back, perhaps she would regain the captaincy, and maybe he could keep his job and the reward…provided she doesn’t get too mad at him for selling the ranger out when they get back…

He is so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he doesn’t notice the shadow running up alongside the wagon until it is too late. Something big pounces at him from the side, knocking him clean off his perch on the cart. He lands heavily on the ground with the growling figure on top of him.

He cries out involuntarily at the sight of rows of sharp teeth just inches away from his face. He hears the Knight-Captain shout something, but amid the snarls of the frenzied animal and his own screams, he cannot make out her words.

Mercifully, the creature backs off, but as Jalboun sits up, he realises that it is the Knight-Captain who has pulled the large wolf back by the scruff of its neck. The creature strains against her, gnashing its fangs at him. It is a magnificent animal, with a rich, thick pelt and shiny yellow eyes. There is a nasty gash on its flank, where its fur is matted with blood, as if it too, had been in a violent fight.

“Karnwyr, no!” the Knight-Captain is saying. “He’s trying to help!”

Is he going mad? Or is she talking to the animal?

Jalboun vaguely remembers the ranger owning a pet wolf. This must be his animal companion then, although why the creature is not turning on the Knight-Captain when she is wrestling so roughly with it is completely beyond him.

Without warning, the wolf breaks free from the woman’s grasp, and sinks its teeth into Jalboun’s leg. He roars as the sharp pain shoots up his limb, and he kicks out savagely at the creature to drive it back, but the Knight-Captain has again managed to restrain the animal. As he struggles to stand up, the creature growls menacingly, and it glares at him accusingly with its eerily intelligent eyes.

The combination of pain and the animal’s insolent stare triggers an alcohol-fuelled fury.

“Filthy mongrel!” he snaps angrily, nursing his bitten leg. “I’ll see you hang with your traitorous owner!”

The part of his brain that is not steeped in ale cringes inwardly.

He hazards a glance at the Knight-Captain. Her arms still around the wolf’s neck, she looks at him, her face frozen in a wide-eyed expression of shock.


He mentally kicks himself as he stands awkwardly before her, trying to think of a way to salvage the situation. Finally, he decides to just ignore his earlier slip of the tongue, his alcohol-ridden logic telling him that if he pretended he never said that, then she would as well.

Limping towards the wagon, he urges, “Come along now, Cap’n.”

Apparently still too shocked to speak, she merely shakes her head dumbly. The wolf grumbles throatily beside her.

With an exasperated sigh, Jalboun cautiously approaches her, but stops at a safe distance from the grey wolf. Holding out a hand, he says again, this time more gruffly, “I said, come on!”

“No!” she protests, finally finding her voice. Summoning up her authority, she orders, “I forbid anybody from hanging him!”

Jalboun’s expression is momentarily unreadable before he suddenly bursts out laughing. His laughter is harsh, with a grating quality to it.

“I’m afraid, mighty Cap’n, that you have no jurisdiction in this matter,” he snickers, slurring the big word he tries to use, making it sound more like jurr-eesh-dick-shun. “The order comes from higher up.”

“What?” her face registers her disbelief.

“C’mon Cap’n, what did ya expect?” Jalboun continues. “He committed treason. Against Neverwinter.” He eyes her steadily.

Nasher wants his head.”

He could see her hesitate as she struggles with the implications of what he has just told her. It still bemuses him why she is so bothered about the traitor’s wellbeing.

“He tried to kill ya, Cap’n,” Jalboun says. “Why in the hells are ya trying to protect him?”

She doesn’t answer him, seemingly lost in her own thoughts. He could almost see her mentally weighing up her options. Being missing all this time must have done something to her head, but he is sure that she’ll come to her senses soon enough when she’s back at the Keep.

And as soon as Nasher is through with the betrayer.

He goes on, “Listen, in any case, ya have to come back.”

When she still doesn’t reply, he decides it is time to play his trump card.

With a cunning twinkle in his eye, he says almost casually, “They’ve found ‘em, ya know. Your friends. And they’re alive.”

He could see the woman’s slightly pointed ears twitch up at his words. As she looks at him, her eyes reflect both suspicion and a faint flicker of hope.

“I ain’t lying,” he insists. “They found that elven druidess, and…” he involuntarily breaks out in a lustful smile. “And that sexy tiefling.”

“Elanee? Neeshka!” she gasps, either not noticing or choosing to ignore Jalboun’s thinly veiled lewdness. He has to suppress a self-satisfied chuckle as he senses her building excitement.

But she’s a careful one.

”How did you find them?” she asks warily, her eyes narrowed.

Aww, Cap’n, I’m hurt. Don’t ya trust me?

I didn’t find ‘em,” he says simply. “It was that nutty old guy in the library. I don’t know all the details, but apparently he put together some old portal and, well, out they popped.”

“What about Ammon?” she asks again.

Jalboun looks at her blankly. “Who?”

“Ammon Jerro. The warlock. He was with Elanee and Neeshka when they disappeared.”

“Oh, that old guy.” There have been rumours at the Keep about what the two women had said after they were rescued. “Something about some infernal contract he was bound to,” he shrugs. “He never made it back.”

She grimaces at the news, but he could tell that she is satisfied with his answers, certain now that he is telling the truth.

Stifling a triumphant grin, he adds, “They asked about ya, Cap’n. We all want ya back.” He is impressed by how heartfelt he managed to make that last sentence.

Jalboun delights in the torn look on the woman’s face as she wrestles with indecision, her gaze wandering from the Keep in the distance, to the ranger, and then back again. Gods, does she have the hots for the man or something?

“Cap’n,” he says again, his tone gentle as he could make it. “We need ya.”

He sees her close her eyes as she draws a long intake of breath. When she exhales, she looks back at the Keep with a look of steely resolve.

“Okay,” she whispers simply, the one word evoking in Jalboun’s mind the jangle of a sack full of coins. She lets go of the wolf, which seems to have calmed down during their talk, and no longer seems intent on ripping the man’s throat out.

With another toothy sneer, he says, “This way then, Cap’n,” as he leads her to the waiting cart.

He is surprised when she puts a hand on his shoulder. Glancing back, he sees her smiling warmly at him.

“I know I may seem a little out of sorts at the moment, Jalboun, but I have had such a crazy journey.” Moving in front of him, she continues gratefully, “I’ll be fine when I get back to the Keep, I’m sure, but I just want to thank you for talking me to my senses.”

And without warning, her arms embrace him in a hug. Startled by the sudden show of affection, Jalboun could only stand there, rooted to the spot. When was the last time a woman had thrown her arms around him without being paid to do it?


Her head rests on his chest, and he could smell the womanly scent of her hair. When she pulls back, she smiles again, and her hands start to travel up his neck, tickling him with her light touch. “Why, Jalboun,” she purrs. “You have such strong neck muscles…”

He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. The reward, finding the Knight-Captain, and now this? Talk about a lucky day!

He could feel himself becoming aroused when her fingers trail to both sides of his neck, lingering on a sensitive spot behind his ears. As he feels himself shivering, a goofy grin breaks out across his face.

That is when he feels a sudden shooting pain in his head.

And everything goes black.

* * *

It took all her willpower not to gag when she wrapped her arms around Jalboun. Gods, the man reeks! She tried to hold her breath as she caressed the sides of his neck, all the while trying to act seductive. Considering his stench and his bad breath, it wasn’t easy. Thankfully, he was too stunned by her advances to think about trying to grope her.

Finally, her fingers found the soft point behind his ear right under the hard ridge of his skull. She noticed that the man’s eyes were half-closed, and his breathing had quickened. He had a dopey grin stuck to his face, exposing a row of crooked yellow teeth.

With a final forced smile, Alya plunges her thumb deep into the vulnerable spot. She watches as Jalboun’s eyes widen with surprise before they roll up into his head. As she steps back from him, the man’s limp body topples gracelessly onto the ground.

Well, most of his body is limp…

“Perve,” she mutters at the man’s inanimate form, and finally allows herself a disgusted shudder. That was revolting! she thinks, as she unconsciously rubs herself, attempting to brush off all traces of the man. She is glad that he was too drunk to catch her out on her bad acting. With a cringe, she remembers what she had said:

“Why, Jalboun, you have such strong neck muscles.”

This time she does gag.

But her mind quickly returns to the dilemma at hand.

If what Jalboun said is true – and despite what she thinks of the man, she doubts the drunkard is capable of lying so smoothly through his teeth, not after he has just downed a gallon of ale – then she couldn’t go back to the Keep.

Of course you can go back there, she corrects herself. You just can’t bring Bishop.

She runs over to the wagon to check on the ranger. His breathing is so shallow, Alya could not even see his chest rising and falling. It is only by feeling for his pulse and finding a faint flutter in his neck that she knows he is still alive, but barely. She could feel dread building up in the pit of her stomach.

She gazes again at the twinkling lights of the Keep, so tantalisingly close now, and yet it seems miles away.

She thinks about Elanee and Neeshka, feeling a surge of relief that they have made it back safely. She longs to be reunited with them, with everyone at the Keep: Bevil, Kana, Wolf and the other kids…

The lights in the near distance wave at her, beckoning her, drawing her to the Keep like a moth to a flame. All that she had fought for, all that she holds dear, are waiting for her there.

So why is she hesitating?

She hears a whimper and looks down. Karnwyr had jumped onto the cart, and is now by his master’s side, licking at the ranger’s pallid face. The unlikely yet tender scene makes her heart clench slightly.

“Why in the hells are ya trying to protect him?” Jalboun’s earlier words ring in her head.

Why am I?

Because I owe him, that’s all,
she tries to convince herself. A life for a life.

I’m just repaying my debt.

she flinches. Now I’m starting to sound like him!

She is snapped out of her thoughts by a groan coming from behind her. Jalboun will be waking up soon. They must get out of there before he stirs.

She looks again at the ranger. His normally tanned face is distressingly pale.

I could hide him somewhere, she schemes. Leave Karnwyr to guard him, and return to the Keep myself. Then I could try and come back with a cure.

Provided, of course, that no one stumbles across him while she is gone.

And provided that no one else knows of the bounty on his head.

Why not just bring him along instead? I’m sure you could persuade Nasher to spare him…

But what if I can’t? Do I deliver him to the gallows myself?

She runs her hands through her hair in frustration, her mind grappling with the difficult choices she has to make. Leave him, and he will die. Take him with her, and he risks being executed. The only other alternative seems to be to go somewhere else for help. But where? Even now, she is wasting precious time. The poison is surging through his veins. There is no other village for days in any direction. How much longer will he hold out?

The pit in her stomach continues to grow, and she wills herself to remain calm. Panicking now will help no one. Still clutching at her hair, she forces herself to take slow, deep breaths. She stares longingly again at the torch-lit Keep, barely half an hour’s walk away, the flickering lights mesmerising her for a moment with its hypnotic dance.

When she finally breaks her gaze away, her eyes carry a glint of determination. It is going to be a gamble, but one she feels she has no other choice but to take.

Delving into her satchel, she finds some bandages and medicine, and crudely patches herself up. Then she whistles, calling Karnwyr over. Producing a bottle of healing potion, she pours it over the wolf’s gaping wound, courtesy of his encounter with the panther. Karnwyr yelps once when the liquid stings his cut, but he settles down once the potion starts to take effect.

With both of them in relatively better condition, she climbs into the driving seat of the cart, motions for the wolf to jump on, and snaps the reins. With a grunt, the mare reluctantly tears itself away from the grass at the side of the road.

Knowing that every moment they waste without seeking treatment is bringing the ranger closer to death, she manoeuvres the wagon until it faces the stretch of road ahead of them. Clicking her tongue, she urges the horse into a fast canter towards their destination.

The Way of the Hunter Chapter 34 - Indecision © Alya Elvawiel

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