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The Way of the Hunter - Sanctuary (Chapter Thirty-Six)

Alya Elvawiel
Old Vault Category: 
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The evening air is cool with a light breeze. The harmonious chirp of crickets, coupled with the rhythmic clip-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the road, is like a soft lullaby, lulling her slowly into the welcoming embrace of sleep. The gentle rocking of the cart soothes her further, and her eyelids begin to droop as she drifts blissfully into slumber.

Suddenly, she feels a falling sensation, and she wakes up with a jolt, just in time to catch herself from tumbling off the front of the wagon. Her heart thudding, she grips the reins tightly with one hand while slapping her cheeks with the other, hoping the stinging pain would help wake her up, but her eyelids still feel heavy, her senses dulled, and her movements lethargic.

You can’t keep going like this. You need to rest soon.

They have been travelling for four days without stopping, journeying through the night to cover more distance, and she is suffering from the full-blown effects of lack of sleep. Stifling a yawn, she shakes her head to try and refocus her bleary eyes on the road ahead. Her muscles are stiff and aching, and her backside is feeling sore from all those hours sitting at the head of the wagon.

It would be so nice if she could just pull over to have a quick nap, maybe just a couple of hours…the gods know she needs it…

But as she glances over her shoulder at the still form of the ranger, still covered by her cloak, she knows that they cannot afford to stop.

Alya has all but used up their entire healing supply to try and slow down or reverse the effects of the poison…or at least to just try and keep the man alive. Worryingly, there has been no improvement in his condition.

If anything, he seems to be getting progressively worse.

She cringes as she remembers how he had gone into some form of seizure the other day. Out of the blue, he had begun to thrash violently, and she had to stop the cart to grab hold of him, fearful that he might hurt himself. Her heart hammered in her chest as she tried to pin him down. His arms were flailing wildly, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing. For one frightening moment, he reminded her of a drowning man, struggling desperately to draw breath, and she had felt a wave of helplessness as she held him down, stroking his head, calling his name, and cursing her own impotence, unsure of what else she could do.

Thankfully, the convulsions finally stopped, and he took in a heaving gulp of air before becoming as still as death again. But when she examined him for any self-inflicted injuries, his skin was hot to the touch.

He was burning with fever.

She hears a whimper behind her. Glancing back, she sees Karnwyr lying beside his master, his head resting on his front paws, looking dejected. Bishop’s brow is furrowed, and his head twitches occasionally. She hears a soft groan amid his shallow breathing.

Is he in pain? Or having a nightmare?

Concerned, yet unwilling to stop the cart, she reaches an arm behind her and lightly caresses his stubbly cheek, hoping the simple gesture would help to calm him somewhat. His skin feels flushed and clammy under her fingertips. Not for the first time since their encounter with Garrick and company, she feels a pang of anxiety for the ranger.

If we don’t get there in time, I’ll never forgive myself…

Alya forces down the up welling of guilt. She had taken a risk on his life by not going straight to the Keep for help, but it is too late to change her mind, to turn back, now. Besides, they are almost at their destination.

Just one more day to go.

Hang on, Bishop…

They arrive at the banks of a wide, meandering river. Alya pulls the horse to a stop, and jumps off. Kneeling down by the edge of the stream, she scoops up some water, and drinks from her cupped hands. The water is sweet and refreshing, and she splashes the remainder on her face, letting the cool liquid trickle down her cheeks and drip off her chin. With a sigh, she douses her face again. The chilly water is invigorating, and it will hopefully wake her up a little.

Something furry nudges her, and she turns to find Karnwyr beside her, lapping at the water with his tongue.

Grabbing her satchel, she pulls out a piece of cloth and dips it into the river. Wringing out the excess water, she carries the damp rag to the wagon and climbs back on. She bends over Bishop, and gently dabs his face with the cool, wet cloth. Then, folding the fabric neatly, she presses it onto the ranger’s febrile forehead. It’s not much, but hopefully it will help keep his temperature down.

Leaving the cloth on Bishop’s head, she moves back to the front of the wagon and whistles for Karnwyr. The wolf leaps onto the cart and lands effortlessly beside her. Ruffling the animal’s mane, she looks towards the beginnings of a forest ahead of them. A wooded mountain towers out from the tops of the trees. They could probably manoeuvre the wagon through the undergrowth for another hour or so before the vegetation becomes too dense and tangled, and before the route begins to slant steeply uphill.

When that happens, they will have to ditch the cart completely.

She glances again at the unconscious ranger, and her heart clenches involuntarily. She reaches out a hand to gently squeeze his shoulder. Then, with a snap of the reins, she urges the horse onward.

* * *

He is in another dream. This time he is surrounded by drab stone walls, in a chamber dimly lit by some candles. There is an altar with an intricately carved statue on it. Judging by the missing right hand and the sightless eyes, he guesses that it is an effigy of the Maimed God, Tyr.

He sees a woman sitting with her back against a wall, facing the altar. Her expression is pensive as she stares at the stone sculpture, one arm hugging her knees tightly to her body. Her other hand twirls the fringes of her auburn mane, and he sees her chewing on the end of a lock of hair.

“It’s just a statue, you know.”

Did he just say that?

He feels himself walking out from the shadows as the woman jumps, startled by his presence.

“Gods, stop sneaking up on me like that!” she scolds, even as she gives him a slight smile.

He hears himself snicker.

“You know, you could make it harder for me by actually being aware of your surroundings,” he retorts, as he moves to stand beside her, leaning his back casually against the wall, his hands in his pockets.

Neither of them says anything more for a spell. It is not an uncomfortable silence, as if the woman is just glad for his company. Something tells him that she has been alone in that room now for a long time.

“You really going to do this on your own?” he finally asks as he looks down at her, his tone nonchalant.

She shrugs. “What choice do I have?” Her fingers start to play with her hair again.

“Lots by the looks of it,” he replies, as he leans his head back against the cool hard stone. “Running away from it all still seems the best option, but we’ve been through this before, haven’t we?” He casts a sidelong glance at her. “I take it you’re still not changing your mind?”

She sighs. “Bishop, you can’t run –“

“From your own shadow,” he finishes for her. “Heh, wonder where I heard that before?” Shifting his weight, he leans his shoulder against the wall so that he now faces her. He catches the gleam of resolution in her eyes.

“You’re stubborn, you know that?”

She says nothing as she gazes thoughtfully at the stone idol.

He crosses his arms in front of himself. “If you won’t take off, then at least get one of those lackeys of yours to be your so-called ‘champion’. That dwarf is always itching for a fight, and that paladin,” he practically spits out the last word. “He seems all ready to throw himself at a herd of berserker orcs for you.” He raises an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that why he was in here earlier? I doubt he visited you just to preach about Tyr.”

Sitting cross-legged, she swivels around to face him. “Bishop, I appreciate your concern, but –“

He laughs harshly, interrupting her. “Concern? Don’t flatter yourself,” he snaps, his tone more biting than he intended. “I’m merely concerned about repaying the debt I owe that uncle of yours.” He eyes her fixedly. “And you’re making it very difficult for me. How do I protect someone who is so eager to die?”

She meets his gaze unflinchingly. “I am not ‘eager’ to die,” she states firmly, indignantly. He has obviously hit a sore spot. “If anything, I don’t want to go through with it any more than you do.” Her piercing green eyes start to shimmer. “I’m scared,” she continues with a quake in her voice. “I’ve been scared ever since all this business with the shard fell into my lap.” She looks away, embarrassed by her outburst. “There have been too many deaths already,” she whispers. “And if I sent someone to take my place tomorrow, and he dies…the gods know I will never be able to live with myself.” She smiles a bitter smile. “Hells, I’ll hang anyway if my champion dies. The way I see it, doing it myself, well…better just one death than two, eh?”

He watches in silence as she brings her knees up, and hugs them tightly to her chest. She continues to look away from him, her reddish hair covering her face. He feels his heart twinge when she surreptitiously swipes something off her face. She suddenly appears so small and helpless, and he feels an overwhelming urge to gather her up in his arms, to comfort her, to protect her.

But he quickly quashes the temptation. He is afraid, too. Afraid of the unexplainable depth of feeling he has for her, afraid of what it would mean if he actually does try and hold her.

So instead, he remains aloof.

“Didn’t think you were the pessimistic type,” he remarks. “The way I see it, you stand a pretty good chance against him.”

She makes no move to reply, or to turn back to face him, but he carries on regardless.

“I’ve seen guys like him fight. They don’t think. They’ll just come barrelling at you with everything they’ve got. All he has going for him is his strength. You’re much smaller and faster. Weave in and out. Use your ranged weapons. Keep hitting him till he goes down. Just try not to get hit yourself.” He notices that she is finally looking at him. With a wry grin, he taps his temple with a forefinger. “Fight smart, and maybe you’ll live.”

He sees her smirk, her eyes still shining. “You didn’t just come here to tell me how to fight Lorne, did you?”

He shrugs. “I have to at least show Duncan that I tried to help.”

Another minute of silence follows as he struggles with what he wants to say next.

“Look,” he finally begins, sliding his back down the wall until he is sitting beside her. “I can see you’re loath to risk the lives of your friends. So why not send me instead?”

She whips her head around in surprise, but it is his turn to look away. He wonders if she had detected that hint of self-loathing in his voice.

“I think I’d enjoy killing that bastard,” he rushes on. “And I might do it, if you ask me nicely enough.”

This time the silence between them feels uncomfortable. He concentrates on scrutinising a particular corner of the ceiling as he continues to avoid her gaze. Cobwebs, dust…the monks should really clean this place out.

He feels a hand on his knee. Glancing down, he falls straight into her luminous green eyes.

“No,” she says simply.

He cannot help himself. “No, what?”

“No, I don’t want you to fight my battle.” She smiles gratefully. “Like you said, I don’t want to risk the life of a friend.”

He cringes inwardly as his heart does a ridiculous little flip. Did she really mean that?

It dawns on him then that they are alone. And that her hand is still resting on his knee.

And that they are sitting very closely together.

Pressed shoulder to shoulder, her face is only inches away from his. From this distance, her emerald cat’s eyes sparkle with an invitation for him to lose himself in their embracing depths. He counts the faint freckles on her nose. Nine of them, ten if you include that almost invisible one right on the bridge, between her eyes. He catches her feminine scent, sweet and a little tangy. Her mouth, those soft-looking lips, close enough to…

He hurriedly pushes himself off the floor.

“Well, don’t say I never offered my help then,” he says, forcing his voice to remain calm as he strolls towards the exit, all the while ignoring the torrent of conflicting emotions crashing around in his head.

Before stepping through the door, he turns and salutes her with two fingers.

“Happy hunting tomorrow.”

The dream fades to black as he leaves the room.

* * *

The old man is sitting at the top of the rocky cliff, his eyes closed in meditation, when he hears the distinct clattering of a horse’s hooves pounding its way up the narrow trail. It surprises him, for he almost never gets visitors. The animal is galloping, and he can hear the slippery pebbles shifting dangerously underneath the creature’s feet. Very unwise to be riding so fast on such a steep, treacherous path. Perhaps the rider has some form of urgent business.

He waits until he hears the horse pulling to a stop behind him, snorting and panting. The creature sounds very tired, as if it had been running for a long time without rest. The rider dismounts smoothly, and he recognises the quiet, fluid movements.

“My child,” he says in his native tongue, as he opens his eyes and turns towards the red-headed half-elf. “You have returned.”

Sifu,” she reverently falls to her knees before him. Her face and clothes are dusty, and there are dark rings of shadow around her eyes. She, too, looks very tired.

“Get up, child,” he urges gently, as he stands, supporting himself on a gnarled walking stick. He helps the woman up by her elbows, then looks toward the dun-coloured mare, head lowered, foaming at the mouth.

A man’s limp body lies strapped across the horse’s back.

Just then, he hears padded footfalls. A large grey wolf bounds up the trail, its tongue lolling out.

“I see you’ve brought company,” the old man remarks, his tone and expression neutral and calm in spite of the unexpected guests.

She nods grimly. “He is hurt, sifu,” she explains, speaking hurriedly, fumbling slightly over the foreign words. “It’s poison…I know not what kind.” Her eyes glimmer with concern as she clutches his hand.

“Please help him.”

Slowly, the old man shuffles over to the horse. He examines the unconscious man briefly before frowning slightly. The man’s face is waxy, his features contorted in pain. Placing a finger on the man’s neck, he finds a thready pulse, and his skin is burning hot.

Quietly, he instructs the woman, “Help me carry him.”

They do not have much time.

The Way of the Hunter Chapter 36 - Sanctuary © Alya Elvawiel

Migrate Wizard: 
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