19th day of the Fire Moon
I feel as if I’m stuffed in a box. I can’t breathe.
His body was on fire with the pain. Kyler of Jurendeldt carefully opened his eyes. Groaning with the effort, he carefully tested his right arm. His forearm and hand throbbed but Kyler didn’t think any bones were broken. Flexing muscles, Kyler was happy his left arm was also relatively well. Something felt off with his left shoulder but his back seemed fine. The battle-wounded knight took his time to sit up.
Palpating along the bone of his shoulder he found the source of the hellish pain: an arrow was embedded. The tip had gone through his hauberk and stuck fast. Gritting his teeth and swearing Kyler yanked out the projectile. He could feel fresh blood dripping from the raw wound.
Kyler rubbed the grit and blood from his eyes. Slowly the blurred landscape came into focus. He was surrounded by piles of corpses. A headless warrior still griping a sword in its left hand lay partially over Kyler’s legs. Two more bodies hemmed him in.
Ignoring the pain from a multitude of cuts bruises and over-taxed muscles, Kyler pushed the bodies of his dead comrades off and away from his. He took stock of his location.
Thick grey clouds towered in the distance. The air was thick with humidity. Kyler swore he saw a burst of lightning on the horizon. A storm was coming his way.
“Who won the battle? Zabe’s Blood, where are my friends Josilin and Sandin? Why wasn’t I taken from the field by the Golden Arrows?” He looked at the devastation around him. Dead men, horses, and dogs were piled almost two thick about the meadow. Grass was trampled to mud and coated black with blood, bile, and gore. His own mount, Dario, stared at him with lifeless eyes. The stallion’s once dappled grey coat a pincushion of barbed arrows.
A cloud of despair shrouded Kyler. “What do I do now? Where do I go?” He recognized more companions. Not a one displayed any signs of life.
Tears fell from Kyler’s eyes leaving a trail of light-colored flesh amidst the grime and gore on his cheeks. “Gone, all gone...and I don’t know why we were fighting other than the King’s edict.” Gentle tears turned to violent sobs, every move sending tendrils of pain along his abused body.
When the crying subsided, Kyler let out a deep sigh. “I can’t stay here.” Carrion birds were already feasting on the dead: vultures, ravens, and a pair of blue eagles hopped from carcass to carcass. A growl let Kyler know the four-footed scavengers were also getting their share. He spotted jackals, a forest cat, and a pack of wolves scattered on the field. Yes, it was time to leave before he became the next meal.
Locating his sword under a Witcenogran mercenary, Kyler walked the battle-born obstacle course. It took a candle mark to get free of the fighting area skirting the dead all the way. Hating himself but knowing his life could depend on having supplies, he rummaged through the clothing and packs of the bodies stiff with rigor mortis. He gathered food, water, and more than a few coins. Without a glance backward, Kyler finally made it to a stand of maple trees.
Feeling exhausted Kyler sipped from a water skin and choked down a piece of jerky.
“I need to get out of here. Please, Lady Jaira, let me find a live horse.”
No deity answered his plea for help. I shouldn’t be surprised. The Gods have their own agendas. Saving one feckless warrior isn’t a priority.
He decided on a direction and started walking. Kyler needed to find shelter before the deluge hit. Trudging onward he kept moving. After an eternity of marching, Kyler heard a familiar noise. He turned to the direction of the noise.
A bay horse watched the knight approach. The stallion whickered a greeting. It tried to move but was stopped short when its dangling reins caught on a tree stump.
“Buddy, your misfortune is a blessing in disguise.” He made soothing sounds in order not to frighten the animal. Untying the tangled leather, Kyler patted the horse’s neck. “I’m so tired. Thank you for being here.” He climbed aboard the bay’s saddle and urged the horse to a steady walk.The pleasant breeze soon turned to a steady blow. As the thunderstorm grew closer, trees began to sway. Rain fell in a steady beat, occasionally pushed by the wind to an undulating sheet of water. Slender branches and fat limbs broke free and littered the forest floor. A squirrel chattered while it ran up an oak tree only hesitating to shake its body before scampering inside a hole in the tree’s trunk.
Kyler wrapped his mantle around his shoulders. The motion caused a bolt of pain to shoot along his upper body. A jay screamed at the passing human, warning him away from her nest.
Finally, Kyler spotted a sanctuary: a cave slightly hidden by shrubs. He dismounted and led the horse through the opening.
The cave widened the further in the two walked. There was plenty of room for both man and stallion.
Kyler unsaddled the bay. Braving the wet outside, he gathered enough wood for a fire. He decided on one more excursion to pick a handful of vegetation for the beast. He shivered against the cold.
Praying the wood wasn’t too wet to burn he carved out a hole in the dirt for a fire. Whispering thanks when a spark appeared, he added more fodder until a blazing fire lit the surface. He stripped down to his linens in order to hang his clothes to dry.
Sorting through his pack, Kyler took out a hunk of cheese, some dried meat, and a stale loaf of bread. He ate sparingly. He spread out the blankets and fell to a fitful sleep, memories of the fight plaguing his dreams.
How could a Fire moon day be so cold? Kyler woke to find the fire down to a few smoldering pieces. He threw on more wood to get the blaze going again. He looked around to discover the horse gone. “I’m still alive...why me?” Guilt overwhelmed Kyler. He thought about his friends. Had they suffered? What of Lord Borean? Had he survived or was his body one of a thousand back on that field of horror? The depression of being hurt and alone was too much. He lay back down and drifted to sleep.
Two years passed. Kyler made a home out of the cave. A crude wooden cot, a table, and set carved from a downed tree added to his comforts. A rack held drying deer meat. Thanks to the battlefield debris, Kyler had an eclectic collection of pots, mugs, and assorted weapons. A shelf with boxes of spices and a few precious candles was carved in the cave wall. A selection of neatly folded hides occupied another shelf. A tripod with a cooking pot stood over the ever-present fire filled with perpetual stew.
Nature had cleaned the scene of the conflict leaving scattered skeletons to attest to the ferocity of the battle. Travelers avoided the area claiming it was haunted by a fierce warrior of the forest. Kyler wouldn’t know about the rumors – he kept away from people altogether.
His physical wounds had long healed leaving him with a stiff but usable shoulder. His body was covered in scars. Kyler had grown a beard the same color as his hair – straw yellow with dark streaks. He hardly spoke a word except when he slept and cried out with nightmares. He spent his days hunting & fishing to build up his winter stores.
Kyler planned on spending the rest of his life alone in the cave. It was just punishment for waking when others died.
A cloudless fall sky was broken by a pair of blue eagles cavorting in the air. A Trihorn doe with twin fawns ate tender spring grass. She froze upon hearing strange noises. Fearing the worst, the doe and two fawns leaped away to hide within the forest.
Playing a merry tune on a wooden flute a solitary man meandered along the trees. He was lightly burdened with a backpack and a water skin held by a thin strap hung over over his shoulder. Well worn but sturdy clothes made of a brown linen embroidered with red and green birds showed he was no peasant. A brown belt wrapped twice around his waist, complete with a short sword and dagger in matching scabbards. His black hair was pulled back and held with a leather cord tipped with a red feather.
Bird song accompanied the music.
He stopped. “You have outdone yourself my lord. It is a perfect day to wander through Your domain, Lord Kywedyn.” Aye, what more can I ask from the Gods? This place is no more occupied by the ghosts of slain warriors than my dear mother’s home in Grenhil. I haven’t seen tracks, heard another’s voice, or seen another man in two days. I doubt the forest warrior exists.
As the day sun began its journey below and the Mother & Daughter moons started their climb to the heavens, Culwich decided it was time to find a suitable campground.
Not paying attention, Culwich was startled when a large cinnamon-colored bear blocked his path. The sow growled, clamped its jaws and started stomping her front paws on the ground.
Culwich gulped. He was between the female and two brown cubs – the young bears scrambling to climb a tree off to his left side. The mother charged.
The minstrel drew his sword. He knew he couldn’t out run the bear. “Zabe, grant me strength to fight well!”
The bear stopped in front of the man and slashed the singer with her claws. Culwich jumped back, trying to sidestep out of her reach while swinging his blade at her face. The enraged bear smacked him hard, slamming him to the ground. Culwich could smell her fetid breath as she roared at him.
Two arrows struck the ursine from behind the downed man. She stood on her back legs and swiped at the projectiles in her chest. A third arrow entered the animal’s eye. With a final growl, the mother crashed to the forest floor.
Culwich groaned. He was bleeding from multiple injuries and his head felt like a blacksmith was pounding a nail into his brain with an axe. He thought he saw a strange dressed in furs approaching him.
“Can you hear me? What is your name?” the man asked with a harsh voice that sounded as if it wasn’t used often.
“I’m Culwich...is the bear dead?”
“Just relax, Culwich. I’ll get you to a safe place.”
“Thank you.” Culwich let his head drop to the ground. The forest began to blur. He soon passed out.
Nature called. Culwich carefully opened his eyes. He was in a well-furnished cave with a large fire burning. He lay on a cot snuggled between furs. He tried to sit up using his hands and bit back a scream. His left arm was bound with hide and thick branches.
“Easy friend, your left arm is broken. You must have fallen on it after that bear tossed you in the air. I stitched the wounds closed and have been putting poultices on them for a week now. I don’t think you’ll get blood poisoning.”
“Thank you. I don’t suppose you’d help me up so I can take care of some urgent needs?” Culwich hesitated, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name. What should I call you?”
“Sorry, call me John.” The man called John moved over to help Culwich. After the minstrel had refreshed himself, he limped over to the fire and sat down on a makeshift seat made form a tree stump.
Kyler handed his guest a mug filled with water. “Here, I’m sure you’re parched. I have food if you feel up to eating.”
“Yes, please. I’m starving.” Culwich studied his host. The man had long blond hair tied back with a leather thong. His clothes were mishmash of deerskin and cloth. He had to be 5’8. Corded muscles circle his arms. His light blue eyes betrayed his sadness. Why is he living out here all alone? Could he be the forest warrior?
“What happened to the bear and her cubs?”
“I killed mother to save your life. The young bears climbed down the tree and ran off. “
“I’m sorry...I never saw her.”
“It’s over and done. You are welcome to stay until your injuries heal. It’s been a while time since I was around another person.”
“I appreciate the offer, John. I am curious: why are you here in the forest all alone?”
“It’s not important. I will assure you I’m no criminal. I just have no desire to live in a town.”
Culwich and Kyler fell into a routine. Kyler would hunt and gather supplies while Culwich took over the cooking & cleaning duties. They spent the evening hours playing dice or cards. Culwich told stories and enthralled Kyler with tales from his travels. Culwich often wondered about Kyler. What caused the man to cry out during his sleep and wake in a drenching sweat?
As fall came to an end Culwich debated whether or not to continue his journey or to stay with his new friend. John is hiding his past from me. Why is he so reluctant to speak of his life to me?
One night while an early winter storm howled outside, Culwich prepared a brace of rabbits for dinner. Kyler was towards the rear of the cave. The older man was taking a bath.
Culwich couldn’t help but stare at the scars on his companion’s back. The flesh was crisscrossed with raised white ridges.
“Zabe’s Blood, John, who did that to you?”
Kyler halted. He closed his eyes as scenes from the many battles he fought in ran through his memory. “I was a knight serving Lord Borean of Jurendeldt. Our King, Hilag of Bexia, engaged in a blood feud with King Varska of Witcenogra. Some idiot knight killed Varska’s brother. Witcenogra declared war and we met in countless battles. Not too far from here is a meadow where the final fight was waged.”
Kyler stood and dried off. Donning his clothes, Kyler joined Culwich by the cooking fire. He poured a small amount of vorane in two goblets. He handed one to Culwich.
“I can’t say how many men I killed that day. I don’t know who wounded me but I remember waking up buried under bodies with arrows in my shoulder. Everyone, everything, around me was dead. I guess the Golden Arrow priests believed me dead else I would have been taken off the field. My best friends lay slaughtered close by. My poor war horse, Dario, was littered with arrows. It was too much to bear. I just couldn’t stand the thought of going home. I’m not even sure if home still exists.”
“I am sorry you went through that pain. If it helps, Varska and Hilag signed a peace treaty.”
“That is good to know. Still, I can’t help wonder why I was spared by Zabe while my friends died. My family was killed during the initial skirmish. There is no one left with my name except me.”
He couldn’t help himself, Culwich had to know. “What is your true name?”
“I was, and still am, Sir Kyler of Jurendeldt. I was my sire’s third son. He was killed by Witcenogran soldiers before the last battle.”
“I am so sorry for your loss, Sir Kyler.”
Kyler set a hand on Culwich’s shoulder, “Please, just Kyler. I don’t consider myself a knight any longer.”
“This explains your nightmares and why you have cut yourself off from other people.” He gave Kyler a friendly pat on his hand. “I wasn’t certain whether I should leave or stay. With your honesty, I think I shall stay a while. No one should be solitary for the rest of their life. Once my arm heals, perhaps I can teach you how to play the flute in turn for lessons on archery?”
Kyler smiled. “I think we can do that. It is nice to have a friend to converse with. Other than the occasional traveler passing by, I’ve had little contact with people.”
“Excellent. I think next time men pass through we should try to trade for some wine, flour, and fresh vegetables. Let’s consider building a cottage and planting a kitchen garden. I am tired of moving about. Perhaps it is time to stake some roots.”
“Sounds like a good plan. We’ll start on the cottage in the spring. Maybe we should take a short trip to the closest village to get supplies before the winter sets in. I wouldn’t mind getting a dog.”
They clasped hands to seal the bargain. Culwich went back to preparing dinner whistling a cheerful tune. He decided to help heal Kyler’s hurts. I think Kywedyn brought us together for a reason. We need each other. I can help him clear his demons and Kyler has a badly needed friend.