Art by Mackenzie Holman, 2021.
The sun had begun to set as Taris and Eitra stopped the boat at a calmer part of the river, tying it up around the roots of a small tree growing by the murky shore. Eitra helped Taris empty as much water as they could from the bottom of the boat, which had become significantly flooded. Taris unloaded a small crate of supplies and started a small fire near the bank of the river. It’s flames seemed to grow brighter as the day slowly dissolved into night.
Taris counted his arrows by the fire, carefully fingering each one as he took inventory of his remaining projectiles. After a while, he rushed off into the woods with his weapons, returning moments later with a fresh kill in his hands: A three horned Kajus, an arrow now protruding from its blankly-staring right eye.
Eitra and Taris sat in silence for a moment as the meat cooked over the open fire.
“So, I guess we should start getting to know each other if we’re going to be spending the next few days careening down the river to our deaths,” Taris said, finally breaking the silence.
Eitra managed a small laugh, “I think we’re already acquainted.”
“Not quite,” Taris thought for a moment. “What’s your favorite color?”
Eitra smiled, “Red.”
“Like the Jiax?”
“No,” Eitra laughed again. “The flowers around my old home were red. A dark red.”
“Did they smell nice?” Taris asked.
Eitra nodded, “Of course they did.”
“What’s the name of your village anyway?” Taris turned the meat over to cook its raw side. “I’m assuming it’s close to the dock we were attacked at?”
Eitra nodded, “Razu is what we call it, but the travelers call the place the Fourth Woods.”
“Oh, I’ve heard of the place,” Taris thought for a moment, “It’s the small farming village between Hatho and Kihns?”
Eitra nodded then looked into the fire, falling silent once again.
“I’m sorry,” Taris said. “It must be hard after–”
“Don’t,” Eitra interrupted. “I don’t need pity.”
It was quiet for another moment. The crackling of the fire filled the silent air of the night.
“What about you?” Eitra asked Taris. “Where were you raised before you became a hunter?”
“Arabouth actually,” Taris took the meat off the fire and began to carefully cut it into bite-sized pieces. “My mother was a shopkeeper. She sold old artifacts and valuables. My dad went off to war and, well, he never returned.”
“I’m sorry,” Eitra frowned. “When did you join the Bowmen of Uriv?”
“I was about seventeen. My mother was never particularly… um… responsible with her money. She was taken away after her debts became too expensive to pay off. I was left alone for a while. Then, the hunters came into Arabouth. I’d always been a good shot. My dad would teach me when he’d come home,” Taris looked up at Eitra. “And so I ran off… and I didn’t look back.”
“Do you miss Arabouth?” Eitra asked.
Taris let out a laugh, “Oh no. Not one bit. That place reeked of corruption and crime.”
“Kind of like you?”
“Oh, you were waiting to take a jab at me, weren’t you?” Taris handed her over her portion of food. “Eat up. It’s not going to stay warm for long in the night.”
Eitra took a bite into the meat. It’s tasted different from anything she’d ever eaten before. It seemed to be abundant in flavor without any kind of seasoning, and was both fatty and tender.
After eating in silence for a bit, Taris threw his bones into the fire. Eitra did the same. As Taris took time to settle into a comfortable position for the night, Eitra looked up at the stars in the night, glistening far off in the distance.
“My father always told me there were people up there,” Eitra said.
“People?” Taris answered.
“Yeah. Our ancestors who’ve gone before us. When they leave, they drift off to the stars,” she stared out into the night sky for a moment longer.
Taris snorted, “You’re starting to sound like a Bogardin priest.”
“One of those nuts from Arabouth. They’d set up stands in the city looking for donations,” Taris shook his head. “Whole thing is one big scam if you ask me.”
“Then what do you believe in?” Eitra asked.
Taris was struck by the question. He was quiet for a moment then whispered, “I don’t know.”
The two continued to look up at the sky for a moment, the stars blinking in the empty darkness.
Taris sighed, “Well, goodnight.”
“See you in the morning,” Eitra rolled over onto her side, closed her eyes, and drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep.
* * *
Eitra woke up to the sound of wailing.
Her eyes flew wide open and she bolted upright. Taris had heard it too. His bow was drawn, an arrow pulled back against its string. He glanced at her then cocked his head towards the sound.
Carefully, Eitra peered over the tall grass by the river’s shore. Not too far away, an old man laid on the ground. His face was in the mud and his clothes were tattered and torn. Standing over him was one of the creatures. It’s white armor gleamed menacingly in the morning sunlight. Its lightning weapon was raised and pointed at the man on the ground.
“What do we do?” Eitra whispered to Taris.
“There’s only one of them…” Taris hissed. “Do you think we can take it?”
“And risk his friends coming to aid him?” Eitra glanced over the grass again. “I don’t think so!”
“Well do you happen to have a better idea?”
The man on the ground gave out another moan of pain. The creature raised its weapon above its featureless face, ready to end the poor man’s life.
“Wait!” Eitra suddenly cried out. She stood straight up, looking right at the creature. Her dagger was drawn in anticipation.
“What are you doing?” Taris looked absolutely terrified.
“I’ll distract it. You get the man to your boat,” Eitra murmured to Taris out of the corner of her mouth. She turned back to the creature, “Hello! What is your business here?”
The creature cocked its head to the side, turning his attention away from the disheveled man in the mud.
“Start going now!” she hissed.
Out of the corner of her eye, Eitra saw Taris begin to move slowly through the grass. She quickly turned her attention back to the creature.
“Who are you?” Eitra called to it. “What do you want?”
The creature’s dark void of a face seemed to stare at Eitra, despite its lack of eyes. Its weapon was now at its side, pointed away from the man on the ground. It began to approach Eitra. It walked slowly towards her with cautious, purposeful steps. The weapon was still held at its side, but Eitra could see its shoulder tense–ready for an attack.
It took a step towards her.
Behind the creature, Eitra caught a brief flash of movement through the amber-colored grass. Taris’s eyes looked up over the foliage and met with Eitra’s for a moment. There was a sense of urgency on his face. The message was clear: keep the creature busy.
“So… um… have you ever encountered a Jiax before?” Eitra asked.
The creature took another step forward.
It was now a few arm lengths away from her. She could feel heat radiating off of the figure’s armor. It once again cocked its head to the side. Although the creature had no features on its face, Eitra could still feel it watching her–no–studying her. It was looking her up and down, surveying its prey.
It took another step forward, then another.
Taris had reached the man now. He bent over and heaved him up over his shoulders.
The creature seemed to be distracted, fixated instead on Eitra. It tapped something on its gauntlet, a notch in the otherwise perfect craftsmanship. It turned back to where the man in the dirt was before, and Eitra chose her moment to attack. She leapt up onto the creatures back, driving her blade into its neck, hoping to find a chink in its armor.
“Go!” she yelled as Taris scrambled towards the boat with the unconscious man draped over his shoulders.
The creature shook Eitra off and she was sent tumbling to the ground. It pulled the dagger out of its armor, tossing it aside in disgust. The blade barely made it through the armor’s outer shell. He raised his weapon, aiming at Eitra laying defenseless on the ground.
The creature turned around as an arrow whizzed towards its chest. It bounced harmlessly off its armor, but the distraction gave Eitra just enough time to dive towards her dagger. She swept her legs around under the creature, and it fell to the ground, its weapon flying in the opposite direction and its head collided with a rock protruding from the mud.
Eitra stood over the creature on the ground, raising her dagger to his void of a face, one of her feet firmly planted on the creature’s lightning weapon.
Taris lowered his bow, “I think you knocked it out.”
Eitra caught her breath for a second, “I want to take it on the boat.”
“What?” Taris laughed. “You’ve got to be joking. This thing is dangerous, Eitra. First that old man, now this guy. Soon we’ll have a whole guild riding down the river.”
“We need the man,” Eitra said, “and the creature.”
“Um… why exactly?”
Eitra sheathed her dagger, “They’re both evidence.” She turned and faced Taris, “Do you really think the council at Arabouth is going to believe the word of a girl from a farming village and an ex-hunter and criminal?”
Taris sighed, “You make a good point.” He put his bow back into his quiver, “This is the last passenger though. Understand? No more psychopathic murder shadows and wailing old men in my boat. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Eitra started to pick up the creature’s leg. “Now help me get this thing to the boat.”