...The Conclusion to Chapter II
Along the way, many familiar faces greeted the three travelers as they passed by. Robert Trenchant, Quint Motfire, Mr. and Mrs. Sutton and little Sarah Billingsley, chasing after their cart with excited jubilation, hoping to get the attention of Horsfall whom she adored so very much. The young lad turned away, his face flushed with red, and Fenn laughed heartily at his discomfort. Crossing the small bridge across the tiny mountainside creek near his house, Fenn had the sudden inclination to visit his Grandfather Roth deep on the mountain road before they left the village. The thought held his mind captive for the briefest of moments as Alden hurried Scéam along the village road past the quaint bridge. Fenn sighed in melancholic anticipation. He had not seen his grandfather for some time, what with the farming season in full bloom – the work in the fields required all his attention. Fenn would visit Grandfather Roth almost every day as a boy. He loved the daily walk to his house on the mountainside, exploring the hidden paths that ran along the side of the small village creek. Many times he would get lost exploring the extent of each trail, sometimes finding himself wrestling branches of a thick cluster of trees; while other times the path would end at an old abandoned well or farmstead.
Before long they had reached the periphery of the village and steadily approached the long form of the ancient Asharan road. Behind them, Ealdmoder could now be seen in its full glory, the mountain stretching towards the clear blue sky. Consciously, Fenn tried to refocus his thoughts – the long road awaited. Turning Scéam effortlessly to the right, Alden directed the cart’s bearings to the south as it squeaked under the normal strain of its load. Horsfall was daydreaming next to Fenn, staring out across the field of gold, the morning summer breeze soothing his wandering complexion. His eyes seemed to have drifted towards the small forest of Ilfen, on the edge of the field. Something had caught his attention. Fenn looked.
Approaching the mouth of Ilfen at a great speed was a dark horse. He could not see the rider but he knew from the frantic pace of the steed that it was in some sort of distress. Fenn followed the path of the horse from whence it came, watching ever so closely for any minute detail or change – then he saw them. Two more riders at some distance behind were in close pursuit, undeniably gaining on the isolated horseman. Now looking ahead of the three riders, Fenn noticed something that alarmed him considerably. Near the entrance to the forest was the horse-drawn cart of the Mottershead family. He recognized their distinct white horse and knew his friend Lynne and her father were surely gathering vegetables today, directly beside Ilfen on their plot of land. He could not see them yet but he knew danger loomed.
By this time, Alden had also spotted the dramatic chase and had surmised Fenn’s thoughts almost immediately. There were strangers in their lands, unwelcome and very much threatening. Neither he nor Horsfall had ever witnessed such a sight before. Curiosity took hold of Fenn, as did his desire to help the unknowing Mottershead family.
Without a word, Fenn glanced at Alden with purposeful intent and leapt off the cart hurriedly. With the help of the silent guardian, he quickly untied Scéam from the cart. Alden had already mounted the horse and was reaching out to pull Fenn on top as well. Within seconds they galloped away north on the Asharan road, leaving Horsfall to watch over their supplies.
Fenn’s heart was pounding with anticipation and concern. He had known Lynne his whole life and desperately hoped that nothing ill would become of his childhood friend. He could now see the three riders just approaching the mouth of Ilfen, their haste unceasing. The pursued horseman suddenly slowed down then veered off into the forest itself, the trees swallowing him up. The other two riders were right behind and within moments darted into the forest themselves. Fenn still saw no sign of Lynne or Mr. Mottershead. They were approaching the field of gold rapidly and the adrenaline he felt was unceasing.
Through the field Scéam galloped, the tempo of his breathing increasing with each stride. The Mottershead white horse was just ahead of them now, their cart resting silently beside him, seemingly abandoned. Alden gently pulled on the reigns as they came to a stop by the lone cart. It was filled with tomatoes, peppers and cabbage, gathered together without any disarray. Alden jumped off Scéam to take a closer look. Suddenly, there was movement. A visibly perturbed Mr. Mottershead emerged from behind the cart clutching his right arm – it was bleeding. He saw Fenn and Alden approach him.
“Fenn!” the older man exclaimed wearily. His voice sounded weak. Alden reached out to help Mr. Mottershead’s injured arm, tending to it quietly in order to stop it from bleeding any further. “Those cursed marauders. They came from the northwest, probably from the direction of Dearthe. Gods, I tried to warn Lynne. I was shouting for her but she could not hear me. I called out to the riders but one of them struck me as he passed.”
“Mr. Mottershead, for goodness sake, where is she?” Fenn exclaimed frantically.
He pointed to the entrance of Ilfen forest. “There boy. She was in there picking some berries and having a quiet walk. She must have been quite deep within if she couldn’t hear me. Please Fenn, find her, find Lynne!”
Alden was watching Fenn the whole time during this exchange of words. He had not yet fully bandaged Mr. Mottershead’s arm. Without another word or any hesitation, Fenn turned and dashed off towards the mouth of Ilfen. As he ran, he reached for the inside of his tunic and felt the cold steel of the short dagger he always carried with him on journeys far from the village. Swiftly drawing the sharp blade from its scabbard, Fenn held it firmly balanced in his right hand as he quickened his pace. The gaping mouth of the small forest swallowed up the young man as he broke through the first layer of leaves, barks and underbrush. He was in Ilfen now, running along the faded path within, trying desperately to follow the track of hooves he saw before him. All his thoughts, focus and presence were in this moment, taking one steady step after the next. Fenn knew there were creatures scurrying around him in the undergrowth, watching him dart by. The leaves, rocks and twigs scattered as he passed. Nevertheless, the sounds of the forest were lost on the young man’s ears. All he could hear was the thudding of his burning footsteps. He was beginning to tire when he heard shouting amongst the trees up ahead. Fenn could also discern another very distinct sound as he approached the source of the commotion and anger – the clash of steel swords.
Fenn could see the three horses now in front of him. Two of them were wandering aimlessly close by while the third lay on the ground, seemingly injured. He stopped his hurried run. It was then that he saw the three riders engaged in a passionate struggle of violence. They seemed to be fighting with each other. Two of the marauders appeared to be surrounding one of them – the solo rider who was being pursued earlier. He wore a heavy hood that covered his face considerably. One of the pursuers lunged with his sword, a direct stroke to the heart. The lone rider parried it deftly and swung his blade around for a fatal stroke on the back of his attacker’s neck. The first marauder fell stone dead.
At the moment the sword was raised to strike, Fenn had noticed a bloodied patch of dampness in the lower abdomen of the hooded rider. As he brought his sword up to defend himself once more, he stumbled backward, grasping for his wound in obvious pain. The other marauder now moved in for the kill. Fenn could not watch any further. He burst forward with heartfelt spirit, raising his dagger to defend the injured rider, now barely holding himself up on one knee. Fenn called out to the marauder to distract him. He was so very close to him now, approaching at a great speed. The attacker spun around in surprise, not expecting the appearance of the unknown intruder. Fenn was only a few feet away when he brought his dagger down for a critical strike.
In one swift movement, the marauder lunged forward with his sword hand to deflect Fenn’s dagger strike harmlessly to his right. He caught Fenn on the wrist with a firm hit and sent his dagger flying to the ground. A sharp pain erupted in his hand. But the marauder had not finished his motion yet. With his free hand he swung his fist up and right onto the right ear of the off-balanced Fenn. The blow toppled the young man to the ground. Disorientation took hold of his mind in an instant.
Dazed, Fenn barely managed to look up at the lone marauder, looking rather satisfied with himself. He was saying something to Fenn, but he could not make out the words – his ears and head were ringing, but from the look on his face Fenn could tell it was neither friendly nor pleasant. Desperately trying to get up and protect himself, with glazed eyes, he could see his dagger just a few feet away, but not within his reach. It was futile. With a cruel grin, his face covered with scars and aged with malice, the marauder slowly raised his sword, ready to bring down fury once more.
And in that futile moment Fenn saw blurred movement from the trees behind the marauder. The form of a man appeared, emanating with intense purpose and focused aggression. He was holding a magnificent sheath of silver, from whence a great sword emerged. His speed was extraordinary for a man of such strength and size, and within a few strides he had closed the distance between himself and the astonished marauder who had also heard his arrival. He tried desperately to prepare himself but his body refused to respond, his sword barely raising itself. Then with a flash of steel, the great force cut his man down with unrelenting vehemence.Incredulous beyond words, Fenn looked up at his savior as his vision slowly began to clear. There standing before him, his gentle green eyes looking down at Fenn, offering his outstretched hand to the young man, was Alden Ewart – his eyes, ears and hand; his silent guardian.