RISE OF CITHRIA: ORIGINS – Bruce and Gil
Copyright © 2016 by Alistair McIntyre
The Valley of Tears, as tranquil a spot as any a tracker could hope to patrol. To the north, Teekwood Forest sprawled across the landscape, dense and tall, with dark green leaves kissing the clear blue sky. To the south, the tapered north end of the Red Hills, sparkling brilliantly under the intense late morning sun. Caldera’s wasteland of a frontier lay to the east, a day of unhindered travel away from this peaceful spot smack dab in the middle of the valley, where deep pools of water dotted the lush green grass.
Whereas a firbolg or even a wide human would struggle to wedge themselves into one of the narrow pools, a nuathreen’s diminutive frame fit just right. A nuathreen just like Bruce.
He adjusted his body in the cool water, resting his head back on the pool’s lip to anchor himself in place. Ghrian, the Sun Goddess, coursed overhead, as she did every day, regular as a cave bear’s shites. What a beautiful morning to bask in all Her glory.
Until a shadow passed in front of the sun, denying Bruce Her tender warmth.
“Amren sees you, nuathreen.”
Bruce split open one of his eyes just far enough to glare at the young face blotting out the sun. “What are you on about?”
The tall human, a boy by the name of Padraig, held his ground. “If Amren sees you, we shall all be held accountable for your dereliction of duty.”
“Get a grip, mate.” Bruce leaned over towards his oldest friend, who bathed in the pool to his left. “Gil, you believe this eejit?”
“No’ really, Bruce.” Gil’s eyes remained closed as he shifted his weight and slid further down into the water. “I dinnae even ken what half those words mean.”
Now the boy had his hands on his hips, getting ready to deliver a scalding that any old wifey would be proud of. Padraig had the hood of his green cloak pulled down low over his eyes, hiding a bare face that didn’t yet require shaving, and casting a shadow over a nose that just looked ripe for punching.
“Those words mean that we shall all be thrown in the brig if Damon learns you were bathing in the Tears instead of patrolling for Calderan forces.” Padraig stamped his foot, coming dangerously close to getting a wee spot of muck on the pristine leather. “I will not stand for this.”
“But you’re already standing, boy,” the fourth member of their party said from the shadow of a middle-aged oak. Morag, a soldier, not a tracker like the rest of them. And worse, an elf to boot.
Morag was taller than Padraig, and slimmer, but that didn’t necessarily mean weaker. Not with elves. The tricky bisms were hard to read, and this one was no exception. She had the long, fine hair of her people, strawberry blonde, an unusual color for an elf. A ratty grey cloak hung from her shoulders, as did a dented and dinged chest plate, but under that she wore a silvery mail shirt that hugged her slim hips and stopped halfway down her thighs. A hemmed slit up each side allowed for free movement of her hips.
Nothing cheap about that mail, and Bruce had a keen eye for stuff worth nickin’. Her tall black boots also cost a pretty penny by the looks of them, though they’d seen some hard miles for sure. Her sword hung from a thick leather belt that cinched her mail around her waist.
“When my father hears of this,” Padraig said, “you will regret not heeding my words.”
“Oh, well why didn’t you say so?” Bruce pulled himself out of the pool and sat on the edge, dangling his legs in the clearest water this side of Terlgow. “There’s much to do. We’d best be off at once.”
The nobleman’s son sounded as shocked as he looked. “Well, uh, of course. If you would kindly put your clothes back on, we can be off at once, and none shall be the wiser for this little detour.”
Gil snickered, but followed Bruce’s lead. Padraig was right that they had work to do, but it wasn’t the kind of work that Padraig had in mind.
Bruce and Gil both retrieved their armor and traditional dark green cloaks, though they had to fight over whose was whose. Once dressed, they let their little lord lead the way up the glen on one side of the valley, where Padraig insisted they needed to hold the high ground. From whom, Bruce didn’t bother asking. They’d been roaming out here for a couple of days without seeing hide nor hair of anything more dangerous than a bunny in heat.
“What’s happened to the trackers these days, Gil?” Bruce asked when Padraig had wandered far enough ahead to not hear them. Morag was pottering around somewhere in the trees to their right. “Honest to Ghrian, we used to be a right noble bunch of scoundrels and thieves.”
“Aye, Bruce,” Gil said. “The trackers are going to pot now.”
“Just look at this wee laddie. A right picture of tracking, he is. His cloak doesnae have so much as a pulled thread, and you ken where he got that silver clasp? He didnae finish the Survival, that’s for bloody sure. No’ like the rest of us.”
“Daddy’s money goes a long way, Bruce,” Gil said.
“We’ve got Glyn to blame for this shite, you know? If it wasn’t for him and his daft pals capturing that Calderan numpty, these rich nancy boys wouldn’t be signing up for a shot at glory.”
Morag suddenly appeared at his side, looming over him by at least two feet. “That Calderan numpty you speak of was a notorious fadeblade who’d assassinated twenty-four prominent Anduains, that we know of,” she said. Bruce had to hide almost jumping out of his skin. How’d she snuck up on them without a noise? The elf was in mail for Ghrian’s sake. “We learned a lot of their secrets from that prisoner, before he expired.”
“Expired?” Bruce said. “Lovely way to put it, lass.”
“Aye, he wasn’t goat’s milk,” Gil added.
“It’s the gold from the rich fathers of boys like Padraig who keep you and your kind dressed in such fine accoutrements.” Morag ran her fingers lightly over Bruce’s green cloak, the cloak he’d earned after his Survival. Despite his leather jerkin under his cloak, her touch sent shivers down his spine. Bloody elves. “Or perhaps you preferred dossing about in moth-eaten castoffs from the army?”
Bruce absently touched the silver tree broach clasping his cloak around his neck. “We might have stronger bows and sharper swords because of that gold, but we’ve always had our cloaks.”
“In either case,” Morag said, “you owe our young leader a touch of patience. He’ll learn the ways of scoundrels like yourself in time, or he’ll die out here in the wilderness, a scared, bleating lamb amongst the wolves. Whichever path he follows, is really up to you.”
“You’re a right ray of sunshine, you are, lass,” Bruce said.
Gil kicked a pebble off the trail, into the bushes lining the well-worn path. “More like a blazing torch to the balls, Bruce.”
“Ah, so you do know how we coerced that fadeblade into divulging his secrets?” With that, Morag strode on ahead, quickly catching up to Padraig, who was lost in his own little world at the head of their party of four.
“I can’t stand elves,” Bruce muttered.
“Aye, Bruce,” Gil said.
“Always lording over us shorter folk.”
“Aye. Lanky gits, the lot of them.”
“And they all still worship the bloody Pride of Andua.” Bruce’s blood started boiling just thinking about all those supposedly great elf warriors who once protected Andua against the Calderans. “Just up and left us in the middle of a flippin’ war. Don’t get me started on those eejits.”
“Uh, all right then.”
Gil looked confused. “I won’t get you started on the Pride.”
“Right. Fair enough.”
The trees grew closer together the further up the glen they trekked, until eventually they were penned in by woods on all sides. Undergrowth gradually invaded the trail, hiding the path under layers of drying leaves and creeping vines. With a bold winter on the horizon, the leaves were falling thick and fast. And with winter coming, that meant less hunting. And less hunting meant less silver lining Bruce’s pockets.
“We need a breather. Why don’t we stray off the beaten path a ways?” he asked Gil, knowing his friend would never turn down a caper. “The hogs we found last time are probably ruttin’ about in that low spot on the other side of this hill.”
“Aye, we’ll be oot of money for weed and beer if we don’t.”
“And we can’t have that.”
Their fearless leader wouldn’t have noticed them disappearing into the brush if they’d done a jig and screamed bloody murder, so Padraig certainly didn’t catch them skirting the edge of the path until he and Morag disappeared around the corner. Once a wide ancient oak blocked Padraig from view, Bruce and Gil skipped into the thick of it and circled around to the rise that would lead to their destination.
The sharp calls and gentle jitters of birds and insects accompanied Bruce and Gil to the crest of the rise. Not another soul, nuathreen, human, or otherwise, within a mile. What a life. Hard to believe King Darren actually paid them to do this.
Grunts and snorts filled the small bowl on the other side of the rise. Bruce and Gil separated, each sneaking painstakingly slowly around the ridge, wary of the massive hogs milling about below them. Bruce took stock of each one of the hogs as they trampled bushes and saplings, flying around in their usual mean-spirited gallop as they tried to take each other’s heads off. Seven in total, including the big beastie with the four cruel tusks. Getting gored by any of those wasn’t in the plan, so they’d need to draw the big jobby away from his mates before pouncing.
The dip where the hogs played had one end open to a meadow a half mile away. Fading into the shadows with camouflaging magic, Bruce inched his way down the steep bank of the opening, in plain view of the frolicking, oversized piggies. Gil was barely visible up on the opposite bank, a ghostly shimmer that only a keen eye could detect. As stealthy as most trackers were by nature and necessity, very few had mastered the old ways of fading, but Bruce’s family had cultivated the art for generations. Gil had learned through association, being Bruce’s best mate since birth.
With a nod from Bruce, Gil drew his arrow back in his bow. He was ready.
Bruce slid the two curved blades from their sheaths at his hips and dropped his fade. Now for the fun bit.
Predictable to a fault, the big jobby muscled its smaller counterparts out of the way and strutted to the head of the pack. The rest cowered behind it, unaware that they were ten times the size of a nuathreen like Bruce, big as he was for his small kind. These daft hogs were nothing like the sort in the south of Andua, where the whole bloody brood would’ve rushed Bruce without hesitation, tearing him to ribbons.
But not this breed. They relied on their champion. And hopefully the big jobby was as stupid as it looked. Snorting and hooting wildly, the tusked pig barreled towards Bruce. Bruce set his feet, resting on the balls, weapons held in a loose grip at his sides. The ground rumbled harder and harder. Just when Bruce thought this might be a bad idea, arrow after arrow sliced the air, planting firmly into the hide behind the big jobby’s shoulder.
And unlike the beastie’s southern cousins, who’d shrug off such a paltry attack, this one spun on its heels with incredible grace not two steps in front of Bruce. Before it could race up the hill to maul Gil, Bruce was cutting away at its heels and hamstrings, dodging and weaving through its legs as it flopped about aimlessly. Its keening cries sent its kinsfolk scattering into the brush, scared beyond logic or reason.
Never one to let an animal suffer unnecessarily, Bruce skipped up onto the brute’s broad shoulders and drove the killing blow through the base of its neck. The hulking creature slumped with a gasp, then settled into a sleepless slumber. Bruce hopped down to inspect their prize as Gil slid down the hill to meet him.
“Nae bad.” Bruce rubbed a hand over the rough tusks. “The ol’ witch should be well chuffed.”
“Aye, a rare sight, Bruce.”
“You’d be a grump too if you had a face like hers.”
“Aye, that face would turn milk.”
Gil examined the fallen hog closely, then stood rubbing it across the snout, between the eyes, and down behind its ears. He patted it on the shoulder a few times and sighed.
“He’s just a beastie, mate,” Bruce said. “Dinnae fash yerself over it.”
“Aye. Quite right, Bruce,” Gil said, but the poor wee soul couldn’t keep the sadness out of his voice.
Bruce clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “You’ve never shown remorse over a piggy before.”
Gil looked so close to summoning a response, but someone came stumbling through the woods on the edge of the rise behind them. Someone big. So Bruce and Gil did what all trackers do best.
Thanks for reading Chapter 1! If you enjoyed this brief glimpse into the Rise of Cithria series, feel free to check out the full story on Amazon, and then grab book 1 in the series: THE CHOSEN. It’s FREEEEEEEEEEEEEE! You may even recognize a pair of nuathreens who may or may not play an important role in the fate of an entire kingdom. No big deal.