This is the eighteenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Felisia quickly lost her enthusiasm for being Brand’s minder. The first few days of her duty, she had truly relished; as the carts bumped along the trails, she would toss occasional warnings, threats and knives his way while he chanted gloomily and worked his mortar and pestle. However, as the supply of fresh meat dwindled, Brand was sent off to serve his duty and Felisia was obligated to go with him.
As Brand, freed of his drudgery, gleefully loped across the dew-covered fields towards the forest, Felisia trudged along behind. As they left the sunlight and pressed deep into the woods, Brand prowled, examining every wayward twig and disturbed leaf. Felisia, however, seemed to step on every one of them, making no end of noise, and jumped at the slightest rustle in the woods. Despite her vicious and agile persona, she moved through the woods with all the confidence and grace of a lost child.
After hours of fruitless tracking, Brand was frustrated enough with his companion to risk confrontation. “You’re too noisy. You’re scaring all of the animals away,” he whispered.
“Good,” replied Felisia loudly, startling something deeper in the woods, which galloped off.
Brand buried his face in his palm. “And there’s another hour wasted. Do you not want to eat tonight?”
“I’m fine with dried meat. We have always been fine with dried meat. We don’t need this.”
That idea frightened him. “This is all that I’m good for,” Brand pleaded. “If I start coming back empty handed, they’ll leave me in the dust. Please, let me do my job.”
“I’m not stopping you,” grumbled Felisia.
“You kind of are,” whined Brand.
That was a mistake. Felisia tensed and glared. She spoke slowly, with angry purpose as she fidgeted with the handle of one of her knives. “How so?”
Brand knew instinctively that he needed tact and diplomacy to ease the situation and get his companion to cooperate. Unfortunately he also knew that he lacked both of those skills and instead just tried to appear as small as possible while telling the truth. “You move like you’re big and clumsy. You move… like a human.”
“I am a human!” she shouted and drew a blade.
Brand hid behind a log. “I know, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry that I’m a human?” Felisia leaped up on the log and readied her knife. “Sorry that I’m not a monster like you?”
The words stabbed more deeply than the knife could have. “No,” he said, retreating, wounded, into himself. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just that I don’t know how to be a human very well. When I’m with you all, you make me feel like a person. I can walk and talk and wear a human’s clothes, but it’s all a mask. This is my home: in the woods, in the wild. I know the language of the forest better than I know yours. I’m just a beast in a man’s clothing.”
Felisia relaxed. A look of sadness washed over her angry eyes and she lowered her blade. “All men are,” she said as she slid down to the leafy soil beside Brand to join him.
They sat together in glum silence for a while as the forest recovered from their outbursts. Felisia drew a breath to speak again, but a flurry of motion in the trees above caused her to dart for cover. She found herself backing through a spider web, which released a new explosion of panic. She whirled from side to side, the tip of her blade seeking an assailant in which to bury itself.
“What is it?” Brand whispered sharply, leaping into action. He steadied his spear and prepared to defend his companion. “What’s wrong?”
Felisia put her back against Brand’s. He could feed her heart pounding through his spine and her breaths came rapid and ragged. She seemed at that moment to be a rabbit, cornered and desperate. She pressed against him, her breathing slowed and deepened. He felt the alarm seep out of her as the tension left her body and her head fell back to rest in the crook of his neck. “I don’t like the forest,” she said at last.
Brand pulled away from her and lowered his spear. “I don’t think it much likes you, either,” he replied with a half-smile.
“Everything here wants to eat me.”
“That is because you move like the hunted. There is a language of the forest and you are screaming that you expect to be eaten.” As he spoke, he adopted the posture of a predator: strong but relaxed, calm but alert, confident and hungry.
Felisia backed off.
“See,” he said. “In the forest, if you think you’re prey, you are prey.” He bared his teeth. “If you think like a hunter, move like a hunter, breathe like a hunter, the forest will listen. Other hunters will give you your space and the hunted will tremble.”
“Then why do you have so many scars?” She continued to back away as she toyed with a knife, her feet still deciding whether to fight or flee.
Brand could feel the scars move beneath his clothing, reminders of his mistakes and missteps. “Because I didn’t have anyone to show me the way. Each of my wounds is a hard learned lesson in the language of the wilds. Everything in this forest should be afraid of you. You have bigger, sharper claws than anything else and you are a natural killer. Trust me?”
“No.” He had nearly convinced her, but that final phrase changed something in Felisia. It pulled her clear out of the forest and back to the menace that Brand knew. The lost and frightened girl disappeared and war replaced with a cold, angry killer. Those two words had left a mark in the past and he’d just unintentionally opened the wound. Regardless, she had found her inner hunter, Brand just had to find a way to have her harness it.
His feet enacted a plan before his mind had a chance to talk him out of it: he let loose his demon and ran. He bounded over logs and ducked around trees. The sound of a couple of knives ricocheting through branches told him that he had sufficiently enraged his minder enough to give chase. He didn’t worry much about being hit, his demon would keep him safe enough from that, but at the same time, it taunted him with notions of cruel pranks, of frightening her, of hunting her, for a change. He drove the ideas away. He was teaching her how to move in the woods, how to be the predator. She would thank him, or, more likely, she would stab him. Regardless, she would find her feet in these woods.
It didn’t take long. Her anger fueled her pursuit. The clumsiness and nervous wariness vanished from her movements as she chased her tormentor. Brand caught glimpses of her lithe form through the underbrush behind him. He was no longer being followed around by a human, but hunted by an angry cat. She was silent, agile, focused. He grinned.
He bounded over a ridge and splashed through a stream. He hid in a hollow until she’d passed him and then he shot off noisily in another direction, eliciting a frustrated growl. His legs burned, his lungs screamed and he giggled. It was the best chase he could remember. He found a good path and put some distance between them before climbing a tree and catching his breath.
Felisia bounded into the clearing beneath him, panting and furious. Realizing that she had lost his trail, she prowled: listening for any hint of his motion. He held his breath. But the noises of the forest returned, the moment of fury passed, and Felisia’s confidence wavered.
“No! Don’t let it go!” Brand shouted as he leaped out of the tree.
He was reminded not to surprise an already anxious Felisia as he dodged a knife.
“You had it. You were perfect.” Brand bubbled happily, purposely oblivious to Felisia’s anger and confusion. “Just hold on to that beast and nothing in this forest would dare touch you.”
She punched him.
He grinned stupidly.
“What are you smiling about?”
“You didn’t stab me.” Brand stated victoriously.
“That can change,” she glowered.
“Noted.” He placated her playfully. “But you were brilliant. You own the forest by walking like you own it. There’s nothing to be afraid of when you are the scariest thing around.”
A snake slithered out of some underbrush and threatened to ruin the lesson. Felisia stiffened and took a step back, but she caught Brand’s eye and saw that he was casually unbothered by the serpent. Brand liked the idea that she was bolstered by his confidence, but thought it more likely that she was just too stubborn to be upstaged. Regardless, she drew a blade and with a flick of her wrist, pinned the snake to the ground. It writhed briefly before lying still.
“Are we ready to hunt then?” Brand challenged.
“At your leisure, sir.” There was no hint in her voice that she had found the exercise as amusing as Brand, but she was willing, at least for the time being to play along.
The game, however, was a troublesome one. Much of the day had been wasted and the forest began to grow darker as they stalked a worthy kill. Felisia’s courage held, but her enthusiasm faltered and she began to lag behind, trying to get her bearings. She lost interest in the game trails and week old dung that guided Brand deeper into the forest. About to command their return to the caravan, she was silenced by a grunting in the underbrush. Her eyes widened. Brand’s narrowed.
He did not know the sound. From the trail it had made, he could tell that it was smaller than a bear and larger than a bunny and wasn’t anything he’d met in the mountains, but little else. This wasn’t ideal. It might not be a tasty thing to eat, or it might be dangerous. Moreover, he didn’t know how it would behave when startled. Would it run or charge? Where should he best stab it?
They crept forward, peering cautiously between the ferns.
It was a hideous and ridiculous beast. Broad and fat, it had a long face with a wide, flat nose and two grimy tusks that jutted out of its mouth. Its fur was coarse and created an absurd peak on the top of its head about which its little ears flapped. It rummaged through the filth with the demeanor of a grumpy old man.
Brand attempted to signal a plan of attack, but Felisia would have none of it. She seemed to know more about this creature than Brand and was making a cautious, but hasty retreat.
The wind shifted.
Brand had been cautious to approach from downwind, but now their scent drifted into the grotesque nostrils of the animal and it took unpleasant notice of the trespassers. It squealed and charged.
Brand hadn’t time to ready his spear so he leapt aside. No sooner had his feet left the ground, though, did he realize that he’d cleared the path to Felisia. His feet hit the ground running and his hand found the haft of his spear but he knew that he couldn’t interrupt the charge. Time slowed. He felt every muscle as it tightened, pushing him forward, propelling his arm, pressing the tip of the spear towards the rampaging creature, just out of reach. It was a step away from Felisia when it faltered. His tiny companion rose up and roared at the beast and it skittered and scampered away from her, directly onto the tip of the spear.
The flow of time returned like a slap to the back of the head. Brand tripped and stumbled over the thrashing, impaled creature, falling at the feet of Felisia who stared down at him, apparently unmoved by the experience. “You’re carrying that back,” she said flatly.