CREATURE OR CAPTAIN
We had been tracking it for several days, tramping through the thick fir trees, their needles frozen solid. The snow crackling monotonously under our steel-clad boots put us on edge like so many trees standing before a woodcutter. It was surprisingly hard to track given the enormity of its size, but it knew the ways of these accursed woods that had claimed so many of our huntsmen.
Our first sighting of it was late last night while we rested in a circle of tall, cold and black cedar trees called “The Last Retreat.” As soon as the captain saw it we struck camp and, armour chinking, ran after it; pressing on long into the night until we came upon the body of the troop’s foremost runner. Harx was lying in a ditch,his corpse looked as ifalive, but the all too obvious rents in his armour told otherwise. The captain searched the mud spattered face of the soldier, then said in a controlled tone: “We can’t waste any time, keep moving, keep your guard up.”
He turned around gazing through the trees, a fearful look in his eyes, as if the hunt meant more to him than just eliminating a threat to our homeland. Pulling his visor down from his helmet he plodded on as an old man does who feels the need of a fire after cutting wood in the snow, but knows he must complete his many other chores first.
The dawn is breaking now, the light eases our troubled thoughts somewhat, but the fear is still all around us. We’ve never been this close before. The soft chinking of armour, the crunch of snow, the sharp cracking of frozen needles, all these noises seem too loud to bear. The snow is too white, the trees too dark and the sky too red.
The captain stopped, turned on his heel, hissed at us to be quiet, then pointed, shivering, to an enormous grey boulder.
“That’s no boulder,” I whispered inaudibly.
It crouched next to a small frozen lake staring across at a large crow, watching it peck at a tree, then fly off,
“Tell them,” it called after the departing crow.
It took a moment more for my comrades to realize it wasn’t a boulder and that it had just spoke.
“It sounds intelligent, should we slay it. . . captain?”
“Yes!” he snapped.
“But there's only four of us,”I retorted.
He silenced me with an icy stare, which meant that I was to be evicted from the squad as soon as we got back home, if we got home.
“Hanson, Alder, crawl through that gully to the left and attack from the rear.”
Quickly, they dropped to their knees and began their way through the gully to the other side of the lake.
“You come with me,” the captain ordered.
Startled I felt the blood drain from my face; the captain and I were taking the head on assault. Sweaty, I strung my bow, nocked an arrow and shaking, checked the straps on my greaves and bracers, tight as dried rawhide. The captain and I crouched behind a patch of frozen bracken and waited. His long blond hair stuck out from under his helm, his eyes were wide, the pupils contracted so much they couldn’t be seen and his face was drenched in sweat.
“Does my face look like that?”,I wondered. I raised a finger to my cheek. Dry, as cold as the air around it.
A loud snap sounded from the other side of the lake, magnified by the stiff air, just about where Hanson and Alder were. The creature turned towards the sound, I held my breath as it examined the bushes then returned to its former position. A shout came from the other side of the lake and a spear thudded into the creature's back. It groaned and turning, reared its giant lizard-shaped head as my comrades burst from the thicket where they had been hiding and ran toward it.
“Now!” said the captain.
I shot my arrow, it went wide. Putting my bow on my back I drew my sword and sped on after the captain, the distance rapidly decreasing as we neared it. He screamed, throwing himself at the creature and plunging his sword into its thigh. Blood spurted out, staining his white tunic crimson as he stumbled back. Hissing, it pivoted and swiped at the captain with the back of Its hand, clipped his shoulder and sent him rolling across the ice.
Then it turned to me, I held my sword aloft and briefly studied its hands. They had riveted iron plating stuck to the back and smooth steel pads on the knuckles and under sides of the fingers. I glanced around the creature and saw my comrades swiftly creeping up behind it. Sensing something from behind, it wheeled to face the attackers. I lunged, swinging for its ankle, suddenly its hand swung back towards me. Ducking, I looped my sword back around and it came down on its shin. Roaring ferociously, it fell to one knee.
The captain leapt, aiming a heavy stroke at the creature’s arm, but it caught him and glaring, proceeded to crush him inside his armour.
“HALT!” I shouted, “HALT!”
Shoving my sword into the ice I tore the bow from my back, nocked an arrow and fired. Shot after shot pounded into the creature’s chest until all my arrows were spent.
Alder handed his spear to Hanson, who hefted it, prepared to throw, then slowly placed it in the ice.
The muscles in its arm relaxed as it dropped the captain. He fell to the ice with a crunch, his sword still gripped in his hand.
Snatching my sword up I ran to the captain. He lay coughing feverishly as I wrenched off his contorted armour plating, knowing it would do no good. As I struggled with the armour, Hanson and Alder hurried up and knelt beside me.
“He is dead, why do you toil so?” uttered the creature, raggedly.
Looking up, the features of the creature before us became apparent, as they had not during our attack. Its hide was gray, dotted with small patches of lichen. Its back was hunched and rippled with muscles, the legs were stocky and its armoured hands were fairer than any craftsmen of our land. While I gazed into its slit-like eyes I asked:
“Who are you?”
“I was the protector of this ancient snow-bound forest,” it wheezed, staring down at the arrows protruding from its chest.
“Will you die?”
“I have slain your captain and you have slain me. Why, I do not know.”
“The captain said he’d tell us why when we were done. . . besides you killed Harx,” accused Alder.
“I did not kill him, there are much worse creatures than I in this forest.” Its voice was becoming increasingly strained and gargled.
“I protected the boundaries between your land. . . and others. Your captain. . . not one of you. . . hair blond. . . is enemy. He tricked you. . . enemy know that I am dying.”
Then it lurched and fell forwards cracking the ice. With a crash the creature plunged into the frigid water below, forever to be preserved in the cold.
As we stood staring, a great sense of loss settled upon us. We had been used. Our land's only ensurement of survival was gone.
We pitched camp on the edge of the lake, retrieving our packs from where we’d left them before the battle. Hanson lit a fire, I filled the pot with snow and set it on the fire to melt and Alder prepared the last of our birch bark for tea that night. When the snow had melted and boiled I took the pot off and put the birch bark in to steep. Alder looked out into the dark to where the captain lay,we hadn’t moved him or his pack. Having steeped, I poured the tea into cups, handed them round, then fished out the bark dregs to chew on.
Hanson was the first to break the silence: “Khanson.”
“Could our land ally with another to gain protection?”
“No. Our kings in the past have been too scornful of other lands, we have no friends.”
After supper we retired to our tents, leaving the fire to burn itself out. The next morning we packed up in silence, and eating our breakfast as we marched, began the long journey back home. The fir trees seemed a lot warmer now than they had before, the sky was pleasant, the snow softer, yet we were all miserable. Sullen armoured figures trudging through a contented forest.
As we walked past “The Last Retreat” I glanced up at the sky and noticed a small black speck steadily getting bigger. It was a crow. As it got closer I recognized it as the same one the creature had been talking to at the lake. It landed in front of us then croaked:
“Soldiers of the Cyprus Woodlands are invading your province, your people will soon be outcasts in their own lands.”
“If we’re to save any we must leave now! cried Alder. We must secure the walls!”
“The walls won’t be enough, but we’ll do what we can,” said Hanson, “Come on!”
Tightening the straps on our packs we began to run back the way we came. It took us days to get here, could we make it back in time? The crow called after us:
“It is now your turn to be the protector and the hunted.”