Chapter 9: Wayward

Keenin rested in the shade of a maple tree beside the road. The tree’s wide, pointy leaves painted a nice shadow over the ground and its sheltering branches made him feel relaxed. It had been two days since his escape. He had stayed close to the road eating berries from the bushes, but his stomach was starting to feel hollow and his mouth was dry. He took the cylinder from the bag and the map out of the cylinder. The markings of nearby rivers and ponds had started to appear on its surface. He couldn’t tell where the map was leading him since the only thing he knew for sure was that he wanted a magic teacher, preferably one who wasn’t going to make him join a cause. Though he did wonder when he would find the next town.

Hearing his thoughts, the ink on the map faded and reformed to show a crossroads further up the road he was on. Keenin stood up, picked up his bag, and started walking. Although the map roughly showed him where he was it didn’t provide place names unless he knew them and so the Basalt River and the Stonefield Village had been labeled, while the rest remained unmarked. 

This is what drew him towards the crossroads. Keenin rolled up the map and placed it back into the cylinder in his sack as the actual sign marking the crossroads appeared ahead. There was no need to show the map to passing travelers when the directions were in front of him.

Ahead another 170 miles West was Behoden, a place known for its libraries and the formidable wall that surrounded it. To the right lay the Buckwood Forests marked only for its connection to the elves, and to the left was Alder Hamlet. His own village of Stonefield was now 85 miles behind him. 

He had walked 85 miles in two days and yet Behoden was still another 170 miles away. His best chance of finding a constant supply of food was the city, but it would be a slow trip as he was trying to keep off the pathway and had to detour further into the forest for food and water.

He would have to be careful to check the map for locations of interest before he went too far from vital resources. Keenin scanned the horizon for travelers before he pulled him map out once more, letting the page fill with snaking rivers. He wandered off into the woods at a rough angle towards Behoden, keeping an eye out for dangerous wildlife. 

Keenin found the river and bushes of unknown red berries that were being picked at by sparrows. He stopped to consider the risk and decidedly went for the water instead. He drank first, then ran the cool liquid over the top of his head, brushing back the growth of hair to wash away some of the sweat and dirt. A bath and a new haircut would have been nice, but he had to keep walking if he wanted to reach the town of Behoden in the next week.

Keenin had just turned back towards the road when he heard a loud squealing and rustling in the bushes across the river, which suddenly ceased. He shaded his eyes and peered across. Could it be a wild pig? He had never seen one, but he had heard they were vicious as well as delicious. Keenin considered climbing a tree for a better view, but that would take time and energy he didn’t have.

Instead, he chose to cross the river downstream. There were no rocks to jump across, but the river narrowed a few paces to his right so he positioned himself back from the edge and ran headfirst towards the gap. He hit the bank and jumped with all his strength. His feet hit the ground on the other side and propelled him forward into the bushes. He scrambled to pull himself up before he could get attacked by whatever animal he had startled. That’s when he saw the creatures.

There were about a dozen child-sized two-legged lizards with wings for arms, beaks uplifted from the corpse of a wild pig lying between them. Their beady black eyes fixed upon him and Keenin knew that he had made a terrible mistake. Keenin slowly lowered the bag from his shoulder and reached into it for the knife. One of the creatures squawked. He dropped the bag and pulled the knife free just as the group swarmed him.

He tried to shove, and slice, and kick the bird-lizards away as they pecked and scratched at him. Somehow he had to get away. He took off at a mad dash along the riverbank. He pushed past bushes, and brambles, and trees, but it wasn’t enough. Keenin tripped, dropped his knife, rolled, and curled into a ball to protect himself.

Claws racked his bare head and arms. As warm blood spread down the side of his face a deeper, darker feeling of hate for his attackers filled him. He set his angry gaze on the bird-lizard in front of him. It burst into flame. The bird screamed and started running wildly. Keenin lost hold of his anger as disbelief took him. The other birds started running wildly to avoid the danger of their flaming companion. 

Slightly relieved, Keenin lowered his head back to the ground. His body felt too sore and scratched to move, he felt woozy and his eyesight adjusted in and out of focus. He watched the bird-lizards scatter in confusion as several more caught alight, until he heard a splash in the river and others were clawed to death and left burning in the dirt. When several bird-lizards turned back towards him Keenin blinked his blurry eyes. 

But when he finally focused there were no birds in sight, not even the dead ones. It was possible that he had passed out a time from blood loss and the birds had eaten their own. If that was true, he needed to stop his bleeding. Ahead Keenin spotted familiar tufts of red grass. Feeling hopeful he stretched forward one of his hands.

In reality, the plant was feet away and he would have had to crawl, but in that same reality Keenin was afraid that he wouldn’t make it. What happened if he died? Would Tess scold him for only making it this far? He must have looked so pathetic.

In the blink of his eyes the plant disappeared too, just like the birds. Keenin wondered if he had dreamed it when someone touched the top of his head and said something he couldn’t understand. The pain shriveled up into no pain at all and thoughts of Tess were forgotten.

Feeling awake and unhurt, Keenin looked up. A tall man with pointed ears was watching him with wide purple eyes. An elf. Keenin felt as though something miraculous had happened like when a deer approaches of its own will. Having seen each other, the man left as silently as he had come. 

Pushing himself up, Keenin saw that arrows had pierced through the bodies of some of the raving bird-lizards and the burnt ones were in a smoldering pile. He felt across the top of his head and across his arms, but aside from dried blood there was nothing there. There were no wounds or scars. 

Keenin got to his feet and saw that the bag he had left behind was sitting on the ground not far from him. He checked the contents. Everything was there except for the knife. He picked that up a few feet away. The only thing that had been ruined was the patchwork vest he wore. Keenin balled it up and stuffed it in the bag. Then he opened the metal cylinder and looked at the map. It showed him the way back to the road that he was originally following.

A new rustling and crunching started up from the direction of the road. Keenin knew better now. He put away his map, picked up his bag, and took cover behind a nearby tree. A human came into the clearing, a chubby looking man with a large travel pack and bedroll. Seeing the dead and charred creatures, the man began to inspect them by removing the arrows and nudging them with his foot. Keenin realized that the man was looking for loot. Keening moved out from behind the tree.

“That’s mine!” Keenin yelled at him, not wanting to lose something of value.

The man startled and stared. Then smiled.

“You’ve secured some good cockatrice skins lad, but it won’t do you any good if you don’t know where to take them. How about I take a portion as my fee and show you to a good place?”

“You’re just another swindler,” Keenin accused him. “I’ll get my stuff to Behoden myself.”

Keenin knew a merchant when he saw one.

“I bet you don’t even know the way,” the man said. “Heck, it looks like you can’t cook and these piles of meat will rot if you can’t treat them. Be a smart kid. Let me take the lizards off your hands and we can go to the city together.”

Keenin clutched the knife in his bag. As long as he had the map he wasn’t lost, but Keenin decided that this guy didn’t need to know what he had. 

“Fine,” Keenin said letting go of the knife. “But if they’re yours. You carry them.”

“Like I said. I have to prepare them first,” the merchant said putting his pack down.

He produced a number of different sized knives. Keenin had never seen so much variety before.

“Why don’t you wipe yourself clean and give me a hand,” the merchant said. “This isn’t just my sellable product. It’s also your dinner.”

The man offered up a thin yet dangerously sharp knife.

“I don’t even know you,” Keenin said reluctantly. 

“The name’s Bodwin.”

In the end, Keenin decided to help prepare the lizards. He had to wash himself at the river anyways so he took his bag and went to clean himself. When Keenin returned to the spot with the bird-lizards he saw that Bodwin had hung strips of meat over tree branches and was now in the process of pinning one of the skins up to a tree, scale side in, with tacks. Keenin wasn’t an expert hunter, but he knew that drying a skin took time. That meant that Bodwin wasn’t keeping his promise to get him to the city.

“When I agreed to give you my lizards for your guidance I meant that I wanted to leave now,” Keenin said. 

“Then let me give you my guidance,” Bodwin said, leaving the skin pinned to the tree and taking out his knife to skin the next one. “This is one of the last safe places to camp and unless you don’t want food we need to prepare the meat for cooking. We’ll be leaving tomorrow.”

That said he started cutting into the next carcass. 

“We need a fire,” Keenin said. 

“Go make one,” Bodwin replied as he continued gutting the carcass.

Keenin put down his bag and started gathering wood into a pile. When the pile was big enough he searched in the bag for his matches, but Bodwin approached with two pieces of stone. He held the stones close to the kindling and struck them to produce sparks until the wood caught fire. Keenin had never seen anyone do that before. Everyone he knew used matches. 

“How did you do that?” Keenin asked. 

“If you don’t know that you never should have left your home,” Bodwin said matter of fact.

Keenin looked away irritably.

“I was in a hurry,” he muttered back.

The man’s know-it-all attitude was making him frustrated. Keenin might have been ashamed at his own incompetence had Bodwin not been so cheerful. Bodwin watched the frown on Keenin’s face deepen and recognized the depressed state. Bodwin sighed to himself and stuffed the flint into his pocket.

“Rocks made from flint will spark when struck,” he explained. “Come here.” 

Bodwin held out the handle of one of his long and gleaming knives. Keenin hesitantly accepted it, and turned the raised blade in the light to see the shine across its smooth surface. Such a fine knife must have cost a good sum of money so why should Bodwin hand it over. This question was answered when Bodwin dragged a lizard corpse beside him.

“Cut here,” he said pointing to a spot on the side of the neck. 

The sight of the birds’ collapsed and wrongly angled corpse made him uneasy. Keenin’s fingers twitched around the knife handle and he told himself that if he could not do this then he was surely unfit to survive. He crouched down and positioned the knife, only to have Bodwin stop the movement by putting his own hand over top Keenin’s.

“That’s wrong,” Bodwin said.

He gently held the back of Keenin’s hand and moved it to adjust the position of the knife.

“This is the soft spot below the collar bone. Now you do it.”

Again Bodwin guided him to stab the blade point first into the creature’s flesh and drag open a long red gash from which guts squished out. With innards pilled in front of him Keenin felt nauseated. Noticing this, Bodwin simply lifted the knife from his loose grip. 

“That’s it. Empty it,” Bodwin instructed.

Keenin’s face went pale. He had seen Bodwin doing it, but the thought of shoving his hand inside a once-living creature made his own innards twist in protest.

“Fine,” Bodwin said. He dragged Keenin back from the guts and foul stench to shove a metal bottle into Keenin’s hands.

“I’ll do it so stop looking like you’re going to be sick all over our food. Go fill that with water.” 

Keenin scrambled to his feet and ran back to the river bank.


Chapter 8: Blame and Regret

Chapter 9: Travelling Tales