literature

Werenthria: The Adventures of Ren and Kaineth

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3. Of Myths, Luck, and Lessons

Kaineth stepped through the frost-hardened mud as he surveyed the ramshackle village. Already the villagers were poking their heads out of their shabby huts and going about their day. Most of them looked the worse for wear, with baggy clothes and sickly paleness. As he watched them, they also also took stock of him in return with a cold caution.

He glanced down at Ren to his right. Her battered bow and quiver were slung over her shoulder and she had to take two strides for every one of his. While her air was casual, her eyes betrayed her alertness, shifting back and forth over the crowd.

“You’re attracting a lot of attention in all that armor,” she whispered as they passed by the tavern.

Kaineth shrugged, unconcerned. These people looked barely capable of lifting log for the fire much less a fight.

Ren shook her head at his apathy and started to reply when, a small wood elf child scurried into the street in a spirited game of tag with three others. They zipped in and out of the crowd haphazardly before a freckle- faced boy slammed into Kaineth’s legs. The high-elf didn’t budge at the blow. Instead, he caught the child by the shoulders easily and set him back on his feet.

“S-sorry Mister…” he stuttered looking up at Kaineth’s eye patch with wide eyes.

Kaineth nodded to the surprised child before a cry from behind him drew his attention. He turned to see Ren snatching up another boy, not much shorter than she, by the scruff of the neck.

“Let me go!” he squeaked with a reddening face.

“You shouldn’t be running this scam, kid,” Ren tutted, “Run it on the wrong person and you’ll lose a hand.”

The wild haired boy struggled against Ren before she let him go. As she did the boy in front of Kaineth suddenly appeared fine and laughed as he wheeled away.

Ren rolled her eyes before pulling a coin from her purse and tossing it at the child. “Don’t spend it all on yourself,” she huffed as they ran away with the coin.

Kaineth raised his brow at Ren, who looked up at him with slight annoyance still etched on her pale face. “What?” she muttered, “Just hungry kids. But pickpockets aren’t always that small around here, so just keep your eyes sharp.”

“Eye,” he corrected her.

“Eye...Right...” she mumbled a little sheepishly before turning on her heels and walking past him.

Kaineth followed the wood-elf as she lead them out of town and into the Frost Forest again. The woods looked less sinister in the morning sun even though a thick canopy of trees hid most of light. They trekked in silence, listening to their surroundings. Every now and then a twig would snap just a little too hard or a bush would wobble paces behind them, confirming what Ren had guessed at since leaving the village. They were being followed.

Kaineth ignored their pursuer in favor of travel time. The stalker had not attacked or gotten close enough to cause concern and he would deal with it when the situation changed.
Their silent pattern continued until, Ren stopped in her tracks and threw up her hand in front of him.

“Back up,” she whispered.

He took a few careful steps backward as he put his hand on his sword pommel, ready for what would appear.  “What is it?”

Ren picked up a jagged pebble from the path and rolled it on the muddy ground in front of them. A loud zzzzt  sound started  as a large net hidden in the leaves suddenly swooped from the ground, snatching up empty air as it flew high into the trees. Dirt and leaved rained down from the ropes as the discovered trap swayed.

Kaineth gazed at the net dangling above them and back at the wood-elf. “A trap meant for you?”

“No, I don’t think so. Rafe would usually send men to kill travelers for their gold,” she replied, “but when I left his employ, he’d started getting more inventive with his business since it had grown so large. Travelers themselves could be assets too… there’s always someone willing to pay gold for a slave.”

Kaineth gave the net a hard look and then gripped his sword pommel tightly. “If things were different, I think I would’ve liked to introduce this Rafe to the tip of my sword.”

Ren’s curiosity flared as she glanced up at Kaineth. If things were different? The high- elf’s words were strange, but she knew from experience that it would do her no good to ask personal questions.

“Rafe is a wood-rat who will stay in his shadows. He would never face someone like you,” she replied with distaste.

A silence fell between them as Ren looked at the dim sunlight filtering in through the trees. The sun was already setting and soon the part of the wood would be no place they wanted to be even with the two of them combined. “Speaking of, the shadows are growing long. We’ll have to stop and make camp soon.” she said as she scanned the trees.

Kaineth nodded. He would have liked to keep moving but it would do no good to get attacked in the dark again. “We’ll manage. Let’s go further until we find a decent spot to camp.”

“I know a place,” Ren nodded as she began to walk again. Kaineth followed as they left the net handing in the trees behind.

Ren lead them to a small deer trail and slipped into the tangled maze with ease, expecting him to follow. Kaineth pushed through the faint trail behind her, grumbling as his armor scraped and his cloak snagged on every thorny bush. Why did she have to find the most impossibly small trail to use?

Eventually, the trees grew thin and the trail lead to an open area. Kaineth felt a bit of relief after being enclosed by the thick forest, but the feeling didn’t last long as he surveyed the area.
The ground opened up to a face of bare rock without a scrap of moss or weeds popping up between the cracks. While the air remained cold, there was not a trace of breeze. No birds called or animals scurried away. The whole area was unnervingly stagnant.

“We’ll make camp here,” Ren said as she gazed around the area, making sure they were alone.
Kaineth looked over the chosen spot and frowned. The strangeness of the area he could deal with, but there was another concern. “It’s very open,” he noted,  “It will make it easy to be spotted.”

“Yea, but it’s the least likely place for us to be set on. Thrax and thieves avoid this place.”
He looked down at her skeptically but found her sporting a little smile. “They say the spot where nothing grows is cursed. Touched by the last dragon Raek’th the Black. If you believe in myths, which most people around here do, you avoid this area for fear of bad luck.”

“And I take it you don’t believe in superstitions and myths,” Kaineth asked as he slipped his cloak hood from his ears.

Ren’s smile grew to a sly grin, “I think there are things in the world we can’t explain. But do I believe a dragon, who supposedly lived over a thousand years ago, cursed this place? No. However, it makes a convenient spot for us, doesn’t it?”

“Aye, that I suppose it does,” Kaineth gave her a little chuckle.

Ren set about gathering fire wood as the light faded and soon had a small but warm fire going while he set off to fill up his water-skin in a nearby creek. When he returned with the water he found her crouched over the fire, stirring the flames with a twig. As he watched her, he noticed she wore no cloak. How did she not freeze? Since entering the Frost Wood, he hadn’t been properly warm even with a his own woolen cloak. It was strange that she did not even seem to notice the cold. Then again, there were many things that were strange to him about this wood-elf.

He trudged back over to her and offered her his full canteen. She took it and drank gratefully before handing it back to him.

“Thank you,” she said with a sigh of relief and wiped her mouth her sleeve.

He nodded and eased himself to the ground across from Ren, his armor clanking a little as he adjusted on the hard ground below him.

“Hungry?”  

“A bit,” he admitted.

Ren stood, brushing off the seat of her pants. “I’ll be back then.”

She hitched her bow over her back and stepped quietly into the darkened woods, blending all into easily with the shadows.

While she was gone, Kaineth decided to remove the more uncomfortable pieces of his armor. He removed the breast plate and slipped his sword off of his belt, but kept the blade within a moments reach. Their stalker had given up for the time being, but that could change at any moment. When he felt more comfortable, he pulled his cloak around his shoulders and stirred the fire. It had been awhile since the wood-elf left and he knew there were sure to be more traps and trouble in the darkness. Should he go investigate? No. He was more likely to get lost and stumble into something worse than a band of thieves. Besides, the woman could handle herself.

Just as he bent to stir the fire again, a small shadow emerged from the trees to his right and Ren stepped light. In her hands she carried two doves skewered to an arrow and plucked to the pink skin. “We were lucky, it seems.”

“Perhaps this place isn’t cursed after all.”

She chuckled as she stooped down and placed the cleaned birds close to the fire. “Just don’t tell the rest of the thieves that.”

A little smile crept to his face and he let out a huff of a laugh. At least his guide wasn't boring.

Ren chuckled with him and then unlaced her bracers before pulling a small sharpening stone from her pocket. She let the birds cook as she sat down and worked on her arrows with expert fingers.

Kaineth watched the process for awhile, listening to the scraping sounds, until noticed a ring like scar around each of Ren’s wrists. Shackle scars. The wood-elf had been a slave for what appeared to be a long time, judging by the deep rings left behind.

Shifting on the hard ground, his curiosity got the better of him again.“So, what brought you to the Frost Wood?”

Ren’s eyes flickered up from her work.  “Same as you, I suppose. Business.”
“And you stayed for?”

“For all the charming locals of course,” she replied as she continued dragging an arrowhead over the stone.

Kaineth sat back and propped his elbow on his knees. “So, nowhere else to go, eh?”

She stopped her work and looked up him in earnest this time. “Aye, no home or family to return to. This is as good a place as any.”

“I see.”

Ren put down her arrow and looked at the high-elf wrapped in his cloak. If he was going to ask her more personal questions, she could do the same. “And what about you? You’re obviously well-equipped and formally trained for combat. A Lord’s son perhaps? But no, you wouldn’t be traveling alone would you? Unless you were outcast maybe.”

Kaineth shifted on the hard ground, uncomfortable in more ways than one at her questions. He didn’t want to tell Ren why he was traveling. If she knew, she would refuse to continue guiding him to the pass. Even if she didn’t refused, taking her any further would be involving her in something dangerous she wouldn’t walk away from.

Ren went back to her arrow. It was obvious she had struck a nerve and she had no desire to anger him. “You don’t have to tell me anything.”

An awkward silence grew between them and was filled only by the sizzle of the cooking doves. When they were cooked, Ren handed over one of them to Kaineth then tore into the crispy -skinned leg of her own bird without bothering to let it cool. She focused on her food and gobbled it quickly as she passed it from hand to hand, trying not to burn fingers.

“How long will it take us to get into the pass?” Kaineth asked as he took a bite of his own bird.

Ren tossed the second, thoroughly cleaned, drumstick into the flames and sent up a shower of embers as the bone began to shatter from the heat. “Two days to the mountains. And then a day to the pass. Maybe a little longer if the weather turns.”

“Is there a shorter way?”

Ren finished off her bird greedily and tossed the bones into the flames. “No, unfortunately not. I’m already taking you the fastest route there is to take.”

The high-elf picked at his dinner. Three days. He could wait three more days. He’d waited nearly a year already. What was three days compared to that?

“I’ll take first watch,” Ren announced.

Her voice pulled him out his thoughts. “No, you should rest first. I can take first watch.”

Ren gave him a curious look for a moment, her golden eyes glowing in the fire light. She could tell he was tired, but if he wanted the first watch, he could have it.

“At your leisure then, boss,” she shrugged.

Without hesitation, Ren slipped her dagger off of her belt, gripping it tightly, as she laid back tucking her other arm behind her head. A few minutes of wiggling to find a comfortable spot passed before she closed her eyes with a sigh and drifted off.

Kaineth finished eating and tossed his left overs into the flames. The wood-elf’s hand twitched and her grip on her blade tightened from the sound of the bones shattering. Was the dagger because she disliked sleeping in front of him or did she sleep like that in general?

His fingers brushed over his eye patch. He did look villainous to some, but it had not seemed to bother the wood-elf. The scars on her wrists told him more than she was willing to admit. Experience had taught her caution, just as it had taught him the same lesson.

Tugging his cloak over his shoulders, Kaineth looked up through the break in the tree canopy. His eye scanned the dark sky dotted with silver stars until it caught on the shadow of the mountains in the distance. In three days, he would be the one teaching caution. It would be a permanent and bloody lesson.
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