I was originally hoping to publish this as a small e-book with illustrations, but I could never find an illustrator for it…
Aalen’s Saga: The Hunter
Part One: The Forest
The crystal had shown terrible things. The Elder walked slowly out her dwelling. She clapped her hands and the entire village looked up at her.
“Humans are coming with axes to destroy our forest. We must protect it! All remaining archers need to go to our northern border. Falnek, take the children to the sacred Bloodwood.” There was sudden activity in the village. “Aalen, when the humans are defeated come back to us.” Aalen nodded and left with her wolf bounding in front of her.
The Elder looked over the village and her people. The crystal had shown terrible things.
Aalen was hidden in one of the trees. She stood at the base of a large branch with her back against the trunk watching the army of humans about to enter the forest below her. The way they were armed suggested they were heading for her village still some miles away from here.
As soon as they set foot into her land she nocked an arrow and then aimed her longbow at one of the men. She knew her companions in the other trees would be doing the same. None of these trespassers would survive. She waited for the signal.
Something seemed strange when Aalen returned to her village in the heart of the forest. She had returned now the human attack on the borders of their land had been repelled. But it was too quiet, and Aalen couldn’t see any sentries hiding up in the trees with her sharp eyes. Then Aalen cried out dropping to her knees in despair.
In the centre of the village, where there was a natural colonnade formed by a double row of trees, were all the villagers hanging from them. All of them dead.
The attack on the borders had been a diversion.
Aalen cut down all the bodies from the trees in the village. She spent some days burying her kin in the village outskirts. Every time saying a prayer to the Goddess while wiping away tears.
She removed the sacred crystal shards from around the neck of the village Elder and buried her last. She cupped the largest one in her hands praying for a way to find the killers of her people. The shard glowing brilliantly in her hands showing her the way.
A rage filled her heart. She grabbed all her weapons and followed the path she had seen.
Aalen’s path took her northwards. As she went further the trees became sparse until she came to the shoreline of a wide sea.
She had never seen the ocean before and although her sight was partially obscured by the sea-mist around the shore, it looked as though it went on forever.
Standing there, Aalen began to realise the world was far larger than she had ever dreamed. Where there other distant shores? Her heart yearned for revenge, but also to explore this world she barely knew.
She watched the tumultuous waves and then finally turned away following the tracks eastward.
Aalen followed the tracks of the human soldiers through the forest. Along the way she began calling out:
“Vilja! Vilja! Where are you?” But there was no response, the only sound was the breeze sighing through the branches and usual forest life. Aalen wondered where Vilja had got to. He had accompanied her to the border, but then a short time later he ran off back into the forest. She hoped no harm had come to him. Aalen continued following the tracks. A sizeable army had come this way.
“Vilja!” she called out again. Where had her wolf got to?
Aalen found herself in a thicket. Coming into a clearing she found two dead bodies before her. Both were human soldiers dressed in similar garb to the ones she killed on the borders of her land. Probably scouts of some kind. One had an arrow through his throat, while the other had one through the right eye. Pinpoint accuracy. Both arrows painted black. She was unaware of anyone who did this. The fact that someone else seemed to be hunting them, Aalen took as a sign she had taken the right course.
Somewhere out there did she have an ally?
Aalen had made camp for the night. Not feeling like sleeping, she had found a piece of wood and used a sharp stone for a chisel. She began chiselling it into shape, though she had no idea what she was making. She then heard movement in the bushes near her and suddenly there was a loud panting by her ear.
“I wondered when you were going to show up.” Aalen said as she looked at Vilja. “They’re all dead Vilja. Killed in cold blood. We need to make things right.” She hugged her wolf and wept. Vilja licked her face.
There was a figure hiding in the bushes. Aalen knew they had an arrow trained on her, just as she had one trained on them. With her heart beating loudly she slowly rose. The other figure did the same. It was a human female with long black hair.
“My name is Aalen. I’m tracking some humans who slaughtered my village.”
“My name is Ashalla. Also known as The Black Arrow. I’m hunting down this group of soldiers too.”
Though her heart was full of hate, Aalen slowly lowered her bow. Ashalla did the same. They both stared at one another.
Aalen and Ashalla were hiding on an outcrop looking down on the soldiers in the distance. Aalen’s wolf Vilja lay between them.
“Last year there was a drought and game was scarce. These soldiers came to our village demanding food. When we refused because we needed our food stocks for the winter, they began killing all the hunters until we acquiesced. I came back to find my brothers had been murdered. I painted my arrows black and started hunting them down.” Ashalla told her.
Aalen looked down at the army. Once they set up camp, that’s when they would attack.
The sentries were taken out silently. Aalen and Ashalla moved quickly into the camp. In the centre a fire-pit still smouldered. While Ashalla took care of the drunken stragglers, Aalen spied the largest tent and silently went inside. She roused the leader awake. He looked confused.
“I thought we had killed you all.” he said.
“Why destroy my village?”
“I was only acting under orders. We wanted to cut down your forest for timber, but we knew your people wouldn’t allow it. So we decided to kill you all. The Baron sent us.”
Aalen stuck her knife in his throat.
“Beggars can’t be choosers!” Ashalla said as she tried on a pair of boots she had taken from one of the soldiers. They almost fit.
With their leader dead, the army had become fragmented and disorganised. It wasn’t hard to pick them off in smaller groups.
“Now all we need is to find the person who sent them. The one they call The Baron.” Aalen said as she washed herself in the river and Vilja hungrily crunched on a joint he had found.
“Not an easy man to get to, but I’m sure we can find a way.” Ashalla replied.
Aalen and Ashalla traveled southwards. Aalen could hear Vilja ahead bounding along.
“In my village we do what we’re best at. If you’re good at protecting the borders, than that’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re female or male.” Aalen told her.
“Where I’m from it tends to be the men that are the hunters and use bows. When I told my parents I wanted to be a hunter, it raised a few eyebrows.” Ashalla responded.
“Why do you only let men be hunters? Do human bows need penises to operate them?” asked Aalen.
Ashalla laughed out loud.
They had spent the entire day walking south and now they were both exhausted. In the darkest part of the night Aalen kept watch since she could see perfectly well in the starlight.
She looked at the sleeping form of Ashalla covered with a blanket. She had grown fond of this human and had thought that could never have been possible. All her life she had been trained to keep humans out of their forest, or hunt them down if they dared to enter. And now she was friends with one. Maybe they weren’t all as bad as she believed.
As Aalen, Ashalla, and Vilja got nearer to the city they saw the land become more cultivated and ordered.
“How many years do your people usually live?” Ashalla asked.
“We don’t measure time the same way as you.” Aalen replied. “So I don’t know. As we get older our responsibilities increase. I helped protect the borders, so little was expected of me, but if I survived I would have eventually become an Elder of the village who were the sources of our wisdom and knowledge.”
Aalen looked out at the land. She knew that future was now gone for her.
Aalen was suspended above the Bloodwood, the most ancient and sacred tree of their forest. The tree was part of their spring rites when they celebrated the fertility of the villagers and the natural world. As she hung there, she saw there was huge crack in the Bloodwood that went down the entire tree, as if it was ready to split open.
Aalen awoke with a start. She could hear Ashalla softly breathing beside her. Vilja was curled up beside the glowing embers. Bleary-eyed she got up realising they hadn’t set a watch.
In the dark she pondered the dream.
Part Two: The Keep
“What are your names?” The sentry asked.
“My name is Ashalla of Woodhall.”
“My name is Aalen Liadon.” As soon as she spoke the sentry looked at her.
“Please remove your hood miss.” He ordered. Aalen complied revealing her long golden hair and bright green eyes.
“I’m one of the forest folk.” Aalen admitted.
“And presumably that wolf is yours?” Vilja stood there with his tongue hanging out.
“He’s my companion. He’s good-natured and won’t harm anyone unless provoked.”
“Fine.” The sentry said. He waved them through.
As Vilja happily ran through the narrow streets many small hands patted him.
“We’re going to have to wait, The Baron is away for a few more days.” Ashalla informed her.
“I can wait.” Aalen replied looking around the crowded streets. She hadn’t realised there were so many people here in this city. Where had they all come from?
They were standing in the city square. Above them all, the Baron’s Keep rose like a giant solitary black tooth. Aalen spied the walls of the fortifications. She thought she could scale them with no problems, and reckoned Ashalla could do the same.
Revenge would come. She could wait. What was a few days?
Aalen and Ashalla stayed in an inn. They sat on the bed while Vilja curled up on the floor. Ashalla had brought back some bread after scoping out The Baron’s keep a further time.
“If only I had some cheese.” Ashalla said as she ate the bread.
“Wait a moment.” Aalen said producing a vial from her belongings. “When the fruit in the forest ripens my people make this.” Ashalla spread some on her bread.
“Yum! You can taste all the forest berries!” Ashalla said.
“It reminds me of home.” Aalen replied wondering if it would ever be made again.
Exploring the city Aalen was surprised by how many different races were here. There were humans, dwarves, half-people, and even some human/elf hybrids living and working together in this city.
“You Elf!” A voice suddenly called out. Aalen turned to see a group of soldiers observing her.
“You talking to me?” Aalen asked while lightly touching one of her daggers.
“What are you doing in this city?” one asked.
“Just passing through.” Aalen told them. The soldiers kept a close eye on her as they moved on.
Soon the Baron would be dead, and she would be gone from here.
This morning Aalen and Ashalla found the streets were packed with people. It seemed as though the entire city’s population had turned out. Soldiers marched towards the Keep.
“What’s happening?” Aalen asked.
“I think the Baron is finally returning.” Ashalla replied trying to see over the crowds.
The people cheered as a carriage drawn by six horses passed by. Inside was a man with dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He wore a red coat with gold filigree. He ignored the crowds that had come out to see him. Aalen stared at him.
“Perfect!” Aalen said. “Tonight we attack.”
They waited until dark. Silently as shadows they slipped over the wall unseen. The Keep now stood before them. Aalen and Ashalla climbed up the side. It was steep, but fortunately they found places for their hands to hold on to as they ascended.
Once they clambered over the ramparts, there were two sentries who hadn’t seen them. One got a well-aimed throwing knife in his throat, while Aalen was upon the other before he could make a sound. They both sneaked to the doorway and came into a room with a stairwell.
They were now inside the Baron’s Keep.
“The Baron will be on one of the top floors.” Aalen said. They moved quickly up the stairwell. Aalen went to the very top floor, while Ashalla searched the one below.
Aalen came to a large set of ornate wooden doors. She quietly opened them and saw The Baron seated at a long wooden table eating his dinner. Unexpectedly, he looked up at her.
“Ah! Aalen Liadon, I have been expecting you!” He said smiling at her. All the doors behind Aalen suddenly burst open and she quickly found herself surrounded by soldiers. “Perhaps you will join me for dinner?”
“Come a little closer Aalen.” The Baron ordered. As the guards moved her into the room, Aalen tried getting one of her hands free, hoping no one would notice. Another group of soldiers appeared with Ashalla. “And now we have Ashalla!”
“So I guess you’re planning to execute us?” Ashalla asked belligerently. The Baron laughed.
“You’re both far too valuable to kill. The two of you wiped out my army single-handedly. You have a range of skills that are useful to me. Rather than kill me, have you considered working for me instead?” The Baron asked. Aalen’s mouth dropped open.
“Work for you? You killed my people. You destroyed my home. How could you think I would ever work for you?” Aalen asked. The Baron just shrugged.
“In my experience, everyone has their price. What would yours be Aalen? I can provide you with anything.”
“I want my people back.” Aalen replied.
“That’s beyond my abilities. What about you Ashalla? What do you want?”
“You killed my father and my brothers. I want you to be dead.” Ashalla responded. The Baron looked disappointed.
“My death won’t bring your loved ones back.”
“But it will stop you killing others.” Aalen replied.
The Baron looked at both of them disappointed.
“Obviously you are both still very angry. I think some time in my dungeons will cool you off. Maybe then you will have a change of heart and be more reasonable.” He motioned with his hands for the guards to take them away.
Just then, Aalen managed to get one of her hands free. She pulled out a concealed knife and, before anyone could stop her, she threw it The Baron. The knife quickly embedded itself in his throat. He gave a surprised look and then fell forward onto his dinner plate.
In the confusion following The Baron’s sudden death, Aalen managed to free herself from the soldiers who had captured her. She swiftly recovered her bow, and stepped back a few paces while quickly loading arrows and shooting the soldiers before her at point blank range.
With soldiers starting to fall, Ashalla freed herself and drew her broadsword. They both managed to clear a path through their opposition and ran out the hall with the remaining soldiers chasing them.
“Hopefully most of the guards were up here waiting to capture us.” Aalen stated as they quickly ran down the winding stair.
Running down the stairs they met little resistance, but they heard the soldiers from above following. Once they were far enough below, they went through a window and, with series of jumps, managed to get free of the Keep. As they ran they heard a voice behind them.
“Stop or I will shoot!” They turned to see a soldier in a red cloak with a crossbow in his hand aimed directly at Aalen. Vilja suddenly leapt up and bit down on the soldiers arm. The soldier screamed, dropping the crossbow.
Aalen and Ashalla ran to the city wall. Vilja followed.
Once they were over the city wall they quickly found some cover amongst some trees and hid there a while.
“Thanks for helping.” Aalen said as she gave Vilja a long hug.
When the sun rose, they crept away from the city using trees and rocks as cover and hid quietly when patrols appeared.
After a few days passed, and they hadn’t seen any further patrols of soldiers for a while, they began to feel safer.
“So with The Baron dead, what do you plan to do now?” Ashalla asked. Aalen surveyed the land around them.
She hadn’t considered that.
“I guess I should go back to my village. The border guards should have survived.” Aalen answered.
“I want to explore the world,” Ashalla said. Aalen looked at the mountains in the distance. She wondered what lay beyond them and found herself yearning to also explore a world she barely knew.
“I’m sure my village can wait. Maybe I can tag along with you? You’ll probably need my help anyway.” Aalen found herself saying. Ashalla smiled and took Aalen in her arms.
“I would like that.” Ashalla replied.
The three of them set off in the direction of the mountains.
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©️2022 Joanne Fisher