Friday, 22 July 2016

Artel - Outside the Firelight

The cool shade of the forest was a welcome relief after the unrelenting heat of the plains. Even after only a few short minutes Artel could feel his spirits lifting as his mind turned to thoughts of fresh water and hunting, and he had already instructed Millon to gather any suitable firewood as they made their way through the trees. There would be no more cold nights huddled in their sleep sacks praying for warmth, no more breakfasts of dry yar bread and no more parched mouths as they struggled to make their water supplies last. Artel almost grinned to himself as they made their way through the bushes and vegetation that lined the forest floor.
The forest itself seemed rather peaceful, as far as forests go. Sunlight streamed down from between the leaves of the treetops and birds chirped cheerfully as they fluttered from branch to branch. At one point the two men came across a group of monkeys who chittered loudly in alarm before bounding away into the trees, swinging effortlessly from branch to branch and staring down distrustfully at the strangers.
Millon loved the forest. He thought it was perhaps the best place he had ever been. He loved the brightly coloured flowers that grew large and proud upon the bushes that littered the forest floor. He loved the moist smell of earth and vegetation that filled his nostrils with each step he took. He loved the rays of sunshine that streamed down from the treetops and he loved the many different calls of the birds and animals that met his ears. There was a sense of rightness in the air, as if now they were beneath the great leafy canopy nothing could go wrong.
Millon smiled as he dutifully collected sticks and logs from the floor, piling them high on his shoulder and not stopping to think for a second about their cumbersome weight or their awkward branches. It was as if everything was easier now, everything was simple and jolly.
Artel strode ahead, enjoying the sense of elation that seemed to fill his being, making him feel weightless and merry. He turned his smiling face to his companion.
"Ah isn't it wonderful Millon, the birds, the trees, the air!" Here he stopped and inhaled deeply, sighing in contentment as he slowly let the air out again.
"It certainly is Sir, I must admit I feel rather merry since we have entered this charming forest. You're right, there is a certain quality in the air, it is like music to my ears."
"Ah Millon I knew we would make it, I always had faith." Artel clapped a large hand on the smaller man's arm, making him wobble slightly and emit a small chuckle.
The two carried on their way, smiling to themselves and emitting small bursts of conversation as they wandered deeper and deeper into the strange forest.

By nightfall the two men had collected enough fruit, berries and firewood to host a small party, and, gleefully stumbling into a suitable clearing, deposited their goods and set their camp. That night they set a fire for the first time in days and sat contentedly either side of it, eagerly biting into the large juicy fruit they had collected. Millon had been wary at first, never having seen anything like the huge purple fruit before, but Artel had soon convinced him it would be fine, after all, how could anything in such a superb forest be at all harmful?
When all the fruit was gone Artel and Millon sat quietly next to the fire. Night had fallen and darkness pressed upon the outside of their small circle of firelight. Artel looked up into the darkness above him, aware suddenly that he could no longer hear the calling of birds, the chittering of monkeys or indeed any sound at all. It was as if the night had brought with it not only darkness but a deep impregnable silence as well. He coughed lightly but even that small sound seemed lost in the dark void, as if it was barely more than a whisper. Artel turned his head slowly, until his amber eyes fell upon the figure of Millon, sitting just the other side of the fire. As he watched the distance between them seemed to stretch and warp, as if the darkness were seeping into the area between them, stretching the space and widening the gap. Millon seemed to shrink in front of his eyes, slowly slipping backwards into the black space behind him. Artel opened his mouth to shout but only a whisper escaped his lips.
"Millon... "
The smaller man turned to look at him and smiled stupidly.
"Yes Sir?"
The picture flew back into focus with a snap, as if it were an elastic band suddenly released, and Artel blinked dumbly at Millon who now looked just as normal as before. He tore his eyes from the smaller man and peered around, staring into the darkness that sat just outside their firelight, trying to find some answer to what he had just witnessed.
"Artel S-sir? Are you alright?"
Artel's head snapped back round to look at Millon, his eyes sharp and focused.
"Yes of course I'm alright you blundering idiot!"
Millon recoiled from the harsh words as if Artel had physically struck him. The world around him tilted and span and he felt a sickening jolt in his stomach. He turned his face away, a wave of shame washing over him, and stared at his feet. He heard Artel grunt and turn away and he raised his head. Artel now sat with his back to Millon and he was breathing heavily, huge great breaths dragging in and out of his throat accompanied by a sort of low gurgling. Millon shivered as a wave of goosebumps washed over his skin. He turned his eyes from Artel and stared into the darkness, the impregnable wall of black seemed to grow nearer and nearer each time he looked at it and he found himself strangely caught up in it. It was as if the darkness somehow held his eyes, forcing him to peer deeper and deeper. He had the vague sense of falling and the brightness of his peripheral vision seemed to dim. In front of him the darkness swirled and rippled, like eddies in a river. A whisper in his ear, smooth and calm, although he could not quite make out the words. In front of him a pair of eyes snapped open, blinking at him. Millon leapt back in terror, yelling out as he did so. The eyes vanished and the world seemed to grow slightly brighter as he lay panting on the floor, his wide, terrified eyes staring into the darkness.
"Millon? What's wrong with you? Get a hold of yourself man!"
Artel's voice was rough and it shot through Millon like a bullet. He turned his shaking head to look at the Knight on the other side of the fire. Artel looked confused, one eyebrow raised in an almost quizzical manner. Millon shook his head and pulled himself upright.
"S-sorry S-sir. I - nothing's wrong, I - I'm fine."
Artel nodded.
"Best get some sleep then, we've still got a lot of walking ahead of us."
"Y-yes S-sir." The small man nodded as he pulled his sleep sack out and began to shuffle his still shaking body into it.
Artel sighed and pulled his sleep sack closer to the fire before he slid into it, there was something about the darkness that put him on edge.

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