Friday, 25 November 2016

Artel 15. An Unwanted Visitor

It was mid afternoon and the hot sun was high in the clear blue sky when Millon heard the shouts echoing through the village, tearing from throat to throat as each villager alerted the next to the news.
Another one. They'd found another one.
A puzzled frown wrote itself slowly across Millon's face. Another one? Another what? What had they found? He started across the field he'd been turning, leaving his spade stuck in the ground like an angry arrow, making a beeline for Tella, who he could see emerging from the cow shed. She, too, was making her way slowly towards the village, looking to see what the commotion was about. He quickened his pace, wanting to reach her side and be the person that she shared this unusual and exciting experience with... whatever it was.
She turned at the sound of his voice and his heart fluttered at the sight of the smile that lit up her pretty face. He broke into a jog and within a few seconds was at her side.
"Hi Millon, have you heard? They've found another one! I cant believe it, two, in just a span of several moons, usually no one makes it through the forest, let alone all the way out here to us!"
"Wh... what do you mean no one? What is it they've found? Who've found?"
"You don't know? Silly Millon, it's another you, the hunters have found another stranger from beyond the forest!"
 Millon's frown deepened. Another him? Another stranger from beyond the forest, when strangers rarely made it this far... another man for the village to get excited about, to vie for Tella's attention. But that was silly, petty. Then another thought slipped into his mind, 'usually no one makes it through the forest,' that's what she'd said. What if Artel had made it after all, and had somehow found his way here? He'd recognise Millon from a mile away, even with different clothes and longer hair, he wasn't stupid, he'd be angry Millon had left him, and he'd make him continue their quest, make him leave the village he had just begun to call home. A wave of cold fear washed through him but he gulped it back and smiled at Tella, who was patiently waiting for a response.
"Oh," he began, "that's amazing, I would have thought more people would have made it here?"
Tella shook her head and laughed a little.
"No way, it's hard to get through the forest, I think most of those that try probably don't know about half the things that lie waiting in there to surprise them, I reckon there's no other forest in the world like that one. And if you don't get eaten or captured by the things you can't imagine then the darkness comes and takes you for it's own."
Millon thought of the night he and Artel had shared round the fire, when the blackness of night had risen into the air and descended upon them, he had stabbed it but he had known that wouldn't kill it, something like that couldn't be killed by any normal weapon. He shivered at the memory, it was not a nice one, and followed Tella off the farm and into the village, half interested and half fearful of what he would find there.

There was already a large crowd of people gathered around the hunting party making their way slowly through the village. At first sight no other person was visible, but it soon became apparent from the crowds mutterings that the person they had found was unconscious and lay on a makeshift sling carried between two of the hunters. Millon and Tella followed the ever swelling group of villagers through the streets up to the hut where the elders met, trying their hardest to see past the mass of bodies but unable to. They stopped briefly outside the elders hut, there was some hushed conversation, then a bent old woman shuffled out and joined their procession, leading them to her own hut, Nanuka the healer. Whoever the man was he must be hurt bad for Nanuka to be called out. They stopped outside Nanuka's hut and the hunters hissed at the villagers, signalling for them to back away while the person, a man, was lifted from the sling and carried inside. Millon craned his neck, a feeling of dread filling his stomach as he caught sight of a very familiar pair of leather boots. It was definitely a man, and he was the right shape and size, and he thought he had seen a flash of brown hair. Nanuka's door closed leaving just one man stood on the doorstep, a hush fell across the crowd. Sicca turned and eyed them with his steely gaze, then puffed out his chest.
"My hunters and I have indeed found a man, not far from here, barely conscious, severely dehydrated and malnourished. Nanuka will do her best to heal him, but we do not know if he will survive. If he does, then he will be welcome to stay until he is healed, but we have already accepted one outsider into our midst this season and cannot go accepting any more. If it does not look like he will survive by moon high tonight then we will end his suffering, quickly and painlessly."
Murmurs rippled through the crowd and Millon felt himself go cold. End his suffering, painlessly and quickly. What if it was Artel? If so, he couldn't let the hunters end him. What if it wasn't Artel? Then it was none of his business. But if it was and he didn't say anything, then it may as well be him that drew the sword and plunged it through his chest. And if it was and he did get better, then he wouldn't want to stay here anyway, and the villagers might know something useful about the power hidden in the mountain, and despite his reluctance to leave Millon still cared about the fate of the world he had called home for so long. Besides, Artel might not mind if he stayed in the village and let the knight go on alone, it wasn't like he'd ever really been much help anyway. Artel could tell everyone back home that he had died in the forest, fallen victim to some creature or poison, that would be perfect, then no one would ever think to look for him, not that he thought anyone would come looking for him anyway.
He stood still, deliberating as the crowds of villagers dispersed, back to their tasks, their routines, their farms and workshops and businesses. A tug at his arm brought him back to reality and he looked round to see Tella urging him to go with her back to the farm, back to work. He turned to follow her, then realised he couldn't, he just couldn't leave his master, the knight he had sworn to protect, his companion, lying in there, maybe dying. He owed him that at least. Millon shook his head.
"Tella I, I think I might know the man, I must speak to Sicca."
Tella looked confused but only nodded, accepting in her beautiful, simple way, that some things fit together no matter how unexpected.
Together they walked towards Nanuka's hut, the door of which was now firmly shut. Nerves coiled in Millon's stomach, but no matter what the outcome he knew he was doing the right thing.
"Sicca!" Millon knocked three times on the hardwood door as he called out to the chief hunter, then waited, a long pause stretching out. He raised his fist and was just about to knock again when the door swung inwards and Sicca appeared, his grisly face sporting a unhappy grimace.
"What? I gave information, what do you want?"
"I think, I think I may know this man."
Sicca raised an eyebrow and regarded Millon.
"And how's that now then? You leave him out there for the crows did you?"
Millon balked. "N... no, of course not! I believe he may have been my..." He hesitated, he didn't want to say master, not in front Sicca, and not in front of Tella who had stayed with him and stood just inches behind him in the doorway. "Companion. We were travelling together, but we got separated, I searched but I thought he was... lost to me."
Sicca sniffed, casting an disbelieving eye over the two of them.
"You best come in and have a look then I suppose."

It was Artel. As sure as day was day and night was night. There was no mistaking his well set frame, his high cheekbones, his unruly brown hair. Though his face now sported a dirty growth of beard and his body was thin and angular, starved, withering. His cheek bones caved into his face and the faint rise and fall of his chest seemed somehow pathetic, as if it were hardly worth the effort it took. He looked half the man that Millon had known, and twice as old, yet he was still, undeniably, Artel. Millon only nodded at Sicca and Nanuka, not trusting himself to speak out loud, then knelt by Artel's side and took the knights now almost skeletal hand in his. An unexpected rush of emotion shot through him and he had to blink back the tears that pricked at the corners of his eyes. What had happened to this man, this man that he had sworn to accompany and protect to the best of his abilities? He should have stayed, he should have stayed in the forest, searched until he found him. All the time he had spent here happy in the village when Artel had been out there, fighting for his life, struggling through the Gods only knew what kind of hell, alone. Guilt racked his chest and Millon laid his forehead on the side of the makeshift sickbed, sure that he had never felt so wretched in all his life and wishing that there was something he could do about it, anything.
"He is very sick, I am afraid there is not much I can do for him."
Millon looked up and spoke with a fierceness he did not know he possessed.
"You will not let this man die, and you will not end his suffering. This man is a fighter, more so than any man I have met before now. He has fought his way out of whatever hell he has inhabited for the past moons, and he has fought his way to us, let him fight his way back to the living!"
Nanuka and Sicca exchanged a look, a look containing a conversation Millon would never be privy to. Then they parted, Sicca stalking out of the hut while Nanuka turned her wrinkled face back towards Millon.
"Very well."
"Thank you."

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