Friday, 3 March 2017

Artel 19 - Men Among Giants

The mountains rose above them in the distance, dark and blue and towering. It was a familiar sight now, and one that was slowly growing increasingly frustrating. They had been travelling for weeks now, about three by Artel's count, yet they seemed no closer to the distant peaks than they had on the day they had left the village. They should have been there by now, or if not there then at least halfway there. Three weeks should have made at least a little bit of difference.
After a few days the barren scrub-land surrounding the village had given way to rolling green slopes dotted with trees and bushes and little pockets of woodland. It had been a welcome reprieve from the hot sun and the endless haze, and there had been plenty of wood to make fires at night and plenty of small animals to catch and eat. But soon enough the rolling green slopes had given way to a rocky scree that stretched away into the distance. The trees they came across now were few and far between, and the animals even more so. So ended their nights feasting on fresh meat by a warm fire. The rocks and boulders littered across the floor made it difficult for the horses, their hooves slipped on the stones and they slowed as they wobbled their way along, making one days ride become more akin to two. Artel's frustration grew. It wasn't the horses fault, he knew that, they simply weren't built for that environment, and he fought to hold it in. But their supplies were running low, food was scarce, and they hadn't seen any hint of running water for at least a week.
There had been no people either. He had expected to have come across another town or village by  now, but there had been no sign at all of human life. He had hoped they could have stopped off, had a night in a comfy bed, refilled their packs with fresh food and topped up their water - but that was not to be.

They had given up on the horses three days ago, when the rocks and boulders that littered the floor had become to many that the horses could barely keep their balance. It had been a tough decision, if the scree ended soon then the horses would be an advantage, but if it kept going all the way to the mountains then the creatures would only slow them down. He had thought about killing one, to add the meat to their dwindling supplies. It had been a good idea but one look at his companion reminded him that he'd be gutting it and cutting it up alone, and while fresh meat was a welcome idea he couldn't waste a day hacking up a horse. So he let them go and shouldered his pack and began the next part of the journey on foot.
Theoretically scree marked the feet of the mountains, so theoretically that meant they'd made it to the feet. But one look up at the dark peaks told him that the journey would continue for a lot longer yet.
On foot they were barely faster than the horses, and as the rocks and boulders that made up their surroundings grew larger and larger, the two men found it took longer and longer for them to climb over or around them.
It was hard work, a mixture of climbing and journeying, and when they made their small camps at night both men found that sleep came quickly and easily, their worn out bodies urging them to rest.

What are we going to do?
The thought had been nagging at Artel for the past week, though he had not shared it with his companion yet. In fact, since they had left the village he and Millon had shared barely a dozen words. He wasn't sure if Millon was angry with him for making him leave the village, or if was angry with himself for nearly giving up on his mission. Or perhaps it was that girl, Artel had seen him eyeing her. Well if that were the case then it was probably best Artel had taken him away, the girl was far too pretty to ever be interested in likes of poor, rotund, bumbling Millon. In reality, Artel had done his companion a favour, had saved him from the heartbreak and the pain of rejection that would surely have come if Millon had ever been brave enough to tell, or show, the girl how he felt. Not that Artel thought Millon was brave enough to make any sort of move, but you never knew what desperate people might do, and Millon was so terribly rubbish at anything that involved social interaction that Artel could easily imagine the poor man reaching a state of social desperation. He wondered briefly if Millon had ever even been with a woman. Then what sort of woman would want to lay with him. Then he shook his head, decided that Millon was most definitely still innocent in that regard, and pushed the thoughts from his mind.
But the question still remained, what were they going to do? They were running out of food and water, there was little in the way of animals or fruits to be found among the rocks, no running water, no villages, and the mountains looked no closer than they had on day one. The worry was increasing with each passing day, and the fear of desperation was growing. What would they do when they ran out, keep walking until they died among these rocks and their bodies became food for whatever scavengers might happen upon them. Perhaps their skeletons would be found one day by another traveller on his own mission to reach the mountain. Perhaps that man would die too, defeated by the rocks and the disgusting, endless, nothingness that seemed to pull at your very soul as if it were a creature sucking the life from your body.
Artel glanced at Millon. It was too late now, they couldn't turn back, they had to keep moving forwards, they had to continue the quest, no matter what the cost.

That night they silently set up camp in a small patch of space between two giant boulders. The rocks had grown larger and larger in size the further the men travelled, until they had become larger than the men themselves, and still larger and larger until they towered above them like miniature mountains. They made walking difficult and progress slow, but at night the pockets of space between them created perfect campsites.
The weary men did not talk as they set up their sleep sacks and began to set about making a small fire. They were late setting up that evening and the light was already beginning to fade, making it hard to see what they were doing. They had kept an eye out for sticks and other materials to burn as they had walked but the landscape held little but rocks and their collection was pitifully low. While Artel struggled to light the sorry collection of sticks and leaves Millon delved into his pack and pulled out their remaining rations. The sight made his heart sink. By his reckoning there was enough for another two days, maybe three if they were really sparing. They were going to die out here, between the rocks where no one would ever find them. He had followed the knight, his crazy master, on an insane and most likely pointless quest, leaving behind the only place he had ever called home, and now he was going to die out here. He was going to die and no one would ever know, or think to look, or even care. They might spare a thought towards Artel, but no one would worry about poor, stupid, bumbling Millon.
A spark caught and Artel's small pile went up in flames, crackling and spitting as the orange sparks devoured the dry leaves and thin twigs. It lasted all of about three minutes, then it ran out of fuel and died, the light slowly fading as the surrounding darkness closed in and swallowed it. For a while the two men sat in silence in the darkness, each eating is rations as slowly as possible, trying to make the last longer. The night pressed in, cold and dark and unforgiving.

Then the silence broke, with a roar and a crash and an mighty boom like a thunderclap coming from somewhere to their right that made the rocks around them shake and moan. In the distance lights sprung up, the flicker of many fires creating spots in the darkness. The two men sprung from their sleep sacks and crept around the side of the boulder they were sheltering behind. Artel's hand rested on the hilt of his sword, he was alert, alive, ready for action. He had been walking, travelling, journeying without incident for too long now. He was a night, he was a fighter, this is what he was born for. He was aware of Millon's unsteady breathing behind him as he crept out around the boulder and knew that the man was afraid, but that was not his concern. His concern was the fight, the excitement, the battle that he smelt on the air. He took another step, and another, knowing that surprise would put his opponent off balance and give him the upper hand. But as he crested the side of the boulder and his eyes drank in the sight before him Artel stopped dead, the colour draining from cheeks and all thoughts of battle fleeing from his mind.
In front of him the deserted scree was alive. The great boulders had come together, had woken and risen up in the forms of enormous giants who towered above the two tiny men and hurled boulders at each other, roaring and growling as they did so. Artel's brain stopped. Giants were creatures of legend. He heard a thump behind him and knew without having to look that Millon had lost consciousness, which was just as well, it kept him out of the way at least. He stared open mouthed at the huge creatures fighting before him. Around him the earth shook as they stamped and fell and hurled boulder after boulder. The night air full of the sounds of war, and Artel had not received training in Rock Giant combat.

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