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Cover Design: Wakefield Designs
Visit Chris Weston at: www.cobracommander.moe
Published by Dragon Wealth
Copyright © 2016 Chris Weston
All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Karlyn wakes up. Another night of sleeping in the dirt. Alana is awake and preparing their breakfast. This is the second day of wandering in the forest. The inn they stayed at previously told them of a nearby town in need of bounty hunters. It was a day's ride, he said. On a mule, probably.
She stands up and grabs the bread and cheese Alana set out. "What are the chances we're lost?"
Alana rolls her eyes. "See the road?" She points several yards away. "We're going the right way. The path is a little longer than expected. Don’t be in such a rush. We’ll get there when we get there."
An owl hoots. Karlyn looks up to a nearby tree to see the owl staring back down at her. Its yellow eyes piercing her. "What's an owl still doing awake at this time?"
Alana packs away their food after finishing their breakfast. She looks as the owl flies off and hides away in the treetops. "I was going to say it's one that hunts during the day, but it doesn't look like it. Those kinds of colors make it seem more like a night predator." She puts the food away on a bag hanging off the horse. "Maybe it's sick."
"Maybe." Karlyn stops searching for it.
"And a good thing there's only one. I don't want to deal with all that noise. While I do believe owls have better things to do with their time, if it wants to watch us, let it watch us. If there's nothing else going on in the forest, I can't very well blame it."
They're back on their horses following the road. Karlyn yawns and slouches forward. The monotony is nearly putting her back to sleep. A two-day ride isn't anything to mull over. It's the expectation that's upsetting her. She can't control how far away they built this town, all she can do is entertain herself until they reach it.
She shakes her head to wake herself up. They have nothing to do but trudge forward, so Karlyn distracts herself with the surroundings. A tree next to the road has a deep cut running down the side. She toys with the idea of a logger cutting away at it and never finishing the job, causing the tree to regrow and never fully heal. That feels like a likely explanation. The horse passes by and Karlyn looks for more distractions.
Home used to have forests like these. Karlyn thinks back on the days where she and Alana used to run in during the afternoons to play. Soon enough they ventured far enough to find a small waterfall. It wasn't very big, but they had fun letting the water wash over them and swimming in that stream. Then they had to go back home with completely soakedclothes to be scolded. Karlyn sighs.
They don't stop for lunch. Alana pulls out bread as they continue to ride and hands it to Karlyn. She bites into her piece as they travel the dirt road. Something catches her attention, a tree near the road has a long cut down the side, just like the one from this morning. She watches it as they trot past, trying to figure out if it's the same tree or not. No, it has to be another.
Down the road they go, and again, the same tree with the deep cut appears an hour later. "Stop the horses," Karlyn yells out. "We're going in circles."
Alana turns back around. "What are you talking about?"
"This is the same tree we've passed for the third time. We passed by it this morning, we passed again this afternoon, and here it is again. I'm sure of it."
"Impossible. We've been following the road since we've left town. It’s been a straight road all day.”
Karlyn gets off her horse. “Just humor me and take a look."
Alana clicks her tongue and dismounts. The two of them inspect the tree. Karlyn is sure this is the same mark from before. This isn't her mind playing tricks on her. It's the same tree she's seen three times. Her sister knocks on the tree with her knuckle and walks around it. Alana's foot hits something in the brush, causing her to lose her balance and fall.
"Holy shit," Alana says as she stands up. After dusting herself off, she picks up a skull with deep gash marks on its face. "This had to be one wild bear to leave that kind of damage."
Karlyn walks up and grabs the skull from her hands. She pulls off a glove and feels the marks. "These are deep. It must have been a bit more than a bear."
Alana looks around and starts pushing past the brush. She stops in her tracks after a few feet. "I think you're right," she says. "Definitely not a bear."
Taking her eyes off the deep crevices of the cut, Karlyn presses through the bushes to see what Alana sees. Alana looks back and waits for her to get closer. Karlyn stops right behind her sister. In front of her is a dirt bed with a dozen or so skeletal remains packed in.
The hole can't be considered a shallow grave, because whatever or whoever dug it never bothered to hide their evidence. Alana counts the skulls to get an idea of how many there are; about a dozen, but far more parts than what can be accounted for. She takes a branch and sticks it into the pile. Halfway through, it stops.
Karlyn says, "Let's get back on the road and get out of here."
"Agreed." Alana turns around and walks back to the horses as quickly as she can.
They mount their horses and trot down the road. Alana doesn't want them to make any unnecessary noise in case anyone is still around. She holds the reins. She catches movement in the trees. Alana scans the road and nearby trees for any weapons or body parts, even a trap of any kind. Out of the cover of leaves is that black owl with golden eyes, watching her and Karlyn go down the path.
She hasn't spotted any animals in this forest besides that owl in days. At first, she enjoyed the silence, but now she's thinking about what it means for the environment, what she can glean for their own sake. It's not the absence of the larger animals, like deer and boar, that is cause for concern, but the smaller animals and critters who are good at scurrying away from danger. The predator and prey cycle is out of line in this place. There must be something that has no hunter of its own, and because of that the food supply is depleted.
She keeps her apex predator premise to herself. She says to Karlyn, "It has to be bandits. They set up a roadblock or trap of some kind, kill the merchants or whoever is unlucky enough to get in their way, and then hide the corpses. I mean, that grave isn't far off the road. It's hidden by the vegetation, granted, they made no other plans to conceal themselves.”
Karlyn responds, "And they're skeletons, not corpses, means they've been there for a while."
"That's true," Alana says. She keeps an eye out on the outskirts of the road. Any sudden shadows, movement in bushes, anything at all. "It's possible that it was a grave at some time. This forest could have easily been a spot for robberies, and then the knights killed or drove out whatever criminal element was here, and that grave was recently dug up by some wolves."
"Well, what else would dig in a place like this?"
Karlyn stares at her. "Have you seen or heard of wolves in the area?"
Another day of travel that leads nowhere. Since Karlyn pointed out the same trees they've been passing, Alana has noticed the familiar sights as well. She notices even their old tracks are in the road. The road doesn't have many bends at all.No, we've been going straight, yet we returned to the same path.
That night Alana takes watch duty. It's not that she doesn’t trust Karlyn to doze off sometime in the night, she just feels better if she slept last. She's never been afraid of the dark, but with a wild animal or even a pack of wild animals that has caused this much destruction, Alana doesn't want to take the chance of being caught unaware. This isn't our home, it's there's.
She looks up at the night sky through a break in the trees. It’s difficult to use the stars and constellations to lead them out of here. The darkness will leave them open for an ambush if they attempt it. Three days in the same location and she wonders why haven't they seen a single other living thing. It’s a dark sky out tonight. No stars.
Karlyn sets her bag on the floor for a pillow. Lying down, she turns to Alana. "We've gone backwards and forward. What are the odds we're looping back around on ourselves?”
"None,” Alana says. “We haven't deviated since we set out. We found these bones and we traveled straight. No river or canyons to wrap us back around. We kept going and we're back where we started. Explain that one to me."
"I don't know, but supplies are soon going to become a worry unless we get out of here soon."
"I know, I know. Just get some sleep for right now. Tomorrow when we're both rested, we're going to cut right through the forest and see where that takes us."
"Sounds like a plan," Karlyn says. As she squirms