“Why can’t we simply wait?” Kadar asked, putting on his helmet and tightening the leather straps that held up the silver armor plates protecting his shoulders. “You’re normally in such good health. I’m sure it won’t take long to recover if you follow the doctor’s orders. Besides, if the mission is so important, don’t you want to be there to command it yourself?” Kadar crossed his fingers behind his back and made a conscious effort to stand still.
Damian sighed from his place in bed. “I wish I could, son; you don’t know how long I’ve been waiting to see you head out on your first mission. But this one… It’s crucial that we complete it in the timeliest manner possible.” His lips had set in a determined line and his gaze had hardened as he stared at the far wall of their cabin.
Kadar’s forehead creased as he went over to stand by the bedside. “What’s wrong, Father?”
Damian’s eerie silence penetrated the room for so long that it made the hair on the back of Kadar’s neck stand up. His father was so still that if it hadn’t been for the steady rise and fall of his muscular chest beneath the blankets, the boy would have sworn the mighty general was nearing death.
“Father?” Kadar’s shoulders sagged in relief when the elder man finally turned to face him. It wasn’t long however, before the haunted look in the usually confident general’s dark eyes made his son’s breath catch in his throat.
Damian watched intently as his son’s face changed before letting out a low, long sigh. “If you are truly to lead the Hunt in this journey, I suppose it’s only right you know.”
Kadar suppressed a shiver at the foreboding edge in his father’s words. He swallowed around a lump in his throat. His palms began to sweat. “Know what?”
The commander closed his eyes for a brief moment before locking gazes with Kadar. “I assume by now you’ve heard the rumors surrounding the war that secured these lands for our tribe, yes?”
Kadar frowned. “You mean, the ones that say the Dryad’s haven’t been run out of our land?”
Damian nodded and Kadar blinked at his solemn reaction. “Of course. It’s all the recruits wanted to talk about. I tried to tell them it was preposterous—no one could have survived the onslaught of your troops on that village. Let alone with such meager weapons as they had.” He shook his head as a superior smirk turned up the corners of his lips. “I’ve never heard such ridiculous wives tales.” He started to laugh, but it fizzled when his father didn’t join in. Instead, his hard features remained blank and stern. “They are just wives tales, aren’t they, Father?”
Damian pressed his lips together, his eyes unblinking. “No, Kadar. I’m afraid not.”
Kadar’s eyes widened. His mouth hung open. It took him a few heartbeats to regain the use of human speech. “What do you mean? You’ve said yourself that the hunters have searched our lands up, down and sideways with no sign of the accursed creatures.”
Damian ran a hand down his face. “And up until last month, I was convinced we had.”
“L-Last month?” The prior February had wrought the land with one of the deadliest snowstorms in history.
“The guards were on their nightly rounds when they discovered one in the undergrowth. I don’t know how long she had hidden there, but her clothes were barely rags and mud and leaves coated what was left of her body, though it didn’t appear to be much more than skin and bones.”
Kadar raised an eyebrow. “A swift kill then?”
Damian grumbled. “That is what they thought too. But the storm was picking up, and the woman was guarded by a very protective grey wolf.”
“A wolf?” Kadar echoed. Wolves hadn’t been seen on their territory in decades. Their form was much too closely associated with Lycanthropes for the comfort of the Hurian tribes
“We don’t know for certain of that was the creature’s true form,” Damian continued, “but it gave the girl enough cover to escape, and land a fatal wound in one of our best trackers before disappearing into the underbrush.
Kadar gasped. “Edith is dead?”
Damian nodded. “I ordered the Hunt to bury her in the woods with only those who had given chase present. I didn’t want to risk raising suspicion with a proper ceremony until it was certain this pair was a threat. No one was to mention it until then.”
“And… Are they? A threat, I mean.”
Damian leveled their gazes. “Wrynn claims he saw them on patrol last night. He said their health was much improved. They looked to be scouting us.”
Kadar scrunched his brow. “But… How is that possible? If they were so malnourished when they escaped…”
“It seems unlikely that they would have survived much longer in such a harsh winter, does it not?”
“We believe they are being sheltered. For what reason and by whom, we do not know. Given the severity of the last winter storm, no one out in the open for as long as they were could have survived such frostbitten conditions without the aid of another magical being.”
Kadar stared at his father. “Are you actually implying… Do you think she isn’t the only Dryad out there?”
Damian grimaced. “You know very well that I do not subscribe to such theories without proper evidence.” He scoffed even as his eyes traced every nook and cranny of the room.
Kadar watched him silently for a moment as he gathered his courage and took a breath. “But?”
His father’s face was pained. “In this case, I’m afraid we can’t risk the unknown. If my intuition is to be believed, and they do in fact have magical aid, be it more Dryads, or another species entirely, we cannot risk the possibility that they attempt to stage a revolution to reclaim the very land we won from them.”
Kadar shivered in spite of the warm spring breeze filtering in from the small open window just to the left of his father’s bed. “You want me to lead the Hunt after them,” Kadar’s voice was emotionless despite his shaking hands.
Take Jadea and ask Lyndiol for any scrap of material that the patrol may have picked up when they inspected the woods after Edith was killed.”
Kadar nodded. Jadea was their most highly trained hunting animal- a phoenix that they had kept alive after their last raid on the woods when they discovered her ability to recognize people by their scents. She was the only known specimen of her species to possess that ability. It made her much more valuable to the Hurians if she was alive. Lyndiol had been the lead patrol guard for the month of February.
“Release Jadea into the wild with the Dryad’s scent,” Damian instructed. “She will lead you from there.” Then he opened the drawer of his nightstand and reached inside, pulling back to reveal his first bronze knife. He held it out to Kadar, who took it with trembling hands. “You will do us proud, my son. Bring the glory back to our name.
Kadar bowed his head. “I’ll try, Father.” he vowed. “I will.”
Kadar’s heart drummed against his chest, mimicking the rhythm of the horse’s legs as his hooves trampled the earth. Leaves crackled, shredded under the metallic clang of the beast’s metal horseshoes as they flew over the forest floor. His black hair slapped at his cheeks, but the sting barely registered as a tap. Atlas panted beneath him, the air pouring from his nostrils. He leaned forward and sunk his weight into his heels as they approached yet another fallen log obstructing the path. The restless monsoon had destroyed most of the village; so he shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that the damage had also extended to Myriad Glade. The eye of the storm had finally broken through the chaos sometime late last night, but Kadar didn’t have time to admire how the lush landscape still smelled of fresh soil; the musty yet poignant scent that only blanketed the land after a long rainstorm. Leaves had transformed from sickly yellows and browns to greens brighter than a newly ripened pear. They swayed to the beat of the breezes coasting through their veins, and the once timid blossoms burst open like fireworks.
He clenched his teeth and gripped the worn leather reins, wincing as the material bit into his palms. As they sailed into the air, he kept his eyes trained to the canopy for any sign of the elusive phoenix.
There! A flash of color streaked across the corner of his vision. The leaves rustled and a lone feather fluttered down from the tops of the trees before the bird disappeared completely from his sight.
Atlas’s hooves pounded at the ground and she urged him into a gallop. His stomach churned in on itself as they kicked up a cloud of dust so thick that Kadar nearly choked. The dirt stung his eyes while they flew along the damp terrain, but no matter how fast they went, he couldn’t outrun the doubting murmurs of the bloodthirsty hunt behind him, nor the weight of the bronze handled knife slapping against his thigh.
It was well known that the one who placed first in their final exam got the privilege of joining the general as their second in command on the next big mission. Last night, Damian had taken ill to the point where Kadar insisted on sending for the village doctor, who had ordered the general to stay hydrated and not take on any more missions until his fever had broken and he was well enough to defend himself again. Kadar had tried to convince his father to postpone today’s outing, but according to him, there was no time to be wasted with this particular mission.
And even as the rest of the hunt jeered and cussed behind him; about his age, his skill, and the possibility of Damien playing favorites by letting his son take his place, though they had all seen him complete his training, Kadar resolved that no matter what, he would make his father proud.
He gave Atlas a swift kick to his flanks and veered off into the canopy of trees where the Phoenix had disappeared. They rode and rode until finally they came to the path through the Meragiae forests were Daimian had said Edith was murdered shortly before the Druids had disappeared into the undergrowth. Kadar dismounted his horse and motion for the other soldiers to follow him.
They searched for a length of time that he couldn’t define. It was a lucky slip of his foot that eventually led them to what they believed to be the Dryad’s hiding spot. He had tripped on a large overturned root that had been buried in dirt by last night’s monsoon, and in his scramble to regain his footing, he got caught in the brush of a sharp rose bush whose buds at not yet sprung. The wood, it seemed, was much thicker here, and more expensive than any of the hunt had previously thought. After a few feet of aimless wandering in an attempt to return to his troops, he stumbled upon a bright clearing, in the center of which stood a dilapidated and crumbling stone tower. It was covered in moss and vines, and under any other circumstance, he probably would have turned around. It blended so seamlessly into the foliage that if he hadn’t seen the small patches of stone reflecting the light of the setting sun, and if Jadea hadn’t perched atop it’s crackling exterior with a satisfied caw, he could have just as easily turned around and gone back the way he came without a second thought.
It would make the perfect hiding spot.
Kadar fingered the copper whistle around his neck. Calling for backup would be the safer move, but it would also alert whoever lived here that their hiding place was no longer safe.
What would Father do?
He dropped the metal instrument and crept toward the tower as silently as he could. Jadea swooped down and landed on his shoulder. As he slithered around the side, his back pressed against the thick plants. At first, he heard nothing, but his hearing pricked as a young voice talked in hushed, urgent tones.
“What has gotten into you, Rasheen?”
A low, rumbling growl emitted from inside the tower and sent shivers up Kadar’s spine.
“Are you sure you heard someone come through here? I didn’t hear anything.” The young voice echoed through the woods again and Kadar crept closer to the window to peek inside.
The sunlight streaming through the cracks of the building illuminated most of the empty room, but in the far left, in the only darkened corner, a girl with ashen blonde hair knelt in front of a large, furry creature—the wolf?—gently stroking his fur.
Kadar stiffened at the sight and his left hand wrapped around his father’s knife. The Dryad had her back toward him. He had to strike before she sensed his presence.
With a nod to Jadea, the phoenix let out an ear-splitting screech as it dove toward the lumbering wolf, who immediately turned on its heel and snarled. It placed itself resolutely between the bird and the young girl, but Jadea was too quick. She lunged over the wolf’s head, claws extended as if to sink them straight through the girl’s chest.
The Dryad screamed, backing out of reach until she was corned by the wall. A bronze knife flew through the air and she yelped as the woosh of the metal barely missed grazing her ear, pinning the fabric of her rawhide vest to the stone.
Kadar gave a sharp whistle and the bird fluttered back to it’s position on his shoulder. “No kills today, Jadea,” he chided, scratching her feathers. “I think Father will be much more pleased to have these two alive.” Then he lifted the bronze whistle to his lips and blew, strong and loud.
The satisfying thunder of horses’ hooves rattled the trees a few minutes later, Jadea having distracted the wolf by flying in circles just out of his reach until Kadar’s comrades could assist in apprehending it. The young Druid had started to cry, but her pleas fell on deaf ears. Father would be very proud indeed.
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