STAR CX is being published in an 8 part serialized format, Verse 1.5 – I/O is the second novella in the series. Each week I will be posting chapters from the series for viewing on my blog. For those that enjoy this series, I invite you to purchase the ebook or paperback editions of STAR CX: Verse 1.5 as a way of supporting this independent author; also reviews, likes, replies, retweets, and feedback are extremely helpful and encouraged.
The first night of any job can be fraught with worry and confusion. But no one told these new recruits to the trelven army that their first night would be dealing with murder, facing the enemy of their nightmares, and being sent off on an adventure doomed to fail. For Ahy and Ough, this fate-filled night would be the start of a quest like none had ever attempted. Their mission: cross the forbidden mountains of Gre-Llue to the land of Redren, break a 2 thousand year treaty, and convince the king of the humans to aid the last free city of the trelves. The only problem, Ahy and Ough might be the worst pair of trelves to be given such an important duty. For you see, they hold no such experience in things like fighting, hunting or even walking
through the woods.
This Chapter will probably be the last posted chapter until after the new year. Right now other stories are capturing my attention and although I have 2 more Verses written I want to wait a little while before releasing them.
Verse 1.5 – I/O
Chapter 8 – First Strike
“Hruk!” Ough shouted the moment they surfaced.
“Blast!” Ahy grumbled and jumped out from the small hole while drawing his bow and notching an arrow. He leveled his weapon and fired off an arrow before his feet reached the ground. The spike hit the hruk’s throat, closing off any chance of it yelling to alert others.
Ough’s single-bladed ax swung out and with a mighty roar, the trelve took down the hruk for good.
“I’m sorry, Ough,” Ahy commented as he spun in a circle surveying for more. It had been Ahy that had suggested that they had gone far enough and would be clear of the hruks by now. He had underestimated the length of the horde’s encampment. It was not clear where exactly they had surfaced. From what he could tell they had gone over 30 cantibles north and west before Ough had said that the rock had changed which meant that they had reached the foothills of the mountains of Gre-Llue.
“Do you see anything?” Ough refused his apology.
Ahy shook his long black hair, “Negative. Looks clear to me.”
“I have a feeling I’ll regret saying this, but perhaps it was a lone hruk, out for a walk in the woods,” Ough suggested.
“Perhaps…Whoa, look at those mountains!” Ahy exclaimed. He had never before ventured out of the southern provenance which was mainly flat with strong forests. The mountains before him stood gigantic capped in white and looked to go on forever. Their jagged edges looked as if they were sharp enough to cut the sky. Such monstrous displays of the world’s glory and creation made Ahy silent. For the first time, Ahy realized the enormity of the journey they were embarking on. A sudden surge of excitement and astonishment rose through him.
Ough was the first to speak and break Ahy’s epiphany, “On our way back I’d like to show you the home of my family. It has a view that has to be experienced, no explanation could give it justice.”
Ahy smiled and looked down at Ough, “You say that as if you don’t believe we’ll ever come back, but yes, it is a deal. After our journey, please show me this legendary vista.”
“Let’s be on our way, then” Ough commenced after a moment.
With one last lingering look, Ahy saluted the mountains before him. “My country, my trelves, my brethren; I will not fail thee,” before disappearing into a thicket of trees that shielded the mountains and the group of hruks out on a hunt from them.
As they marched closer to the mountains. The ground became rougher, filled with rocks that were hard to step over. It seemed as if every fifth step one of them let out a wince of pain as an odd step resulted in a twist of an ankle. The midday sun continued to climb and evaporate any chance of a cloud. Their only salvation from the heat was the tight canopy all around them. With each movement, they stirred up the busy forest and would send critters fleeing in all directions. Bramble and thorns tore at their legs as the animal path they had been following dissolved.
From Ahy’s vantage, it appeared that they had marched into what he could only describe as a bowl with a thick rim of thorny vines. Ough continued down the slope, and despite Ahy’s trepidation at doing so, he followed. The way the area had grown over left Ahy with the distinct feeling that they were getting lost. No landmarks could be seen due to the hills, on either side of them and the thick thorny vine blocked them from seeing deeper into the forest.
Ough froze in his path and held up a hand to signal caution. Ahy mimicked his actions, looking all around for signs of oncoming danger. Ahy could not locate any such danger that would have caused Ough to halt.
“What is it?” Ahy whispered no louder than a drop of rain.
Ough continued to hold his hand up, Ahy followed his intense gaze into the brier to their left. Still, the highborn trelve could not determine what had Ough so concerned. Other than sharp and jagged vine Ahy saw nothing of note.
Dropping his arm, Ough climbed the hill to the edge of the swath of vines and leaned in as if he were inspecting the bush. “Oy! These are not plain wild jaggers, these be berry vines and it looks to be right at the start of the season.”
Ough smiled back at Ahy before pulling off a tiny blackberry and throwing into his mouth. “Ah! Sweet and a tad too tart! Just the way I like ‘em.”
Ahy let out his pent-up breath in a huff and a laugh. “Boy, you had me worried we had stumbled upon some trouble.”
Ascending the hill, Ahy reached out and plucked his own berry. It was as Ough described, tart enough to cause a slight pucker for Ahy’s expression.
“Oh, my Leone!” Ough exclaimed while grabbing another handful of berries. “These are so good, I haven’t seen berries like this since my childhood.”
For the first time in what seemed like weeks, a breeze kicked up around them and Ahy felt like they might have stumbled upon an oasis. The feeling did not last long, as Ahy breathed in all the scents carried on the wind. There was no doubt, he smelled a hruk, and by the intensity of the scent more than one.
“Ough!” Ahy shouted.
The lesser trelve continued plucking berries, paying no mind to Ahy’s frantic shouts.
Ahy game up on words alone and rushed to his companion and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Ough! Smell the wind, there are hruks about, we must take cover but I’ve no doubt they’ve smelled us long ago.”
Ough looked into his eyes as if trying to determine if Ahy was telling the truth. He then sniffed the air, his expression recoiling as he found the scent as well.
“What do we do, we’re trapped in this thicket,” Ough commented.
“The best I can come up with is to hide in these bushes. Hope the berries mask our own scent from them,” Ahy said as he placed the tip of his foot into the thorny weeds. Wincing with pain, Ahy proceeded as more nettles tugged at his pants and tore at his skin.
Ough remained where he was, trembling as if a rabbit trying to calculate if it had enough time to run to safety.
The scent was growing in the air, and Ahy knew that at any moment the hruks would be upon them. Having no other choice, Ahy jumped out of the bush, grabbed Ough by the chest armor and pulled him down into the thorny underbrush with him.
Ough sputtered as he fell, but landed without so much as a thump. The action broke his moment of captivated fear and he was able to scurry further into the thorny vines, with Ahy following close behind.
“Shhh!” Ahy gave the signal to stop moving as the footsteps of the hruk became known. Ahy dared not look behind him for fear of spotting a hruk, instead, his eyes met with Ough’s. For the first time, Ahy noticed the depth of brown and beauty in Ough’s eyes.
Without a sound, Ough’s hands found his axe and pulled it forward. Ahy tried to warn him not to move with his eyes but the tremble in Ough’s hands and expression told Ahy that Ough was boiling to act.
The pupil’s of Ough’s eyes dilated as Ahy assumed that a hruk must have stopped behind him. A snort and huff confirmed Ahy’s assumption. From the amount of stomps and grunts, it was clear to Ahy that at least three were present.
Ahy could feel the lingering gaze of the monsters behind him. Like an arrow pulled back in a bow, Ahy saw Ough beginning to recoil as if ready to strike. As if a bolt of lightning, Ahy struck out his hand and grabbed Ough’s pulling it away from his ax.
Instead of letting go, Ough held onto Ahy’s hand as if Ough was pulling strength and reassurance from Ahy. The highborn trelve was not sure how to feel about the lingering hold. Certainly, under other circumstances, it could not be allowed, but under such duress, there was no need to pull away. Ahy knew that his hand was shaking and he hoped that his own nervousness was not feeding into Ough’s. Trying to slow his breath, Ahy became as still as a fallen branch.
Like the sun breaking through clouds, the creatures moved past the trelve’s hiding place. A smile broke out over Ough’s face as he laughed off the remaining fear and stress. They helped each other to a standing position. Ough was the first to comment, “I thought we were done for.”
Ahy found that his words were still failing him as he looked around for any lingering signs of hruks.
“Thank you once again,” Ough clapped Ahy on the left shoulder. “For I was a moment away from striking and I know I am not strong enough to face 4 hruks. This day would have become a violent end for me.”
Without meaning to Ahy broke out in an honest smile at his friend. “I am happy that you held on.”
The double meaning of Ahy’s words hung out in the midday air before he realized his mistake. “I mean, I’m glad that you did not strike.”
Ough looked away, with redder cheeks than Ahy’s, but not before Ahy was sure he heard him whisper, “I’ll hold on, anytime.”
Ahy stepped out of the prickling thorns and peered up the path, to his surprise he caught a glimpse of their enemies. For there had been no horrifying hruks chasing them, only a family of mountain bears scavenging for berries. Their fear and fright had been for naught. Ahy wiped his brow, there was no doubt that the two of them were cowards. If their only defense from hruks was to hide, they had no chance of making it through the human side of Aura. For every bit of killing the hruks made up for, the humans double in spite and hatred. Where a hruk would dismember and eat your entire village. A group of marauding humans would kill all the men, rape all the women, sell off the children and if any were left over would be turned into slaves. Simply hiding from humans was not going to be a winning tactic. Unless they discovered a way to avoid all roads, towns, villages, and people until they were standing before the king. There was very little hope of them succeeding.
“Bears!?” Ough smacked his hands together, “To think we cowered in fear because of some bears. Our brethren would be a laughin’ at us if they saw us cowering in the weeds like a bunch of lil’ trels.”
As Ough was exclaiming his disappointment, Ahy’s vision caught movement at his peripheral. With nary a blink of warning, Ahy loaded a bolt and fired off a shot. It spun through the air and struck its target.
“HRRRUKKK!!” The forest shook as the enraged beast began charging towards them. It was full on berserk mode and no amount of arrows could stop the hruk. The hruk was picking up speed and appeared to be frothing with rage as it let out another war cry.
Ahy had a glimpse of the wide snout and tusks of this hruk before Ough’s single-bladed ax swung out and struck home in a gruesome way. Ough used the spinning moment to complete a full circle around the beast. Before hoisting it over his head and bringing it down upon the neck of the hruk.
“For Brodur!” Ough yelled in conquest of the beast.
“You…” Ahy could barely say the words but knew that he needed too. It was time to shove aside all the rules of their society. “You saved me.”
Ahy ran to his companion and embraced him, pulling the lesser trelve into a tight hug, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“About time I do some saving.” Ough patted his back before the smaller trelve broke down into a watery mess. Ahy wasn’t sure how to respond as Ough hiccuped and snorted tears. “Do…Do you think my ancestors, my family, my father is proud?”
“That being your first kill, I have little doubt that they are most proud of you.” Ahy comforted his friend. To Ahy’s surprise, his words seemed to make Ough cry harder.
With a final last snort and huff, Ough calmed down enough to speak. “Sorry about all this. I swear I’m never like this.”
“It’s quite alright, may I ask you a question?”
Ough bobbed his head, giving permission.
“Did you enjoy it, the revenge I mean. How did it feel to kill a hruk?” Ahy asked with grave curiosity.
Ough looked up into Ahy’s green cat-like eyes, then his gaze returned to the ground. “No, I hated it. I hate that I have to kill. I hate that I spilled another’s blood, but I do not regret using my blade.”
Ahy nodded, “I suppose we are a lot more alike than others would dare admit.”
Ough smiled but did not say another word, as the lesser trelve cleaned his blade.
The two of them returned to their journey as they began climbing another hill. This one appeared to lead them away from the thorns and berries. Ahy wasn’t sure how, but his footsteps felt lighter than they had in days. For once he felt like they were making true progress.
After a while, it was Ough that broke the cheery silence first, “You know? I think I’m starting to get a sore on my foot from all this walking.”
“I thought you lesser trelves were tough like stone and jewels,” Ahy commented.
“I am tough, I only thought you…”
“No!” I am fine,” Ahy shouted his face bright with embarrassed anger.
Ough’s hands flew up into air as if surrendering. “I mean no offense, I just see that you have started to hobble with every few steps.”
“Alright, yes, I’ve got a blister and it hurts like a spike of hot iron!” Ahy shouted for the entire mountainside to hear. “I’m the toughest damn trelve there is in the entire infantry and there is no way I’ll let something as small as a blister stop my progress. I have a reputation to uphold.”
“You know, no one is out here to impress, it is only us. I’ve got one too, let’s stop for the night and I’ll find some leaves to wrap our wounds in.”
Ahy grumbled with a mix unintelligible sounds, “No, we must press on!”
“Stop talking about it. You’re making it worse by talking about it, let’s just get to the top of the hill and then we will rest.” Ahy said before doubling his pace. His longer legs made it almost four times as fast and Ough had to hobble in a near jog to keep up.
“You’re making it so much worse, please stop I can mend you.”
“What? Were you some sort of rejected trelve that was so bad at fighting that you were sent to learn healing skills with all the other trelven maids.” Ahy spat in a rude way as both his anger and annoyance at the growing blister escalated.
“Well, no, err,” Ough failed to respond. After another few lunges, Ough stopped. He threw up his hands and shouted, “When you’re done throwing your tantrum, I’ll be here for the night.”
Ahy muttered unheard insults before bringing his own advanced race to a halt. “Damn these blisters! Damn this journey! We’re getting nowhere, and I’m letting a lesser trelve take care of me. From all accounts, this will be the least epic adventure in any book.”
“I make a really good healing wrap,” Ough soothed.”
“No thanks,” Ahy waved him away. “I know how, I don’t need you to make me a bandage. I’m actually quite good at it, why don’t we make one for each other and compare.”
“Now you’ve got the spirit.” Ough laughed, “Glad you’re out of your fit. So how comes you’ve learned to be a healer as well?”
Ahy’s jaw dropped as he realized that he may have revealed too much information. “I…”
“Must be a thing all ye weak highborns are taught,” Ough teased.
“Yeah, that’s it.” Ahy accepted the lie.
Ough smiled in a mischievous smirk and grinned up at Ahy, “Or there are other possibilities?”
…The Saga of Starcrossed Souls continues in the next verse
2017 © Stew Stunes