Note – this is the first exciting episode of The Mad Quest! If you have already started, you can go to the table of contents.
“Let’s stop here,” Merla said.
We were slightly off of the well-worn path and hidden from most directions. The trail had taken a high ridge, for visibility I was sure, but our path to the side was nearly invisible. In ways it was risky. If we couldn’t be seen, we ourselves wouldn’t be able to see those approaching. But then we decided that, I, who by reputation could hear an ant walking from a kilometer away, would be able detect anyone who approached. Where my ears left off, my nose picked up. Friends and enemies both said I could smell danger, whether to face it head on or run from it depended on who was talking.
It was just a short rest to take a little food. I knew Merla also wanted to plan our next step. I watched her and let her think. It was pleasant watching Merla, but I also had to think about how we were sitting in this most unlikely, and very dangerous, spot, just the two of us.
We were such a small band and our task impossible, so I thought it was wrong for us to be split. But Thworn had been persuasive. Merla and I would scout ahead and search for an unguarded approach. None had dared penetrate the land of Slore in ages. All of the old maps were useless. Perhaps, Thworn had argued, the great enemy who can’t be named wouldn’t waste resources watching every small track. The two of us, being stealthy, might discover this way.
In the distant past Slore was the richest of kingdoms. They had a bustling economy and were ahead of us in most areas. This success obviously attracted attention.
The great enemy swept down out of the north with vast armies. Some were humans, but many were inhuman beings with snow white skin and large, sharp teeth. The Snow Demons, so we called them, were merciless, and killed all who they could touch, man, woman and child.
Brinwald, our great king of the time, was able to hold our line and keep the great enemy and his snow demons from taking our lands.
In the centuries since the invasion from the north, Slore has become an untracked wilderness. Occasionally bands of Snow Demons would cross the border and pillage our villages, but little else was known about the land.
In recent years, the attacks have become more frequent and fiercer. They have also penetrated deeper into the heart of our kingdom. People had started to move, migrating further south and west. The more people left, the easier it became for the raiding parties which led to more people leaving.
Prince Branfel announced that he knew Brenwald, his great-great-grandfather, secret and could stop the raids. He was at an outpost and took his 50 most trusted knights to return to the capital. Unfortunately, they met an army. All but two of the bodyguard were slaughtered. The two remaining had died shortly after telling their story. Branfel was taken alive. The enemy seemed to take extraordinary precautions to ensure he was uninjured.
We had no army that could invade Slore, so the prince and his secret seemed to be lost forever. But Thworn had a bold plan. A small band of our greatest warriors and most skilled trackers might be able to slip in and rescue Branfel
I watched Merla as she ate a small ration of dried fruit. As I had ears and nose that could sense what others couldn’t hear or smell, she had eyes that could perceive what others couldn’t see. I was one of the few that knew that her real talent was that she had a brain that could unravel mysteries that others didn’t even know existed.
“What do you think of this little quest of ours?” She had spoken so little since the beginning, but I felt I most know her opinion.
She shrugged. “I would say suicide,” she replied. “I would, yet part of me doesn’t want to admit it. Why was Branfel taken not just alive, but whole? I admit, I am blind in this matter. And you, what do your nose and ears tell you?”
I thought for a bit. “I agree that this seems to be a journey without hope, and yet… There is something in the air, something that, strange as it may seem, does give me hope. But I can’t place it. I’m as deaf to it as you are blind.”
Merla smiled. “Come, then, let us stumble forward, blind and deaf, into this evil land.”
We had just left our hiding place and had only gone a short distance when Merla froze.
“What…”” I started to ask, but she held her finger to her mouth in a “shhh” motion.
Merla pointed. I couldn’t see anything but a large rock outcropping just ahead. Was something hiding behind it? I listened but could hear nothing but the wind sighing through the trees and rocks.
Merla slowly led us closer to the outcropping. She chose a path to keep us as out of sight from the stone as possible. She stopped about 10 meters from it and studied the land.
What was there?
She drew me close and whispered in my ear, “Don’t you see it? That pile of rocks is some type of outpost or watch tower.”
I continued to study it, but couldn’t figure out what she was talking about.
I was about to ask her when I felt something poke my back. I turned and was facing three short people. Very short, perhaps only waist high. Two of them had spears to check Merla and myself, the other a sword.
I knew the legends of the small folk, but assumed they were just tales to scare small children. In the stories they could be either good or bad.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the little man with the sword said. “Please come with us.”
We were led over to the outcropping and through a tiny, hidden door. Once inside, though, we found ourselves in a very large chamber.
“This is our furthest outpost,” the little man said. “See that hill over there? That is the great enemy’s stronghold. We keep constant watch on it. We saw them bring your prince in and have been waiting for you.”
The little man sheathed his sword and our guards put their spears away.
“Come friends,” the little man, who I took to be their leader, said. “Let us sit and talk about where we go from here.”
“Don’t you want to talk to our leader, Thworn?” I asked.
“That idiot? No, you two are the ones that were meant for this mission.”
I caught Merla’s eye. I found her smile slightly unnerving, yet I had to trust her instinct. She was the one with vision and if she could look ahead and foresee the future she would know what to do. As for me, I could only let events play out.
I do not want to start another serial! I do not! Sigh. Maybe I have to cave into the inevitable…..
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