“And the beast rose up and roared,” Raven Forester told her two children. She brought up her two slender arms so that she could mimic the beast’s claws. Her fingers curled inward and looking closely, one could see the calluses in her once soft and dainty hands. She opened her mouth and bared her teeth while growling. Her long black hair traveled over her shoulders as she leaned forward in the chair. Dark eyes peered through her long bangs.
“I hope it didn’t look as funny as you,” young Graham Forester giggled. His dimpled cheeks flashed across his face as he smiled and laughed.
“Hush,” the older Forester child said. “I want to hear the rest.” Jerial sat straight and rigid, his hands placed upon his legs. His attention was upon his mother, waiting for her to continue.
“Aww, Jer,” Graham complained. “You’re like father. So stern and hard. If you fell into the river, you’d not only drown, but scare all the fish out of the water.”
“Graham,” Raven smiled. “That’s not true. Your father would scare the fish so far that they’d land in the sea.” Graham laughed and rolled back onto the bed.
“Mother,” Jerial pleaded. “What happened next?”
“Straight,” Raven said. “The duke drew back his sword and smote the beast. The heavy blow caused a great wound. Instead of attacking, though, the beast turned and fled. The duke and his men followed, but they were not as fast.
“The beast leaped and ran and was gone from sight. The duke and his men searched for bells, but found nothing. There wasn’t even any blood to track. Giving up, they were turning towards home when they heard a groan nearby.”
“It was the beast, wasn’t it?” Graham asked.
“Hush,” Jerial said.
“The men crept forward slowly, weapons drawn and ready,” Raven continued. “The woods grew thick with brush and briars. They carefully waded through, getting closer and closer to the noise. Monstrous moans and groans cried out.
“The duke led, and deliberately moved each branch and briar out of the way. The closer he got, the less the moaning became. So, slowly moving a branch aside …” Raven said, imitating the duke’s action. “And the beast …” As her arm reached the limit of its arc, she jumped forward and grabbed young Graham.
“Aaugh!” he screamed and jumped backwards out of her grasp, his legs frantically kicking the quilt in an effort to push himself away.
“Mother,” Jerial sighed, only having moved slightly when she scared Graham. He rolled his eyes at her and waited for her to finish.
“And the beast wasn’t there,” she said.
“Huh?” Graham said. “You scared me for nothing?”
“No, little tree rat,” Jerial replied. “She did it because she had fun scaring you.”
“Hush,” Raven said. “At least we have excitement in our lives. Now, where was I? Oh, yes, the missing beast. The duke found a man lying on the ground with a severe chest wound. Being the duke, he instantly fathomed what had happened.”
“Wait,” Jerial said quickly. “The man was the beast.”
“No,” Graham said. “The beast hurt the man in its escape.”
“And the duke,” Jerial continued. “The duke realized that the beast wasn’t evil, but it was defending its home.”
“Yes,” Raven said. “But is there anything else?”
“He was the beast?” Graham asked.
“Yes,” Jerial said, ignoring his younger brother. He leaned forward a slight bit. Not enough for most to notice, but his mother saw it and knew that he was intent on figuring out the puzzle and moral of the story.
She knew her boys well. While Jerial thought about the answer, she looked over at Graham. He was small with short brown hair. He still carried some weight but their move to the new land had hardened him somewhat. Looking back to Jerial, she saw his muscular frame tense as he pondered the story. His long, dark hair, sharp nose, angular chin, and blue eyes were the very image of his father.
“Don’t trade blows before you realize whom it is you are attacking,” Jerial stated. “It may turn out to be a potential ally.”
“Yes,” Raven said. She rose from the chair and brushed her hair back over her shoulders. “It is a story your father keeps close to him now that we are finally here in Nulain.”
“Why did we have to move way up here, mother?” Graham asked. “I know we had to move. Our land was taken by the Be-in-sons,” he said, having trouble with the word, but determined to do his best. “We had to go somewhere, but wasn’t there someplace closer to home to go to?”
“No,” Raven sighed. “Your father and I did not have a choice in the matter. King Haralan gave other nobles and us some land to compensate our losses. The king named it Nulain and proclaimed your father regent of it, but we aren’t really a duchy. We aren’t ruled by a duchy either. And we couldn’t decline an offer from the king, now could we?”
“No, mother,” Jerial agreed. He moved his hands behind him and leaned back, relaxing somewhat.
“No one wants to talk about these things, but your father and I think that this was the only land the king could get from the other nobles. No one really wanted it. It’s rocky and hilly and no place for a good farm. The grass doesn’t grow very well, so feeding livestock is tough. The mountains are very close but the only valuable thing there is trees.”
“That’s what we do, though, mother,” Jerial said, closing his eyes and tilting his head back to catch the sunlight streaming in through the window. “We chop down trees and sell the wood to other people. If we can tame the mountains, we can thrive here.”
“Thrive?” Graham asked, pushing his brother’s shoulder. “What’s that?” He wasn’t having much luck moving his brother, so he leaned back and placed his feet on his brother’s waist. Before he could push, Jerial rose from the bed.
“It means to grow and flourish and get bigger,” Jerial answered. He looked out the window at the mountains.
“Yes,” Raven said. “We possibly can. And we have the best plot of land. Do you remember the river that runs out of the mountains?”
“That is a boundary for the duchies. Our land was in duchy Asbridge on a point that is next to Dargon and Narragan. These three duchies are the sides to our land. The river flows out of the mountains from Narragan and about where it crosses our land, it becomes the border for Asbridge and Dargon.
“When we arrived here, we found a central site for our town and called it Northern Hope. Some people are calling it Hopeville, though. Whichever we end up calling it, it’s our land and our dreams now. And that is the end to our lessons,” she said. “You have chores and training.”
“Will father be home soon?” Graham asked.
“I don’t know. He went out to scout the area some more and to hunt. Night will probably be here before he returns.”
“Until dinner, mother,” Jerial said, walking out the door.
“Do I have to go?” Graham complained. “Feeding the chickens and pigs is boring. I want to hear more stories.”
“Go,” Raven ordered. “We’ll talk about your training at dinner.”
“I want to be an artist,” Graham said, jumping from the bed into her arms. She caught him and hugged him tightly to her.
“Your father has the decision,” she warned. “Now go.” His feet no sooner touched the ground than he was out the door singing a children’s ditty.
“There!” Othra Miller shouted, his outstretched hand pointing skyward. His other hand shaded the sun from his brown eyes. He was a big man, with rolls of fat hidden by a tailored tunic. A long, thick mustache and a goatee adorned his face, while a bald spot grew on the top of his head, reaching out to diminish his already short brown hair.
“Looks like a goose,” Othra’s son, Harrell, guessed. “Can’t tell for sure.”
“Looks like a challenge,” Kael Forester said. “It’s a long shot for the bow, but let’s see if I can make it.” Kael lifted his long bow and pulled back the string. The muscles along his arms flexed and shaped themselves as he sighted past the arrow. His hand rested alongside his angular chin as he watched the flying bird.
Letting out his breath in a slow, relaxed manner, he loosened his fingers. The bowstring twanged as the arrow shot upward. The three of them watched as the arrow sped true. The goose jumped in mid-flight, but did not fall. They could see the arrow continue past the goose to land over a hill. The bird’s flapping was erratic. Slowly, the bird lost altitude and was forced down near where the arrow had disappeared.
“I think you hit it,” Othra said. “Let’s find out.”
“We haven’t seen much else all day. Might as well go,” Harrell agreed.
Kael thought about it for a moment. They were a good hike away from home, and if they searched for the bird, it would be dark before they returned. While they all knew the way home, it was still a new land and traveling at night was dangerous. “We’ll search, but not long.”
Large boulders interrupted the rolling hillsides sporadically. Rocks littered the ground and trees grew in groves throughout. They were still on Kael’s land, but going a bit farther from where the bird had landed would take them to the foot of the mountains. The ground grew steep and the trees grew closer together to cover the sides.
They climbed the small hill and searched the area on their way down the other side. Small pockets of gulleys crisscrossed the area and could hide almost anything. Shrubs and thickets grew here and there and concealed small game, although they hadn’t found any on this trip.
“Help,” a woman cried from somewhere close. Her voice sang softly through the air to play upon the men’s minds. In response, they quickened their pace towards her plea.
“Where are you?” Harrell asked.
“Here,” came the melodious reply, tinged with painful sorrow.
“I see her,” Kael said and ran to her. He reached where she was and knelt beside her. She was a slim, dainty woman with pale, soft skin. A silky tan-colored dress covered her body, but there was a place torn from it around her upper left arm. Blood seeped out from a wound to stain her finely woven clothes. Her hair was short and multihued, from a light brown to a dark brown. Her eyes were black and soulful. She held his arrow in her right hand.
“It came out of the sky and pierced me,” she explained.
“I am sorry, milady,” Kael said. “It was my arrow. I tried to bring down a large bird for dinner, but I believe I missed it. We were searching for it in the chance that I had hit it.”
“Who are you?” Othra asked. “Where do you live?”
“First, we should get her someplace to take care of that wound,” Harrell stated. He knelt on the other side of the woman. Cutting part of his tunic, he delicately bandaged the wound.
“Our homes are a few bell’s walk,” Othra said, standing at her feet. “Which is closer, your home or ours?”
“Bells?” she asked, letting go of the arrow. The tip fell upon her leg as the notched end rolled from her fingers to strike the ground.
“Ah, well, um …” Othra stood perplexed.
“A few hillsides that way,” Harrell said.
“My home is farther than that,” she answered. Her voice carried a sweet, soft tone that hid the pain of her wound.
“Can you walk?” Kael asked. “We can help you stand.”
“Please,” she said, using her good arm to help her up. Kael and Harrell aided as best they could, placing hands under her for support. Once on her feet, she swayed a bit and placed a hand upon Harrell’s shoulder. “Ah,” she cried in pain as she moved her wounded arm closer to her body. “I can walk, I think.”
“This way,” Kael motioned, keeping by her side.
“Couldn’t you shoot an ugly woman?” Raven asked, fuming. She stood at the head of the bed, looking at her husband’s back. He was at the washbasin, cleaning his hands. “Couldn’t you just not shoot a woman at all?” Her voice started as a whisper but rose in increments.
“Shhhh,” Kael said, drying his hands. “Don’t make our guest uncomfortable.” He turned to face her.
“Heh,” Raven snorted. “Why don’t you go in there and tend to her *again*? You seem more concerned about her well-being than mine. I don’t like her being here. She hasn’t said who she is or where she’s from or what she was doing there.”
“A person is entitled to their privacy,” Kael countered, walking towards his wife. “We are the strangers around here.”
“Tonight, you are the stranger,” she said, climbing into bed. She got under the quilt on the far side of the bed and bundled the whole thing around her, leaving nothing for her husband. He stood there and stared before getting into bed beside her. Their backs were facing each other and they lay there for long moments before she turned and tossed part of the quilt over him. Reaching out, she placed her hand around his waist and curled up next to him.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you more,” he replied and smiled.
“Did you hear that?” Graham asked his older brother. “Did you hear what father said?”
“Yes,” Jerial yawned. “Go to sleep. It was an accident.”
“Not that,” Graham yawned. He curled up in his bed and his voice was magically getting softer as sleep gathered about him. Jerial was already asleep when Graham muttered his last sentence. “Do you think she was the bird?”