Rhythmic jostling and hard leather digging into his abdomen dragged Alden back to consciousness.
The hunter lay on his belly. There was the sensation of jostling movement, and something hard digging into his belly. Cinnamon and stale sweat filled his nostrils. He managed to crack one eye open and saw the ground rushing along a few feet from his face. He tried to sit up, but a hand pressed down and pinned him in place.
A cheerful voice rang out from just above Alden. “Peaceful dawn, sleepyhead!” Braden called. The blond hunter reined his kinvalo to a halt, which ground the leather saddle horn further into Alden’s sore midsection.
Alden realized he was draped over his friend’s saddle, just in front of the Trickster.
Grath rode up and dismounted as Braden helped Alden slide backward to get his feet on the ground. The Aibeck caught Alden’s legs and helped him stand.
Alden’s legs shook, and his knees wobbled when he tried to take a step, so he leaned against the neck of Braden’s mount. The fiery yellow bird greeted him with a soft chirp.
“Don’t try too much all at once,” Grath told Alden.
Alden nodded, but clenched his eyes shut at a sudden bout of dizziness. When he opened them again, he looked around with slow, careful head movements.
The corrupted forest still surrounded the Sacram band. Weak sunlight clawing its way through the choking branches above gave no clue to the time of day. Alden remembered fighting in the darkness of night.
Alden’s words rasped from his parched throat. “How long have I been out?”
Braden handed Alden a waterskin as Grath answered the question.
“At least ten hours. We broke camp as soon as we got everything packed up. None of us have slept. Besides you, that is.” Grath’s crystal horns sparkled even in the weak sunlight as his amber eyes peered at Alden. “How you feeling?”
“Like I’ve been trampled by a herd of puklo.”
Grath nodded. “That’s good.”
Alden choked on the water and spit it out. “How is that good?”
“It indicates your spirit remains free from the Scourge,” Jincra said as he rode up.
“This guidance is a bit slow in coming,” Alden said, “but from now on we keep a sharp watch on all sides of the group. Braden, you take rearguard. Jincra and Lalaine, left and right. I’ll take front. Grath, you’re on point.”
The band nodded at the orders.
Alden took a few more sips of water, handed the skin back to Braden, and patted his mirthful friend’s leg in thanks. Then he staggered past Braden’s mount.
Someone had tied Vaka’s reins to the back of Braden’s saddle. Alden untied the leather straps, then wobbled toward Vaka’s side. The flame-colored kinvalo reached back to nibble his master’s shoulder as Alden leaned against the saddle. He tried to step into the stirrup but lacked the strength.
Vaka knelt down, allowing Alden to swing one leg over and fall into the saddle. Vaka stood back up, fluttered his wings, and checked to see Alden was still seated.
After taking a moment to catch his breath, Alden squeezed his legs to urge Vaka forward. He rode up beside Grath and gingerly leaned in toward the Aibeck to consult with him quietly. “Should we turn back?”
Grath studied the young human with narrowed eyes. “Why?”
“The Scourge is hunting us as we leave. Sacram village could be attacked at any time. If the evil saturation is this extensive, the threat may be more powerful than the Chief Elder believed.”
Grath sighed and looked off into the forest.
A crow cawed in the distance, but otherwise the woods were silent. A creeping dread emanated from the shadows of the Scourged forest.
“If we turn back now,” Grath said, “we could warn the villagers and maybe protect them. For a time.” The purple Aibeck turned to Alden again. “And then we may face what your great-grandparents’ generation faced all over again: an avalanche of darkness which smothers the village and snuffs out the hunters one by one. Maybe your tribe won’t succeed this time at the last moment, like your ancestors did.”
Alden drew a shaky breath and braced himself on Vaka’s saddle horn. “You think we should press on and gather allies.”
“I do. But what is your decision?”
Alden glanced back at his hunting band. Each of them had their sharp eyes glued to the forest around them as ordered. Their weapons hung loosely in untied saddle-mounted sheaths.
“I led us into this trap,” Alden murmured. “Jincra nearly died. I collapsed and only survived because you four dragged me away. What right do I have to continue leading?”
“You’re our leader,” Grath said quietly. “If you don’t lead us, whelp, if you abandon your responsibility now in the middle of this evil place, we may not make it out. A band cannot stand without its leader, and though I hold greater experience, these hunters won’t follow me the way they do you. They believe in you, Alden, not as a teacher, but as a peer worthy of their deepest respect. Either rise to the challenge or condemn your band to their deaths.”
As if to punctuate Grath’s point, another carrion bird’s harsh caw rang out in the distance.
“You’re right,” Alden finally answered. “We press forward. Sacram Village can’t face the Scourge alone. It may be suicide to stay in this forest another night as we backtrack. We don’t know enough about the Scourge and how it works. If the evil spirit infecting this forest can learn, the battle may be more dangerous next time.”
Grath nodded. “A wise decision.”
Alden smiled at his teacher. “Because I agreed with you?”
“No,” Grath said. “Because you assessed the situation without swaggering pride or reckless ambition. Every young man eventually needs to get those two traits beaten out of him. Looks like last night’s battle did the work for you.”
The five hunters rode for several more hours in silence. All kept close watch on their designated areas, but no more threats emerged to challenge them.
Near dusk, the band finally exited the forest. Vaka chirped merrily as Alden rode him from the evil forest’s Scourged soil and onto soft grass. The plains stretching out before them were much shorter and windier than the plains closer to Sacram, and the grass only rose to Alden’s stirrups.
Alden drew in a deep breath and luxuriated in the scent of warm grass and clean air. His ears caught the sound of running water, and he urged the group forward.
Half a mile from the corrupted forest, the band came upon a narrow river. They dismounted and made camp. Every hunter was near collapse from so long without sleep, but they took care in setting up a proper camp and fire pit. They also took the opportunity to refill their waterskins from the river.
Alden was weak but had at least slept, so he took first watch. Grath insisted he be awakened for second watch. Braden volunteered for third.
The band sat around their blazing fire and munched on jerky and dried fruit. Alden warmed his toes and listened to Braden chatter away at Lalaine as she pretended to ignore her brother. Jincra related his observations of the forest to Grath and tried to parse out any new knowledge about the Scourge from their recent battle.
Embers spiraled up into the night sky as Alden banked the crackling fire. The other hunters crawled into their sleeping furs and snuggled down for the night. The kinvalo snored and chirped in their sleep nearby. A warm breeze stirred the grasses along the riverbank and ruffled the fur of Alden’s thick cloak, and he pulled the wrapping tightly around himself.
In silence, Alden sat staring up at the night sky, where three moons shone overhead against a blanket of stars. One green moon, one blue moon, and one pink moon, the three eyes of the Swollen Mother, looked back at the young Shaman and kept him company through the first watch of the night.
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