Chapter 1 - Skylars Run
|The dark cowled form clutched the reins of his horse with desperate strength as he urged it into the foam flecked, fast flowing river. The night skies were criss-crossed with bolts of blue lightening, urging him on and lighting his way. This was the second night of the pursuit by those of the Black Guard. He urged his horse onward through the ice cold dark currents which pushed him relentlessly downstream. The stallion had reached its limits. The chase had pushed it to its extremes and it was swimming by muscle memory more than conscious thought. At last it felt the bank under its hooves. Tiredness made it uncertain of what to do; it shook its head and let out a piecing squeal. The man pushed his heels hard into its side and urged it on for one final effort. The stallion crawled from the water and managed a few steps before stumbling and falling on to its foam lathered side. The man rolled clear with the skill of a trained acrobat. He knelt and murmured words of praise for its bravery as he stroked with one hand the forehead of the steed which had carried him over many a league. The other hand with quiet precision severed the large twisted vein in the stallion’s neck. A slow drip of tears worked their way down the man’s face to fall and mix with the ever spreading pool of blood; the growing stillness and the passing of a friend.
With a deep breath, he steadied himself and took stock of his surroundings. He was well downstream from where he’d entered. They would not follow him now that they knew his destination. They would consider him as good as dead. Skylar lifted his pack from the saddle, rose to his feet and balanced it across his shoulders and retrieved his weapons. He grasped a black four foot long re- curved bow in his left hand and settled a quiver of arrows securely on his left hip. Across his chest he carried a sheath of three throwing knives and on his hip, a short sword. All of the weapons looked old and well used and he handled them with an obvious familiarity. He eyed the tree line and moved toward it. After many days and nights of being hunted, there was still purpose and energy in his steps. He swiftly covered the distance between the river and the towering trees of the forest. His tall, lithe body in mottled grey and green cloth merged with the darkness of his surrounds.
Skylar followed an animal track he had discovered. Light from the rising sun illuminated his way. Morning mists twisted and roiled through the trees and bushes. A chill wind gave a semblance of life to the ominous shadows and the silence that surrounded him. His uneasiness grew as he progressed. He drew an arrow from his quiver and readied his bow. The path meandered through the dark byways of the forest and the smell of death and decay became stronger as he progressed. He soon discovered the cause. The body of a large stag. The twelve points of its antlers lodged deep into the ground, with its body at a right angle. Its neck had been broken. Crouched over it was a large lizard like creature whose scaled skin glowed with a metallic sheen in the morning light. A long tail swished from side to side in a frenzied beat, as blood lust took it to new levels. The power of its short muscular legs forced its head deep inside the chest of the dead animal. The sheer display of ferocity unnerved him. Carefully he began edging back the way he had come. He slipped his bow over his shoulder and re-sheathed his arrow. They would be of little use against the flexible natural armour that this creature exhibited. Stealth would be more helpful to him in this instance. A loud hissing sound issued from behind him. Slowly turning, he faced the twin of the monster as it emerged from the bushes. Its small sunken, red beady eyes blinked constantly, as its head swung from side to side. Long powerful elongated jaws hung open showing off a double row of jagged, serrated teeth and the decaying flesh of past meals. A long crimson tongue flickered as it scented the air. Its body tensed as it became aware of new prey. From a standing start, it picked up speed quickly. Skylar had no choice but to run towards the already feeding monster who as yet, was unaware of him. Vibrations thudded through the ground as the creature behind began to close the gap. The one in front struggled to wrest its head from the body of its prey. Fetid breath, both behind and in front made Skylar’s stomach churn. With one last desperate burst of speed, Skylar leaped to clear the creature. At the same time, with an upward ripping motion it managed to free itself with from the stag’s body. Skylar along with gobbets of flesh and blood was flung, limbs wind-milling, high into a tree bordering the trail. He grasped desperately for a hand hold, as the branches shattered and bent around him. He recovered from his downward plunge, upside down and with one leg hooked over a branch. Below, the two giant lizards were grappling, biting and tearing at each other; both oblivious to Skylar’s disappearance. He righted himself and began his ascent ever higher into the tree tops, putting as much distance between himself and battling creatures. Skylar retrieved a length of rope from his pack and secured himself safely to a branch. For the first time in many days, he closed his eyes and let his mind drift.
Three days ago his father, the King, had died. Skylar had been the second son. The laws of Tanis decreed that on the firstborn’s accession to the crown, all other off spring were to be put to death. This was to prevent any uprising or insurrection occurring due to the line of succession. His brother Victor, as the elder would inherit and rule the kingdom of Tanis. Skylar knew his role was that of a shadow prince. Nothing more than a redundancy plan in case anything should happen to his brother.
He was aware of his status from an early age and knew his survival would depend on both his ability with weapons and the keenness of his mind. With the knelling of the bell signifying his father’s passing, he knew his time had come. Skylar momentarily managed to escape his guard’s scrutiny and his disappearance caused an up roar. Guards manned all the exits, while others searched the castle floor by floor. He retrieved his pack and weapons which he’d previously readied and made his way to the stables. Earlier he’d bribed a stable boy to have his horse saddled in preparation for his departure. He rode hard towards the gate, knocking guards aside as they tried to prevent his passing. Many a cross bow bolt followed him. A detachment of the Black Guard was sent in pursuit. For two days and two nights, they had hounded him. His only chance had been to enter the forest. He knew that they would not follow him there. It was considered suicide to enter.
The forest itself was older than memory. Legends of demons and monsters were rife. No one entered through choice; unless they were desperate… like Skylar. Over the centuries, the ultimate punishment for criminals was banishment to the forest. No one ever returned.
Skylar gave a sudden lurch. He’d fallen asleep in his tree top eyrie. He searched the ground. The monsters had moved on and the body of the stag had been dragged away. Nothing remained but the blood soaked imprint on the ground and the crushed and destroyed vegetation of a mighty battle. Carefully he untied the rope and repacked it; then stretched and massaged sore muscles before descending to the ground. The coppery reek of blood was still strong, but the scent of the reptiles had dissipated. He made his way along the trail, senses on high alert. Every ten paces he stopped, listened, smelt and observed. The wild life which had been aware of his stealthy movements soon grew used to him and began to settle back into their routine. Screams from above drew his attention to the thick canopy. A large multi-coloured bird was showing agitation. He spied what was causing its outrage. The square head of a snake was weaving and gyrating along the branch. Like everything in this forest, it too was extreme. The large fanged jaws were a foot wide. He could see at least thirty feet of its mottled green body’s length wrapped around the tree. It paused six feet away from the bird and from within its mouth sprang a stream of yellow liquid which struck the bird. It fell and lay motionless as the snake advanced and extended its jaws. Wider and wider they went until they encompassed the paralysed creature. A sudden snap and a single feather wafting left and right, see-sawed to the ground. With a series of contractions, the shape of the bird could be seen out lined as it moved the snakes’ length for easy digestion. Skylar gave a shudder. That could have been his fate as he slept. The tree tops were as dangerous as the ground. There was no safety to be found in this forest. He needed to push on to reach the adjacent kingdom. As the crow flies, it should take no more than a week. To traverse the distance on foot though, would take many times longer.
The dappled dim light filtering through the branches, camouflaged many of the dangers that lurked above and alongside him. Skylar had encountered many large and dangerous creatures, but no actual confrontations through both skill and good luck. Just as he was congratulating himself on his progress, a thundering squeal shattered the silence. A wild boar the size of a horse appeared from the bushes. Large, black, hirsute and wearing many a battle scar, it stared hard at him; then attacked. It swung its head, trying to hook him with its tusks, as it sought to finish the encounter quickly. Skylar threw himself to the right, as the razor sharpness of the beasts weapons tore through his jacket and scored his ribs. Piggy red eyes followed him, as he struggled to put the bulk of a tree between himself and his adversary. He loosed his bow from his shoulder and calmly began to pepper the boar with arrows. They infuriated the creature, but did little damage. To anyone observing it may have looked comical as they continued their deadly dance; first left, then right. A well placed arrow entered the eye of the creature and into its brain. A final spasm and roll snapped many of the arrows that had pierced its side. Its last red eye showed puzzlement, as the light within gradually dimmed and faded to nothingness. Skylar slumped against the tree with blood dribbling down one side. He had survived, but he needed to escape the scene before the smell of blood attracted anything else.
Within minutes, the persistent whine of insects surrounded him as they sought egress to the fresh wound throbbing in his side. A minor wound he thought, as he hurried to put distance between himself and the carcase of the dead boar. As the sun reached its zenith his progress once fluid and silent, had deteriorated into a drunken lurch as he struggled from tree to tree. He realised that the pig was having its revenge. Stops became more frequent as his strength faded. A raging thirst soon emptied his canteen, as his temperature rose. He had to find water and soon. In his days of travel, the path had meandered back and forth crossing a stream. He hoped that this would continue. Skylar’s progress slowed as nausea and vertigo both struggled to stop him. His instinct for survival and a deep grained natural stubbornness him moving. His failing sight now blurred, provided a shadowy world in which the sounds of the forest rang loud and discordant to his ears. An unseen tree root sent him sprawling and his head struck the ground hard. For a moment he welcomed the pain as it focussed thoughts into a single imperative; move or die. Not having the strength to stand, he inched his way onward. Hands reaching, fingers hooked as they dug deep into the ground to drag him just a little further each time. Time and distance had no meaning to him.
Skylar dreamed he was drowning. Water covered his head and he was unable to breath. His mind suddenly focussed and screamed, “This was no dream!”
He had crawled into the stream itself. Skylar with his last vestige of strength managed to turn himself onto his back. Coughing and spluttering violently, he struggled to suck in life giving air and gain control once more. The spasms subsided and he relaxed, as the coolness of the water lulled his senses. He once more fell into darkness as his mind and body gave up the struggle and rested once more.
TO BE CONTINUED...