The Wiccan Path
It had been two days since Brian had left the military encampment around Kurault with Elroden and a band of guards to escort the disgraced general Gardois to Armston where he would stand trial for the attempted murder of King Macawin. During that time, the party had crossed the Thailion River and was now passing the plains, which were covered with dried brown grass suffering beneath the hot sun of the thrice-accursed drought.
Time was growing short. In one more day, they would arrive in Armston. If Elroden were to break Gardois out of his confinement and help him escape, it would have to be tonight.
The sun had reached the western horizon, heralding the beginning of dusk. The entourage stopped to make camp near a line of trees that marked the beginning of a vast forest. Although there were no reports of bandits roaming these parts, two guards were posted, one to keep an eye on Gardois in his wheeled prison and another to stand watch. Brian considered conferring with Elroden about what he planned to do and then ruled it out. He did not wish to risk being overheard, or to be seen acting suspiciously by the Armston guards. So Brian watched the knight from the corner of his eye as they made camp, waiting to hear a whisper, or even a look from him, to indicate that tonight was the night that they would help Gardois to escape. But Elroden gave no sign. Brian began to wonder if Elroden had abandoned hope of freeing Gardois from the custody of the Armston guards. With these thoughts, Brian drifted into a fitful sleep.
The next thing Brian knew, he was being shaken awake. Before he could cry out, he felt a gloved hand over his mouth. Brian saw the black silhouette of a man’s head against a myriad of stars.
“Shhhh! Stay quiet, squire!” whispered Elroden. “Tonight is the night! Take only the clothes on your back and follow me.”
Brian nodded, rose from his bedroll, and then followed Elroden through the camp, careful not to wake the slumbering guards about him. They approached the wheeled prison that held Gardois, not bothering to conceal themselves from the guard that stood sentry. Elroden strode up to the guard as though he had every right and reason to do so. The guard looked at the knight bemusedly, wondering why Elroden was up at this hour. But before the guard could utter a word, Elroden whipped out a damp rag, gripped the back of the guard’s head, and pressed the cloth against his mouth and nose. The surprised guard made a muffled noise, then silently crumpled to the ground.
Brian gawked, his mouth hanging open in shock. “I-is he…?”
“Only unconscious,” Elroden said as he removed the keys from the guard’s belt. “Come.”
Brian guessed that the guard had inhaled some kind of chemical that had been soaked into the cloth Elroden had used. - Ether, perhaps. But Brian did not inquire, knowing that the knight had no time for such questions.
Having found the right key, Elroden unlocked the door of the cage. The door swung on its hinges with an ear-shattering creak. Brian cringed, expecting every guard to suddenly awaken, grab his weapon, and cut them to ribbons. But the sleeping guards remained still beneath the stars. The squire allowed himself to relax.
As stealthy as a cat, Elroden climbed silently into the cage and approached the slumbering form of Gardois. Elroden patted the disgraced general’s hairy cheek. “Gardois! Gardois, my friend. Awaken!”
Gardois grumbled and shifted his weight as he opened his eyes to see a black shadow looming over him. Startled, Gardois uttered the beginnings of a shout before Elroden’s hand clamped over his mouth.
“Be silent!” hissed Elroden, allowing Gardois to get a good view of his face in the moonlight. “It’s me! We’re getting out of here!”
Having recognized Elroden, Gardois nodded. Assured that Gardois would not attempt to cry out again, Elroden removed his hand from the disgraced general’s mouth and proceeded to unlock the chains that bound his wrists and ankles. Once the general was free of his bonds, he rose from the wooden floor and rubbed his wrists, which had been sorely chaffed by his cuffs. The two men crept out of the cage to where Brian was waiting. Gardois looked at him quizzically.
“My squire, Bryon of Urton,” said Elroden to Gardois.
Gardois gave Brian a brief nod before moving on. Leaving the wheeled prison behind, the trio crept past the slumbering guards to three horses that waited at the edge of the camp. “Sir,” whispered Brian to Elroden, remembering the proper term for addressing a knight. “What about the other guard keeping watch?”
“Not to worry,” Elroden replied in a hushed voice. “I took care of him earlier in the same manner as the guard that watched Gardois. There should be no problems.”
They reached the horses and untied them from a nearby bush. The animals whickered as the general, knight, and squire prepared to mount.
“Ho, there!” cried a voice, as loud as you please.
Startled, they turned to see one of the Armston guards approaching them from the forest. He pulled up the waist of his trousers, indicating that he had just answered nature’s call. Brian recalled his name: Oferton.
“What are you three doing with those horses,” Oferton asked. “At first sight, I thought you were bandits!” Then he got a better look at Gardois. “Hold on! You’re the one that tried to kill the king,” he said as he gripped the hilt of his sword. “What the hell…”
But before he could utter another word, Elroden smashed his right fist into Oferton’s left eye, knocking the larger man onto the ground. Oferton was down, but still conscious. But before he could recover his senses, the three fugitives leapt upon their horses and galloped off at full speed toward the forest.
“To arms! To arms!” Oferton shouted from behind them, rousing the camp. “The prisoner is escaping!”
Oferton’s voice faded as Elroden, Brian, and Gardois galloped into the woods, confident that had a good enough of a head start to lose any who pursued.
They sped through the bushes and brambles, Elroden leading the way. Brian did not know where they were going, but he was certain that they would get away if their horses continued at their present rate. Suddenly, he heard a shrill whinny of a horse in pain and Gardois’s startled cry.
Brian turned to see that Gardois had been thrown from his mount, which lay upon the ground injured. Both he and the knight stopped their horses and turned as Gardois picked himself off of the dirt path.
“I’m all right,” he said, his voice betraying a quiver of shock. “My horse stumbled and fell, sending me flying. Fortunately, I have not broken any bones.”
“Your horse must have stepped into a hole, curse the luck,” said Elroden. He unsheathed his sword, intending to put the wailing creature out of its misery. But then he heard the sounds of approaching hoof beats. The Armston guards were headed straight for them, roused from sleep and in a mood most foul.
“Gardois, get on Bryon’s horse,” said the knight. “Quickly now, we haven’t much time.”
Without another word, the disgraced general leapt upon Brian’s horse behind the squire, grabbed the reins, and flicked them, signaling the animal to a gallop after Elroden down the dark forest path. They left the pursuing Armston guards behind, who were slowed by the wounded horse that lay across their path.
Then, bad luck struck once again, and in the most bizarre manner conceivable. As they raced through the trees, Brian heard Gardois emit yet another startled cry as he was thrust from the saddle of the horse he and Brian shared.
Missing the presence of the larger man behind him, Brian stopped his horse and wheeled about, gaping with unbelieving eyes. Gardois had been lifted into the air and was tangled in the branches of a large oak tree. The oak’s branches held him fast like withered hands as the disgraced general struggled in vain within their clutches. But that was not the most fantastic sight of all. In the dim light of the moon, Brian saw the trunk of the oak shift into the shape a woman. Her body was supple and lithe with full round breasts, all of which were completely covered in bark. Her face was that of a lovely young woman, serene and without emotion and was framed by twigs and leaves in the place of hair. The branches that grew from her torso were firm and unyielding as they wrapped around Gardois, cutting off his cries of alarm as they squeezed the breath from him.
“Elroden!” Brian cried out as the gawked at the impossible sight. “Look! I don’t believe it!”
From the expression on Elroden’s face when he wheeled his horse about, neither could he. The knight wasted half a second staring in amazement. “A dryad!” he said. Then, with a look of determination, Elroden unsheathed his sword and charged forward to help Gardois.
The dryad held the disgraced general in her branches that were too high for Elroden’s sword to reach, so the knight chopped at the bark and other branches within the range of his sword.
“Let him go, curse you!” Elroden shouted. “What do you want with him? Let him go!”
Even if the dryad understood Elroden’s words, she did not respond. She continued to grasp Gardois with her sturdy branches, her face showing no sign of pain as the knight hacked away at the bark on her lower trunk.
Brian was paralyzed, not knowing whether to bolt or help Elroden attack the dryad. He had nothing more than a dagger, which he doubted would do more than scratch its skin. He briefly considered fleeing, but he could not bring himself to abandon Elroden, who had trusted him enough to make him his squire. He simply sat stunned, perched upon his nervous horse in indecision, feeling completely and utterly useless.
Then the Armston guards arrived, swords drawn and eyes wide open in astonishment when they saw Gardois held high above them in an oak tree’s branches. No sooner had they appeared, the dryad’s womanly form vanished, reshaping itself back into the cylindrical form of a common oak tree. The branches relaxed their hold on Gardois, allowing him to slide from their grip and drop unceremoniously to the ground.
The next thing Brian knew, he was pulled from his horse amongst a flurry of shouting and his wrists were bound. Elroden had surrendered to the guards and was bound as well. Gardois, though shaken and bruised, was otherwise in one piece. He too was bound tightly. Though the three were rudely questioned as to what had occurred, they remained silent, bereft of any reply. None of them had any more inkling of what had happened than their captors.
“The wood is haunted!” said one, looking about with nervous eyes.
“Aye,” agreed another. “Let us take the prisoners back to camp quickly. The sooner we are out of this accursed forest, the better.”
That said, the Armston guards departed with their prisoners, leaving the oak tree still and silent in the soft white moonlight.
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